Figure and ground (media)

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Figure and ground is a concept drawn from Gestalt psychology by media theorist Marshall McLuhan, which in his work underpins the meaning of his famous phrase, "The medium is the message". He used this concept to explain how a communications technology, the medium or figure, necessarily operates through its context, or ground.

McLuhan believed that to fully grasp the impact of a new technology, one must examine figure (medium) and ground (context) together, since neither is completely intelligible without the other. McLuhan argued that we must study media in their historical context, particularly in relation to those technologies which preceded them. The present environment, itself made up of the effects of previous technologies, gives rise to new technologies, which, in their turn, further affect society and individuals.[1]

Furthermore, all technologies have embedded within them their own assumptions about time and space. The message which the medium conveys can only be understood if the medium and the environment in which the medium is used — and which, simultaneously, it effectively creates — are analyzed together. He believed that an examination of the figure-ground relationship can offer a critical commentary on culture and society.[1]

Alternately, the idea of "figure" can also refer to content of a particular medium, while "ground" refers to the medium itself. McLuhan's aphorism "The medium is the message" can thus be read as an attempt to draw attention away from a preoccupation with figure/message to a consideration of the importance of ground/medium.


  1. ^ a b Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan, a virtual museum exhibition at Library and Archives Canada

See also[edit]

Figure-ground (perception)