Websnail

At the recent New Adventures in Web Design conference in Nottingham, all attendees were given a goodie bag full of an assortment of nice bits and bobs (the Tattly tattoos went down particularly well). One item stood out from the rest: a postcard. A pre-stamped, ready-to-send postcard, to write on and send to whoever you wished. Simple as that. 

Given that the discussions of the day were on the usual topics – responsive design, trends in web fonts, the relationship between designers and developers – it was refreshing to have something tangible to contend with. And not just tangible, but slow. Blessed slowness.

So I wrote a squishy little "wish you were here" to my other half and sent it on its way. She wouldn't receive this message until long after I'd already come home, a message that I could have very easily sent via text or email or twitter … once that dawned on me, it blew my 21st Century-acclimatised mind a little bit. 

I was sending a message into the future, she would receive it from the relatively distant past. I'd discovered time travel! Not only that, the simple act of finding a postbox felt like an epic Tolkienesque quest compared to the ease of just reaching for my iPhone. I was outside! I was asking for directions from strangers! This was so exciting! I had to tell everyone about this new-fangled "Royal Mail" thing! Who would play me in the film?

Looking back, it's possible that I may have overreacted. A tad. But it got me thinking about how our instant tweet-and-go world has recontextualised snail mail as something with so much charming, untapped potential. It's relationship with the web at the moment is as a means of product delivery – it's little more than a corporate conduit for the likes of Amazon, eBay and Lovefilm. We should reclaim it for messaging. It's personal and romantic and – here's the print designer in me speaking – it smells nice. We should embrace the slowness. Not everything needs to arrive within the tap of a screen. 

Rather than merely being an anachronistic novelty, envelopes and stamps offer opportunity for creativity, enterprise and just good old-fashioned fun. And web and mail don't have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, it's when you use the strengths of both that you can create something really interesting. Combining their staccato rhythms has led to some interesting ventures that hopefully foreshadow further innovations. 

You can replicate the functions of your mobile phone with a slower but more affecting process: send an actual printed photograph in postcard form via services like Hugmail or Quiption, or send a message with Telegram Stop. We don't always have to tell someone something right this second. Efficiency isn't everything. And a print is always nicer than a JPEG.

Being creative with packaging and identifying the size and time constraints related with post has led to some interesting why-didn't-I-think-of-that businesses. We're all used to ordering books and discs online now (Borders RIP), but why should it stop there? Look at Graze: a beautiful marriage of web form-filling and optimum package size design. Getting food out of your computer! And the boxes are really rather lovely.

You don't have to be big company to make it work. If you live near enough to a post office, you've got everything you need (be warned though – as much as you might be embracing post, they'll care more about selling you insurance, topping up your phone and offering to do your ironing before selling you any actual stamps), and as soon as you embrace the physical, inky side of it, fun can be had. There's Mr Bingo's Hate Mail for example. For a mere ten pounds, the artist will send a postcard adorned with an original drawing and an offensive message to you or a loved one (who will hopefully find the offensive message charming and not, you know, offensive). Post subverts the assumption that everything must be mechanically reproduced. 

Some downright silly websnail projects highlight that how we communicate today isn't all that different from the past. For example, someone who goes by the moniker "The Postman" sent a series of tweets in letter form to Stephen Fry. It's amusing to see a properly formatted letter sent to a stranger containing nothing more than "Back Home. Feet up. Cat Fed. About to watch Eastenders. Bliss", but this sort of humdrum messaging isn't that far removed from what people were sending each other in the pre-computer era.

I recently bought a batch of vintage New York postcards to use as wedding invitations (seriously, that New Adventures postcard went down really well). They were advertised as unused, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that some had actually been written on. There were messages being sent back and forth across the Atlantic fifty years ago, no less banal or succinct than the typical tweet. And those messages carried so much more weight given the time and thought and effort that went into them.

Time. Effort. Tangibility. There is a massive infrastructure in place just waiting for the right designers to come along and develop innovative new products and services that embrace these qualities that are so often overlooked. 

The snail is your friend. Start small and remind yourself of the joy that can be had. Go and find a postcard and write something – anything – to somebody. Embrace the ominous joys of the post office and send something into the future. Trust me, it's fun.

Originally published in MacUser (Vol 28 No 8).