Technological nostalgia: celebrating the forgotten art of mobile phone wallpapers
Featuring pop stars, fashion labels, car brands, sports teams and even porn, these wallpapers were the way to tell the world who you were. Adam Griffiths talks to us about his growing collection of over 150 of them, and what they can teach us about early internet youth culture.
Raise a hand if you remember Hey Arnold but also spent the latter years of your adolescence playing Miniclip games over dial-up internet and chatting to friends on MSN; if the thought of Tamagotchis and Bop It rouses as much nostalgia as the words Runescape and Limewire. If that’s you, you’re part of the same generation as Manchester-based designer, art director and visual researcher Adam Griffiths – one that came of age during the turn of the millennium. It was a time of progress and excitement for the future and, as Adam describes, it “opened up a cavern of discourse in relation to mobile technology – household web access, the fear of the millennium bug and how technologically far we had come but how much further we had to travel”.
Growing up during this time instilled in Adam a penchant for graphics and paraphernalia that conjure up technological nostalgia, and his latest project Mobile Mania certainly follows this thread. A growing archive that has been collated into a publication, the project sees Adam collecting old mobile phone graphics, the kind you used to find at the back of magazines and which could be used as mobile phone wallpapers or sent to friends via text message before MMS became a thing. At the time, their inception “felt far more advanced to an audience that previously had been restricted to terrestrial television and dial up internet (if you were lucky),” Adam explains. “Often advertised in the tail end of all manners of magazines and newspapers, these vast menus of icons, logos, characters and messages became a steady visual feed and offered something for everyone by texting in your choice and receiving promptly – signal permitting of course.” Mobile Mania is a celebration of these early mobile phone graphics, the cultural movement they represent and, simply, the design ingenuity that went into creating them.
Adam has run a studio practice for ten years now under the pseudonym Ra Bear (alongside teaching graphic design at Manchester School of Art) and much of his work and visual interests stem from the notions of “collision or disruption, colliding contrasting elements or concepts to seek something further”. In his personal work, this takes the form of an experimental, independent publishing practice, largely focussing on his relationship with contemporary visual culture and the “interstates” between digital and physical worlds – so it’s easy to see how the archive stemmed directly from everything he was already doing. When he first started gathering the graphics though, he realised he had a problem: the majority of the original material could be lost due to the fact that they appeared in printed matter of the time. And so began a process of finding old magazines and papers from secondhand shops and charity shops. “It’s a journey of discovery and I can only equate it to crate-digging for a rare record,” he explains. After spending some time scavenging and receiving some submissions too, Adam has built a collection of over 150 wallpapers which make up volume one of the book – with more to come as the collection grows.
Content-wise, these creations covered everything from music to sports to porn. Adam’s initial exposure to the original designs was largely via secretly thumbing through his older brother’s “lad mags”, his own copies of Kerrang! and various Playstation magazines. “It was eye opening, and captured a pop culture through graphic design,” he explains. “Some I found pretty shocking, especially from the stance of the more 18+ orientated designs that were clearly aimed to a narrower clientele – smutty depictions of pixelated porno scenes and hardcore turns of phrase alongside a plethora of awkward memes that would stem from British drug culture, Mad Cow Disease or stark schoolboy insults.” Oftentimes though, these graphics were simply a way for (mostly) young people to express themselves, to make a statement about who they were and what they were into, as well as being a way for them to communicate with others via text messaging. Adam’s preferences as an angsty teen, for example, lay within the more rebellious designs: “Anything that was flipping the bird, or walking around with the Dr Dre Chronic artwork was my wallpaper.”
Across the board, the format of the graphics is the same. Every artwork had to adhere to a grid of black pixels, using negative space and the light of the phone screen as the second colour. They were also rectangular to fit in the small space between the time at the top, the “Menu” button at the bottom, your signal on the left and battery on the right. The creators of these graphics therefore had strict parameters to work within, although you wouldn’t think it to see the vast array of designs that were created at the time. Adam describes how there’s “something romantically lo-fi about the designs, but also an overwhelming amount of visual skill that went into working with such a restrictive medium… it was really some of the earliest examples of having to design to such small phone screen requirements and still be legible and visually coherent.”
Mobile Mania pays tribute to that sentiment, and is brimming with nostalgia. By flicking through the archive, we can learn so much about this distinct time in our technological history and the visual matter that shaped a generation. Digging into this kind of material – collections and typologies – has always interested Adam for that reason. “I think archives and collections of visual material can say a lot about an individual, a group or a culture and encapsulate time,” he remarks, adding that beyond Mobile Mania, “I’ve been exploring archives or collections surrounding more contemporary concepts such as the web, social media and these digital artefacts or relics as a way to really understand ourselves in the current climate or recent past.”
“There’s something romantically lo-fi about the designs, but also an overwhelming amount of visual skill that went into working with such a restrictive medium.”Adam Griffiths
“If you didn’t have at least one Scream mask wallpaper in your lifetime then what the hell were you doing with your pocket money?”Adam Griffiths
Our world is so completely dominated by digital media and information that movements or cultural waves can pass us by without us noticing, Adam notes. “I want to just try and capture these moments as snapshots before they get lost,” he says. “We can learn a lot about ourselves as a culture by generally just hitting the pause button, or stepping back out of the digital bubble and looking at the landscape of imagery, technology and information generated or consumed through our habits. What effect does that have on us, or what does it say about us as individuals and as a generation?” What’s more, Adam sees the process as one of “modern archaeology”, capturing digital materials for future use or inspection. “I think we take a lot of things for granted from a digital or technological standpoint because we consume so much and things become outdated quickly. I feel the mobile wallpapers are a perfect example of that,” he concludes.
To date, Adam has struggled to track down anyone who was directly involved with creating the graphics, as they were advertised anonymously. If you or someone you know was involved in their design, Adam would love to hear from you and you can find his contact details here. Alternatively, if you stumble across any ads in the back of old magazines or newspapers, or happen to already have a few graphics, drop him a line!
Below, Adam picks out five of his favourite designs from the archive, telling us a bit about why he loves them and any memories they represent.
“Purely for nostalgic reasons, I put the birth of nu-metal and mobile wallpapers all in the same basket. It was an exciting time to be a young person at that point with this new wave of mobile technology and access to a fairly unstable household computer and dial up internet connection. Pretty ace typography here too.”
“A stone cold classic. If you didn’t have at least one Scream mask wallpaper in your lifetime then what the hell were you doing with your pocket money?”
Just Do It
“I’m not sure what it was about the late 90s, early 00s, but it seemed there was a big fascination with sperm cells. This is one of many in the collection, mainly found in the old lads mags. Who knows who bought these and why you might need them – maybe to bring an organic touch to your device.”
Smiley flipping the bird
“These seemed super popular back in the day. Looking back, these were almost the retro equivalent of the modern day emoji. There’s a lot of examples of these kind of smiley characters doing all forms of insults, whatever you needed to say, guaranteed there’d be one that fit.”
“A solid example of the first picture messages you were able to send to another phone. These can stem from a polite, light-hearted thank you, to some more stark and direct insults that I was probably guilty of purchasing at some point. I found this one particularly poignant amongst the collection.”
Adam Griffiths: Mobile Mania (Copyright © Adam Griffiths, 2021)
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.