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Sun Beam is a new kind of Christmas card. It’s a simple yellow LED that flashes with a Morse code message. To send it, simply code your message into the chip, send to your nearest and dearest and they can place it on their mantlepiece where it will beam its message via its single light. In this case, it flashes a phrase taken the George Harrison penned Beatles song, Here Comes the Sun. ‘Sun, sun, sun / Here it comes’ . For those fluent in Morse, that’s ‘... ..- -. / ... ..- -. / ... ..- -. / .... . .-. . / .. - / -.-. --- -- . …'

Sun Beam is a minimalistic take on the Christmas decoration, turning the ubiquitous festive flashing light into a direct means of communication. And as it flashes, the Sun Beam’s yellow light is a reminder, in the dark depths of winder, of the immanent return of the sun.

But its also a meditation on the Christmas card itself. In fact to explain this simple little Christmas card, we need to mobilise a lot of history and a side order of theory. Because, like most things that seem simple and straight forward, the Christmas card is the product of complex and specific circumstances. In other words the Christmas card is already a kind of cryptography that encodes a host of information into its form.

The first Christmas card was commissioned by Henry Cole in 1843. It featured an image of a family raising their glass in cheer flanked by scenes of alms being dispensed to the poor. Beyond the sentiment, there was something else at work, something that combined Coles twin interests in design and communication.

Cole’s interest in design had been an instrumental part of the Great Exhibition of 1851 that brought together the culture and industry of the British Empire. He was key in the subsequent development of Albertopolis and was the first director of what was to become the Victoria and Albert Museum. Under the pseudonym of Felix Summerly Cole too designed products. (Note the perhaps coincidental idea of summer coded into this imaginary name).

His applied deign credentials, in other words, are unimpeachable.

But Cole is also a key figure in communication, revamping the postal service and credited with the introduction of (and the design of) the first postage stamp, the Penny Black in 1840.

Coles Christmas card appears at the intersection of his interests (as well as being a smart way to popularise the use of the new stamp). It’s a synthesis of applied arts and communication, the kind of thing that might now come out of the RCA’s Design Interactions course.

Its interesting to note that the card, which so often now carries nostalgic and superstitious messages was forged in the the heart of the furnace of Victorian technology. Strip the familiar seasonal decoration from the card, the nostalgic snow scenes of superstitious evocations and we see a piece of raw Victorian technology, entrepreneurship and ambition. In other words, as Marshall McLuhan (the first prophet of the information age) would have advised us, the cards content - all that festive schlock - is a distraction from its real significance. The Christmas card’s medium, in other words, is it’s message.

The first Christmas cards rarely showed winter or religious themes. They more often depicted flowers, fairies and other fanciful designs that reminded the recipient of the approaching spring. In this, they echo ancient pagan mid-winter rituals celebrating the return of the sun, the return of growth and fertility that are the root of traditions of Christmas trees, the decoration of the home with holly and ivy and so on.
Our Christmas card responds to this biography of the Christmas card. It too (like our pagan ancestors) welcomes back the sun, but this time via electronics. It’s yellow LED glows like a tiny sun (also paying homage to Olafur Eliasson’s Little Sun, which Designo’s advent project supports). It flashes, but its flashes are pure communication reminding us of McLuhan’s description of a light bulb in Understanding Media, that it is information, but we don’t recognise it as such because its information is ‘pure’.

Sun Beam is a prototype for a techno-pagan Christmas card. One we can send to each other, but as do, sends messages back to the cultural roots of Christmas via Marshall McLuhan and Henry Cole.

Sun Beam was commissioned by Disegno