On Liminal Spaces

In marketing, context is everything.

Apple was always about being different.1 The company launched with a homebrew kit that basically existed to subvert the paradigm of the expensive, university-owned computer; later it created the Macintosh, which also sought to democratize the computer by demystifying its operation.

It's also great at marketing2. But specific hallmarks about Apple marketing have always stood out to me—specifically, a choice that's made again and again.

In anthropology, the concept of liminality is "the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete." Put much more simply, think of those weeks after you move to a new town and don't know anyone, or start a new job. Liminality describes these sorts of "here nor there" moments in life, that can make us feel uneasy and excited at the same time.

On the internet, liminal spaces have become something of a meme. On Reddit, users post pictures of dead '90s malls, doctor's offices, and retro restaurant interiors; the pictures tend to invoke in viewers a strange feeling of familiarity. It's almost as if these places are both specific and generic all at once, instantly familiar to us all and yet in locations we may never have been to: the Taco Bell with the terrible turquoise and pink interior that I grew up going to in small-town North Carolina looks just like the one you went to in Illinois. We have a shared memory of these spaces, yet we've never been in them together.

These liminal spaces have also proven to be fertile ground as the setting for games and fiction, likely for the same reason. These spaces are familiar enough to have logic and rules that we're all aware of, but strange enough to have other possibilities and room for improvisation.

Personal computer marketing in the '70s and '80s was about context. The vast majority of consumers had no idea how a home computer would fit into their lives, so the job of marketing was to show them. This period is marked by smiling people, shag carpet, and sunken living rooms with beige computers shoehorned in. The computer is a tool for work, and possibly for games.

The liminal spaces these early PCs exist in are subjective: they are created to overload us with familiar feelings and memories to place this foreign gadget in the most positive light, to make us want one.
Apple made a few of these kinds of print advertisements. But soon, presumably inspired by classic print ads like those created by Ogilvy & Mather3, their tack changes. And it's a change that has persisted to this very day.

The product shot above is notable in that it depicts the product more or less floating in space. So much product photography up to this point was about familiar context—the luxury car with a girl draped over its hood, the can of peas on a shelf, the plump turkey on a holiday table like the one at grandma's. This dispenses with all of that.
The liminal space being depicted, I would argue, is the most intimate one there is. It's inside our own heads. It's the space between the moment of inspiration and the moment of computer-aided realization.

Throughout the '80s Apple does this repeatedly.

The computer floats in the aether of pure ideas and objectivity. It doesn't have to go in a living room. It's doesn't have a model draped over it. It exists in the cool, white void of your own imagination. Even when there are people in these early ads, the computer and the person are alone together. What's being depicted is not so much the product but the very concept of human-computer interaction.

Steve Jobs started NeXT after a stunning boardroom ouster from Apple in 19854. Before even knowing exactly what NeXT would be or do, Jobs hired Paul Rand–designer of logos for AT&T and IBM, among others—to create its brand mark.

The mark, like the name, is highly conceptual. It indicates nothing of what the company does. It exists itself in a precise, liminal void. NeXT would also continue the tradition of computer-in-liminal-space photography. This way of shooting product photography grew in popularity throughout the '90s.

Today, it's just one more option in a list of ways to art direct this kind of shoot5. But someone had to decide to do it. Someone had to pitch and defend this kind of alien way of depicting a consumer product—not showing it surrounded by happy people or food or the color red to make you hungry and aroused. In fact, this way of shooting products has its own name—"white box".

Apple didn't invent this way to art direct product photography. But just as it has done with the computer and the phone—which it also did not invent—it has improved and changed the way we do it.

Over the years, Apple has added a range of emotion to a style of art direction that was once only meant to signify austerity: the original iMac coyly says "hello", it's friendly robot exterior reflecting soft white light; a MacBook Air floats inside its liminal space, to suggest its lightness; dozens of iPhones spin, arranged in a flower pattern that emphasizes their colorful cases.

Over time, a set of rules seems to emerge that controls how products are depicted at Apple: iPads are shown doing work, with human hands just out of frame moving pencils or swiping screen edges. When FaceTime is depicted, it consists of faces on the screen and not in a staged location photo. The general concept is that a capable device is depicted, but its environment is left blank—a canvas onto which you can project your suburban home, your tiny New York apartment, or your 2 AM bus ride.

Apple has done more conventional product photography, always tasteful and artful. They've even depicted people using Macs in places other than a cool, white void. But they're careful, more than most, to make the images feel "real"; they allow bodies and expressions that lots of product companies would shy away from. They're important photos in their own right. But they don't exist at the same intersection of anthropology, marketing, and psychology as the white box photos.

In 2018, I visited the company store in Apple's old Cupertino headquarters6. I bought a package of postcards featuring images of a selection of past products. Each is alone on a white background, existing in the ultimate liminal space.
It isolates the product and helps it stand out, of course. But you'll never get me to believe there isn't a slightly deeper meaning, being in this liminal space with the tools we use to create and do almost everything around us.

— Nick Jones, Dec. 4, 2020

  1. 1. And thinking different, obviously.
  2. 2. You'll still come across people from time to time who want attribute all of Apple's success to marketing, as if its products have no merit on their own. The same people have no problem with Tesla, which is nothing if not a marketing success.
  3. David Ogilvy was known for literate print advertisements for brands like VW. He is credited by some for the success of the Beetle, for which he created the "How does the snow plow driver get to work?" television and print ad in 1964.
  4. 3. Accounts differ on what, exactly, Jobs did to cause his removal by the Apple board. By some accounts it was his favoritism toward the Macintosh over the more profitable Apple II.
  5. 4. Taking a look at the marketing for Samsung's Galaxy phones, for example, shows how the white box aesthetic is not only an option—it's practically the de facto standard for tech products. That, and Samsung just does everything Apple does but in kind of a cheap plastic way.
  6. 5. I went to the new campus, too. I'm not a monster.

Last Updated January 26, 2022 @ 5:11 PM

Copyright © 2022 Nick Jones

All rights reserved, all wrongs reversed.