Category Archives: Art Design

A major difficulty of rhetorical-design analysis

A major difficulty of rhetorical-design analysis is the determination of the actual effects of design artifacts. What defines the effects of a poster, signpost, book cover, or business card? How can the effects of designed objects be described and categorized? Can the effects found in particular objects be generalized? Are there any experts for defining design effects? The determination of effects is crucial for the formulation of design rules and, fundamentally, for a rhetorical understanding of design. There is no straightforward method, given that the visual effects of design objects are manifold and highly context-sensitive.

Materially, the visual impression of an object varies according to perspective, light conditions, or position. Even more obvious are the subjective factors causing an indeterminacy of effect. How a designed object affects a viewer depends on her taste, interests, and values, on her actual disposition and needs as well as on her previous knowledge and experience. Furthermore, the socio-cultural and historical context affects people’s perception and interpretation of such elements as color, textures, and motifs. Visual trends, zeitgeist and technological developments (for example, printing press, photocopy, desktop publishing) lead to changes in visual perception and the impacts design artifacts can have. While some of the design effects are fairly constant over time and cultures, most are informed by fashion and other socio-cultural influences and will, sooner or later, be modified. What used to provoke or even shock people (for example, because it appeared pornographic or brutal) can be attenuated by habituation or a change in moral standards. Images that used to convey severity or heroism might appear awkward or exaggerated now, and what looks modern today is likely to assume an old-fashioned or nostalgic touch in the near future. The more enduring effects are presumably based in the human cognitive system and can perhaps be explained with the physiology and psychology of perception or through evolutionary biology. Darkness and the color black may always and everywhere have had a frightening effect on human beings. This unsettling effect of dark designs could perhaps be traced back to the fact that human beings are not able to orientate in darkness, which–from an evolutionary perspective–is a disadvantage. That neon colors can be used as an eye catcher or in order to warn people could be explained by the fact that the human visual apparatus is particularly sensitive to them and because we were first confronted with their warning function in conjunction with poisonous animals and plants.

The calming effect of a design in panorama format possibly originates in the imitation of an open landscape in which, according to Savanna Theory (Lidwell et al. 2003), human beings feel safe, calm, and comfortable, since here possible dangers can easily be surveyed. The question of why human observers are affected in one way or another by certain visual features is not the object of visual or design rhetoric. For the observer–as well as for the designer as practitioner–it is important to know which stylistic means are required in order to create specific effects, but not to provide explanations for the underlying modes of perception. Design rhetoric is interested in the relation between a design effect and the specific design features related to it–regardless of whether the means-effect relation is universal or context-sensitive. In the section on pinning down design rules, more will be said about the relation between formal means and effect, which can be paired in a design rule.

Two Research Projects

The intersections of design and rhetoric were the subject of two research projects in the Communication Design Research Area at Bern University of the Arts. The first project, Visual Rhetoric in Commercial Graphics (2007-2009), funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), studied the visual effects of graphic design in advertising and other commercial fields of visual communication (Schneller 2009). It involved an exploration of the rhetorical view that graphic design and its modes of effect can be described by rules, that is, that for nearly any visual effect a set of stylistic means can be determined through which the intended effect can be created with some probability of success. One main result was a list of design effects and rules most commonly used in commercial graphics, such as magazine ads, posters, book and CD covers, business cards, and package designs. Each rule combines a design effect with a set of formal means (typography, form, color, technique, proportion, material, etc.) that help achieve the intended effect. The design rules were explored and determined by a rhetorical design analysis of existing graphic artifacts. After theoretical analysis, a practice-based research method was developed and applied. The validity of the design rules was tested by first creating graphic design variants according to specific design rules and by then examining the actual effects of the designed objects on observers.

The second SNSF-funded research project, Visual Rhetoric 2: Rules and Scope in Public Transport-Information Design (2010-2011), built on the first project and examined, in cooperation with Swiss Federal Railways, the rhetoric of an arguably effect-free field of visual communication: information design (for a detailed project presentation, see Schneller 2010b; Schneller and Scheuermann 2012). While the effect orientation of commercial graphics is quite obvious, pieces of information design, such as signposts or timetables, do not seem to be created with a view to influencing people; they merely inform us about directions or train departures and seem to purely convey information, without aiming at persuasion. Nevertheless, the project made it clear that even informing people has to be understood as an effect that information designers can–and should–aim at by using appropriate formal means and, in addition, that information design ideally does more than just inform people. It was shown that public transport information design typically involves a clear, reserved, simple, and clean appearance (logos), but that it should also look attractive and procure a sense of security and comfort to the traveler (ethos and pathos). Just like in the previous project, the first step was a rhetorical analysis of information-design artifacts and design manuals that resulted in a collection of design rules (intended effects and formal means to achieve them). The second step was to create and empirically test a set of design variants. The specific methods of analysis, effect-oriented creation, and empirical testing of design artifacts applied in the two research projects will be presented and scrutinized in the following sections.

Design as Rhetoric: Focus and Hypotheses

The design-rhetorical approach adopted in the Bern University of the Arts research projects can be characterized by five main hypotheses. First, it advocates the idea that effects of design artifacts can be analyzed by conceiving of design as a rhetorical process. To call a process “rhetorical” means that a piece of speech, or an artifact, is in general produced with a view to evoking certain reactions in an audience and that this is achieved by following specific rules or strategies that help bring about the intended effect. This does not mean that every design effect must be created consciously. Rather, effect orientation and (purposeful or tacit) rule application is supposed to be part of the basic ability of the designer as practitioner (Schneller 2010a). Just like speech, designed artifacts can be seen as attempts to catch the attention and goodwill of a public, to entertain, amuse, shock, or surprise, to create feelings, to influence opinions, values, or actions. However, design rules deal with the relation between the compositional structure and the immediate impulses presented in the design object. This way, they differ from effect studies in rhetoric and related fields such as advertising and consumer psychology where the primary focus is on conative effects (impact on volition, intentions, behavior, and actions) as well as long term effects such as attitude change, purchase behavior, memorization, or psychodynamic processes (Kazmi and Batra 2008; Giles 2003). Of course, some of the immediately perceptible effects of design objects can play a role in the determination of further conative and post-communicative effects. Although not sufficient for producing such secondary effects, design effects can provide “hints” pointing in their direction. A comfortable design might thus make a user or viewer feel comfortable and in doing so influence her purchasing decision, while a calm design might be suitable to provoke calming effects and consequently make viewers drowsy.

The second general hypothesis asserts that there is no such thing as effect-free or non-rhetorical design (Kinross 1985; Atzmon 2010; Schneller 2010b; Schneller/Scheuermann 2012). Every design affects or stimulates people, sometimes heavily, sometimes in subtle or perhaps almost unremarkable ways. Every act of shaping a design object involves a choice of shape, color, size, and proportion, and this choice will create differences in the appearance and impact of the object.

Third, the rhetorical dimensions logos, ethos, and pathos can be used to define three categories of visual effects. Similar to speech, design artifacts influence us not only on a rational (or functional) basis (logos), but also embody a character or act on our values (ethos) and stimulate our emotions (pathos).

Fourth, the relation between specific formal means and their visual (haptic and other) effects can be described in terms of design rules. Design effects are bound to laws of perception, viewing patterns, design traditions, movements, and fashions that shape and restrict the possibilities of the designer. An example for a design rule runs as follows: if you want to create a calm effect, use sans serif or roman type, low contrast, matte surfaces, open and symmetrical arrangements, and accentuate the horizontal. These rules can be actively or passively followed by designers in order to produce the effects intended with a designed object. It might seem that in advertising, the strategy is to break the conventions of seeing in order to surprise consumers rather than to simply follow design rules. Nevertheless, the sheer possibility of deviation reinforces the idea that there are rules at work. Many ads could perhaps be attributed to the use of second-order rules such as: if you want to catch attention or surprise, then break other rules such as “Be clear” or “Show things as they are.” The specific use of formal and semantic deviations is indeed a typical rhetorical phenomenon. Visual rhetorical figures and tropes such as hyperboles, metaphors and ellipses are defined by specific deviations from the norm, for example, addition, repetition, omission, or transformation (Ehses 1986).

Fifth, there is an overall rhetorical principle that guides the range of possible deviations, called the decorum or aptum. It controls the adequacy of effects and measures rule application (or breach) relative to the context of a design artifact.

Rhetorical Design Analysis

Rhetorical design analysis is a method developed at Bern University of the Arts and has been applied and refined in the two research projects on visual rhetoric. It is based on the idea that every design artifact is created with an intention to create specific visual (haptic, olfactory, and other) effects, and that this can be achieved by choosing appropriate formal or stylistic means. The analysis proceeds through six steps: (1) formal analysis that is a description of the formal/stylistic elements of the design object, (2) plus collection of information about its context; (2) effect analysis that is a determination of the effects produced by the design object; (3) elaboration of the design rules at work (correlation of effect and formal means); (4) reconstruction (3) of the intended effects or determining them by interviewing the responsible designer; (5) identification of contra-intentional factors; (6) application of the concept of decorum (adequacy) and establishing a possible scope for action in the creation of designs.

Steps 1 through 3 involve effect ascription and the definition of design rules, both raising their own methodological problems (see the following two sections). The results of the rhetorical design analysis can be used to evaluate existing designs (“Does the design artifact have the intended effects? Are there any unwanted or inappropriate side-effects? Which formal/stylistic features are responsible for these effects?”) and to create better, more effective or more adequate new designs (“Which other means would be more appropriate for the intended effects?”). In the two research projects, the method of rhetorical design analysis itself was submitted for further testing by practice-based design. The results, especially the postulated design rules, were treated as effect hypotheses whose validity and applicability to design practice were further explored (see the section on practice-based design research).

Visual and Design Rhetoric

Rhetoric as the art of persuasion or effect-oriented communication has been specifically studied from a visual point of view since the 1960s (Schneller 2010a; Joost and Scheuermann 2006, 2008). Bonsiepe (1965) was the first one to use the term “rhetoric” in the context of visual communication. While rhetoric traditionally analyzed and taught the theory and practice of successful speech, the interest now turned to the “rhetorical” means used in visual forms of communication such as posters, book covers, magazine ads, or logotypes in order to catch attention, to surprise or to emotionally affect viewers. At the center of the first attempts to treat visual material in terms of rhetoric was the application of rhetorical figures to the visual. Rhetorical concepts such as metaphor, hyperbole, metonymy, or ellipsis were used to describe and systematize visual techniques in advertising and other forms of commercial graphics (Ibid.; Ehses 1984, 1986, 1995).

In 1985, Buchanan radicalized the idea of a rhetoric of visual objects by completely leaving out the verbal aspects that had previously played a substantial role in sketching the rhetoric of visual communication. His concept of “design argument” puts forward the idea that even industrial design objects such as lamps, bookshelves, or coffee machines incorporate quasi-rhetorical modes of influence. According to Buchanan, the impact on viewers and users is exerted by the technological (logos), characteristic (ethos), or emotional (pathos) features of designed objects. Doubts may be raised about the appropriateness of his application of the term “argument” to design artifacts (Schneller 2010a; Blair 2004), but his concept underlines an important insight, namely that not just the represented content, but also the formal aspects of design are capable of influencing people and can be systematically put to the purpose. The rhetoric of design reaches beyond the semantic levels of persuasion. In the past, visual rhetoric mostly focused on the representational content of images and the possibility of transferring rhetorical figures from text and speech to the visual field. But persuasive means and strategies can be described not only on the level of content (what you say), but also on the level of structure or form (how you say it). In the rhetoric of objects, formal aspects are of utmost importance, whereas semantic features become less important–and are clearly less explicit than in speech. Although it has become popular to talk of “product semantics” or “product semiotics” in industrial design (Krippendorff and Butter 1984; Vihma 1995; Steffen 1997; Krippendorff 2006), the fundamental difference in explicitness must be kept in mind. While there is an explicit content to any normal uttered sentence, the “content” of an armchair or lemon squeezer is of a rather implicit nature. What is more, spoken and written language usually have a linear and temporal structure, which is why rhetorical effects can be created by contrasting, stressing, or repeating linguistic elements over time. The “reading” process of designed objects is guided to a lesser extent than that of a printed text. Designed things mostly generate effects of contrast, stress, or repetition within the spatial arrangement of a formal whole present at one time; graphic design, however, is a special case, since it uses a combination of verbal text, image, and visual form where linear, temporal, and compositional aspects of effects are interwoven. And for time-based visual media such as film and video, the temporal effect dimension is actually as eminent as in speech and text. In any event, effects of content and form can never be strictly separated. The font, size, color, and placement of a written text (which in fact is a design object, too, as is the speed, loudness, and timbre of a spoken text) always have an impact on their overall perception.

Design rhetoric could be defined as the attempt to explain–in terms of the concepts and strategies known from rhetorical theory and practice–how and by which formal means designed things influence us. Although visual effects are probably the most important, a comprehensive understanding of design rhetoric will certainly have to consider other sensory impact levels, that is, the haptic, acoustic, and olfactory effects of designed things; nevertheless, the two research projects presented in this paper focus mainly on the visual rhetoric of designed objects.