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Hearing Everyday Communication

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Johndan Johnson-Eilola holds up a pen.

“You know what this is,” he says. It’s not a question.

“A fair chunk of time and cultural lessons went into you knowing what this is and what it’s used for. You see the barrel and know it can go behind your ear or in your pocket. You know you can pull off the cap and hold the thing in your hand to write with it.”

Then he picks up a piece of graphite, carved to look like a ram’s horn.

“This is for writing, too, but it doesn’t say that to you because it doesn’t fit your expectation of a pen.”

Both represent different ways manufactured objects can communicate. One measure of successful design is how quickly objects tell us their function and how we can use them. As a professor of communication and media at Clarkson, Johnson-Eilola has become a highly regarded authority on these topics. He’s conducted research and published award-winning books on the interface between humans and the seemingly endless array of things we interact with. (See sidebar.)

“Take Facebook or Amazon,” he says. “These websites are designed to be simple and quickly understood. But they’re also designed to draw you in and entice you to keep interacting with them for hours. That design and its effect on us, that’s communication, too.”

Now, on top of the web, add television, radio and print—taken together, these are the heavyweights of mass media—and it’s easy to see there’s an awful lot of communication going on. Johnson-Eilola has taken an in-depth look at how these media saturate our lives—and our minds.

“We’re not completely over-saturated, yet,” he says, “but we’re close. And something interesting is happening. We’re developing strategies—some unconsciously—to filter out a lot of the noise from mass media. Teenagers, for instance, don’t even see banner ads anymore on websites.”

It’s an important issue for marketers, he says, because absorbing the message is a crucial part of communication. It also illustrates a problem for the web’s future because filtering is rarely precise. Blocking out one thing often means limiting other stimuli and messages—some of which might be important.

“As we filter, we’re also limiting the potential of the Internet,” he says. “As a communication tool, as a medium that allows just about everybody—not just the wealthy or powerful—to create and distribute information, limiting that or putting it in a box can have a real impact on society.”

Learning this gives students in Clarkson’s Communication & Media Department the knowledge and skills to develop better ways to convey a message, whether they design websites or consumer goods, produce content for electronic or print media—or simply pick up a pen to see what it can say.


Professor Johndan Johnson-Eilola’s ideas on the environment of information we live in — in the real or virtual world — have earned international notoriety and a following in the field of technical communication.

One of the first to use the term “datacloud” referring to each individual’s intellectual atmosphere, Johnson-Eilola says we all build a sphere of information around us, pull out relevant bits and then restructure it into new material.

Here’s a partial list of books Johnson-Eilola has written, edited or contributed to:

Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing