Designing Communication

Without a doubt, cell phones are the dominating tool of communication in modern day America. And with our phones starting to rule over our communication, it is important that they are effective tools. So we spend our free time talking about the newest phones and what changes we can expect. Phones have become such a prominent part of our lives that we no longer need them to fit into our pocket, because they’ll spend the majority of their time in our hand. Thus, our culture is witnessing a pattern of ever-growing smartphones, from 2003’s thin and efficient Motorola RAZR, to the newest iPhone 6 plus. Respectively, the phones range from a 2.2 inch screen to a vast 5.5 inches on Apple’s latest technology.

Why the size gap? In BloombergBusinessweek’s technology section, Brad Stone writes that the change in pace is the result of a change in function. Essentially, because communication is no longer a cell phone’s only function, the design of the phone must match the purpose. Don Norman, director of the Design Lab at the University of California at San Diego, says “Small phones were elegant. Remember, they were a reaction against the big old clunky bricks we started with. But then phones evolved. We don’t talk on them any longer. We use these devices for maps, restaurant reviews, and for texting our friends and listening to music. So the screen becomes very important, and small screens are miserable to use.”

Cell Phones

The change in phone size over the years creates a difficult scenario for designers who have to find an intricate balance between physical aesthetics and overall functionality. Sleek and small is physically appealing, but will not work for smartphones that serve as many purposes as the ones we have today. Designers and technology experts have created an incredible crossroads of aesthetics and functionality in the currently accepted thin, rectangular smartphones. This is what we call phenomenal communication design.

“Communication design happens when there is an intervention into some ongoing activity through the invention of techniques, devices, and procedures that aim to redesign interactivity and thus shape the possibilities for communication.” (Aakhus, 2007) First of all, cellular communication is a form of communication design by this definition simply because it shapes possibility for communication. But what we are really talking about is what phone developers such as Samsung and Apple are communicating to their audience through the design of their phones. Without even consciously realizing it, we as a culture accept bigger phones as better because current technology is telling us this is the case, when only 10 years ago the opposite was true. The evolution of smartphones and the growing sizes are messages to the world, letting us know that phones are no longer expected to be used solely for communication. They are cameras, maps, televisions, research tools, music, games, news, knowledge, and status. That being said, what shapes and sizes of phones do you think we might see in the future? Will the pattern of growing continue, or have phones reached their size limit?


Aakhus, M. (2007). Communication as design. Communication Monographs, 74(1) ,112-117.

By: Kelli Hall, Stephanie Jordan, Morgan McCleaf, Shawn Rause, and Danielle Walters

25 thoughts on “Designing Communication

  1. I could not agree and relate more to this post. It was very informative and did a good job at showing the different patterns that our society has gone through when dealings with phones. I think eventually that phones will level out and stop growing larger and larger. The Iphone 6 plus was already pushing the limits of size in my personal opinion.

  2. This is a very interesting point of view on why phone sizes are changing. I personally do not like that phones are getting bigger. I like to keep my phone in my pocket and the phones are getting too large to do that! I think in the future we will revert back to smaller size phones. Maybe not as small as they once were, but we are already seeing different ways to use your phone in a smaller device (iWatch for example). I think we will be seeing either phone sizes going back down or more phone accessories that allow us to have an easier way to carry the phone.

  3. Super interesting read. I was really curious as to why with such technological advances the phones were getting bigger, when it seems that phones started out as huge clunky things. After reading this, I realized that phones really are used more as tablets and laptops than anything else, and big screens are much more desirable and beneficial to most users.

  4. It does seem kind of crazy that phones are not really used for talking anymore. The way we communicate has shifted so much, that we no longer speak verbally, but instead choose to talk over social media, text messages, and the internet. It almost seems as though the phone has evolved so far that it’s original purpose is completely gone.

  5. Great post! Although I cannot imagine phones being much bigger in size than they are now, cellular phones have changed so much in such a little amount of time. The first phone I had, a Nokia, was small, with a petite screen and contained minimal functions. I then owned a small LG phone, a thin razor, a blackberry, and then an iPhone. I am excited to purchase the new and improved iPhone for the new features and size. However, as you mentioned, I am not sure if I necessarily want the bigger phone or if that is what the “norm” is in today’s culture. I am looking forward to the bigger phone for the ability to access the GPS and other functions easier but I wonder what the next improvement and/or technology will be.

    • Thanks for commenting Winnie! I agree, I can’t see phones getting much bigger because they won’t be very functional at all if they don’t fit in our hands. Besides, with the 5.5 inch display on the 6 Plus, it is getting pretty close to the 7.9 inch display of the iPad mini. I think the size will start to level out around five to five and a half inches until the next time we see a major hardware change or shift in device type, like wearable technology such as the iWatch or Google Glass.


  6. I can agree with how we accept bigger cell phones means they are better. With the new iPhone 6 coming out with two versions (one bigger than the other) you can see how this trend is continuing. When you think about it, we use our phones for more applications than before. Therefore we need that bigger screen to make the use a little easier on us. Although there are tablets and laptops, it is much more convenient to have everything on your cellphone and we are all about convenience these days. The only thing is how big is too big? It definitely depends on your own personal preference, but with the advancements of technology going so quickly who knows what might be the next trend. I mean Apple is always releasing a new phone each year, so we can only wait and see what’s next!

  7. This blog post is very interesting because the increase in technology design has been a hot topic over the past years. It’s so crazy to think about how much the design, function, and size of phones have changed and enhanced. As much as communication has heightened because phones have improved I wish it hadn’t become so big to consume many of us.

  8. Really good observation. I wrote an article a while back called that basically captured the shift from communication to consumption in cell phone advertisements. So we went from having a circle of friends we could call for free as the primary selling point to download speed and capacity as primary selling points. Now with the app explosion the shift from being an other centered device (how do I reach out) to a self centered device is in full force. The full impact will not be known but it is clear that McLuhan is still right: the medium is the message. Whether we are looking at an important email, a text, or another cat video, we are still shutting out the person beside us . . . who might be our new best friend or be in need of something only we can provide. It is hard to limit cell phones to a tool when they can so easily become our hobby or our “blanky” and source of comfort.

    • Thanks for commenting Dr. Olsen! Your comment really reminds me of my life before I had a smartphone. I used an ancient flip phone up until last December, and I remember getting genuinely upset with my friends who seemed to be addicted to their smartphones. Not to mention I missed out on the Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds crazes. But my late start has gifted me with a clearer perception of the change in communication that came with the advance in technology. I would get so angry when people around me would scroll through Instagram while I sat in silence, but now even I struggle to fight the urge to stick my face in my phone when in an uncomfortable social situation. The fact that I am truly becoming accustomed to things that used to bother me is proof of what an unstoppable force technology is. What is very interesting to me is the question that I’ve heard on multiple occasions: “Would you rather text, call, or talk to someone face to face?” While we as a culture seem to be so inseparable from our phones, the answer seems to always be face to face. I wonder if this is early evidence of a future shift in technology, or simply a strategy people use to appear more authentic?


  9. I have wondered about this topic everytime I have seen someone with one of those massive screens. i understand a larger screen helps, but when it comes to the point I can’t fit it in my pocket, the practicality of the device is losing points. I guess in a mother decade or two they will make a swing back towards the smaller the cooler your phone is, until then I guess we’re dealing with the bigger the better.

  10. Wow, you make some really interesting allegations in this article. One of my favorite parts is how you pointed out that phones are growing in size because they are spending more time in our hands or on our desks than they do in our pocket as was customary in the past. We really rely on our phone for SO much, too much! It has essentially become more of a source of entertainment than even socialization or merely “keeping in touch”…All that it takes to keep in touch is a phone and not so that you can even just call or text, you need facebook, instagram, twitter and multiple ways to keep in touch. Phones are becoming a platform for all type of non-verbal communication. I have heard ongoing controversy about whether phones are actually beginning to eliminate strong communication in person because they eliminate verbal cues, body language, and expressions among other things. Based on your analysis of the communication design, it makes me wonder if we will accept exclusively electronic communication as better than speaking in person soon in the way that people just automatically accepted the large phones as better when they began marketing them.

    I believe that phones will continue to grow until developers are able to find a way to provides all of the features functioning at there best ability without the addition of a large screen or a speaker. Who knows what is next, hologram projectors?

  11. I remember receiving my very first phone my sophomore year in high school. It was a black and silver Nokia flip phone.. with a camera (Whoa!). I remember thinking at the time that this was the coolest phone, because you could close the phone and still take a picture– and see it with the little box on the front of the screen. At the time, that seemed really advanced as far as phones go. When I got my phone, I could only use it for phone calls, and my allotted 200 texts per month. The sole purpose of that phone was to communicate. If i’m not mistaken, it had a few apps that AT&T put with all their phones (that you had to pay to use), but I couldn’t do even a fraction of what phones are used for now; and that was okay. I had no idea that just a couple years later I would be introduced to my first smart phone: the first generation iPhone. That was it for me. Since experiencing that freedom, luxury- whatever you want to call it- I was hooked. Honestly, I should probably blame that for my addiction to FB as well, since the app was already put on the phone and I no longer had to fight my brother to use the computer, I could change my status from anywhere. What I’m getting at, is that technology has advanced so rapidly since I received my first phone. I went from a flip phone that could do relatively nothing, to quite literally, having the world at my fingers. I’m amazed at how convenient smart phones are becoming. I am walking to class and forgot to pay my car insurance, no worries, let me just open my geico app. Three clicks later, and I’m am set until the next month. Phones have become more than just a way to communicate with friends. Phones have become an all-consuming lifestyle. Whether you choose to admit it or not, a life without the luxury that smartphones have given us would be a foreign concept. I recently heard a prediction on the radio, that tablets, ipads, etc. were going to become virtually nonexistent in the coming years, because the size of phones keeps getting larger and larger. They went on to talk about smartphones being so multi-functional, that there would be no need for kindles and tablets, because smart phones are able to fulfill all your needs on one device. Interesting to think about how the “next big thing” can become a thing of the past so quickly.

  12. Reading this post was very enlightening! It is so funny because it really is true that our lives are surrounded by the needs for our phones. I was walking out the door yesterday and realized I didn’t have my phone, so I just had to turn around and get it before I headed to class. It definitely makes sense now why phone sizes are growing in size. I had just been talking with my brother about this, and it is funny to think about my first phone, the razor, how small and sleek it was, and how my new iphone 6 is so big it can barely fit into my pocket. The need for it to be more functional for our daily lives makes the need for a larger screen a necessity. Our phones are attached to us almost 24/7, so your post was very enlightening about the increase in size of our technology!

  13. This post was an eye opener to me because most people never actually realize that the cell phone a couple years back was built to fit in your pocket, not your hand. Now-a-days, as this blog post explains, cells phones have not only grown in size but they have completely changed in design. People today, do not only use their phones for communicating but they also use it for many other things, for ex. games, restaurant reviews, maps, and more! I just thought that it was interesting that the size of the phones went up. As mentioned before most people want smaller/sleeker devices, but it was amazing to learn that not exactly true because of how much technology has changed. I think that phone sizes and design will changed over the next ten years, advancing to wearable devices, like the “I – watch”. This will be amazing once we have completely wearable devices for communicating and more.

  14. I am so glad that I am not the only one that thinks that cell phones are beginning to look ridiculous in size. Some of the phones put out today, like the Samsung Galaxy, and the new iPhone 6 Plus, are in my opinion, way too big and they look silly when used like a typical cell phone. I understand that the function of a cell phone has shifted dramatically within the past five or so years, but I believe that we have indeed reached a size limit that needs to be taken into consideration before we all end up using iPad and Tablet sized phones to communicate. Tablets and iPad were created for a reason, so unless we want them to become virtually null, we should consider that when making the next and newest cell phones.

  15. It’s interesting how what is considered better technology has reverted back to what used to be considered inefficient and obsolete, but now cell phones are becoming more and more like computers than what a cell phone used to be, I remember a chemistry professor I had once holding up his smart phone and exclaiming about how “this small little device has more computing power than the first computer that sent the first man to the moon!”

  16. I think this is a very insightful piece. A few short years ago, the mindset was ‘the smaller the phone, the better’, but now it has become a completely different story. Everyone wants a big phone, they want the ‘status’ of having a large phone and they want the accessibility of it. Apple’s latest iPhones are huge, I know, I’m writing this comment on one. The new mindset is that we be able to see everything on as large a screen as we can while keeping the phone compact and convenient. It’s a very fine line and many companies cross it. I believe that the regular iPhone 6 is the perfect size, even though it did take my hand and my eyes a little time to adjust. The iPhone 6 Plus however, in my opinion, is too large! It’s all about finding a balance!

  17. It’s crazy how something that was made for verbal communication is no longer used for that. It really shows how technology has made us and our communication evolve. I still use my phone to talk but I know most people haven’t made phone calls in days. As much as companies like Samsung and Apple are trying to make ‘bigger and better’ phones, they aren’t practical for phone calls. I have an iPhone 6 Plus and its huge. Its insane. But when it comes to doing other activities such as using the navigation, social media, reading books, etc. its so handy.

  18. Yes, cell phones are increasing in size and people are using them for a lot more things than just talking. But I don’t agree with the extra large size to facilitate music convenience and movie watching. The idea of cell phones is that they should be portable and able to fit into someone’s pocket.

  19. This is a really good connection to Communication Design Theory. I never thought about this before, how cell phones are growing larger and larger when in the past smaller was better. It does make sense, to create a phone whose design fits its purpose. Phone companies are definitely sending a new message to consumers, that phones should be used for other things besides just talking. I wonder what the next set of cell phone designs are going to be used for!

  20. It’s amazing how not even ten years ago, we had the Juke as a pinnacle of phone technology. The thing was so small it was near impossible to type on it. That being said, I think we’re coming close to the size limit on our phones. Personally, I have a G2, which is decently sized, but my roommate has a Note 3, which is absolutely massive. I think one of the big draws to big phone size is the fact that large phones can display more and prettier content at once. Personally, I think phone size will continue to grow until we can find a way to create a high quality 1080p screen that fits on a mobile device. Looking at phones with communication design was a great concept though, great job on the article!

  21. I completely agree that phones are now being used for more than just communicating with your friends and family. Phones are now a new portal of social media , maps, and a distraction to daily life . This idea can only go
    Bigger from here though, seeing the new size of cell phones it seems that soon we will alll be carrying around tablets as phones

  22. I am looking forward to technology further advancing beyond what we have seen thus far. Electronics have been continuously growing and I would like to see phones that break previous designs in terms of definition and technology. I think we will see objects that compare to 3-D work, project holograms, and hopefully convert pills into food with the touch of a button.

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