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.


Rhetoric is commonly understood as the art of persuasion or effect-oriented communication. Since the 1960s, there have been various attempts to extend rhetoric from speech to visual communication and to design in general. Design rhetoric addresses the effects of artifacts and especially the techniques by which they can be generated and controlled in the design process. The central problems of this approach are the identification of effects and the validation of rules linking design aspects to specific effects. The goal of this article is to demonstrate how these problems can be dealt with by means of a triangulation of analysis, expert judgments, practice-based research, and laboratory experiments. The suggestions made are based on the results and methods developed over the course of two Bern University of the Arts research projects on visual rhetoric in commercial graphics and public-transport information design. While advertising and mass communication theory as well as the psychology and sociology of media are generally more interested in the macrostructural and postcommunicative effects of their objects of investigation (that is, how they affect actions, purchase decisions, quality of life, social structures, or mental equilibrium of users and receivers), the design-theoretical approach presented here is concerned with the micro-structural impact levels: the immediately detectable effects resulting from the formal composition of designed objects, effects that are grounded in the appearance, and sometimes even in the intrinsic properties of things (that is, what kind of primary impression they make on the viewer). In the first two sections, a short introduction to design rhetoric is provided–particularly for readers not yet familiar with the topic–and the main focus and hypotheses of the approach are presented. In the remaining sections, the methods of ascribing effects to design artifacts applied in the two projects are outlined and the arising difficulties and possible ways of overcoming these difficulties are discussed.


This lesson plan is one of my favorites to work with over the past few years, because it allows students to actively engage with texts in the library in a new way and it showcases the abilities of some of our most creative students in a lasting way. We worked with a larger student base our second year and included students in the first-year design class as well, which provided a very diverse offering of products. Being able to show the examples from the previous year of what was done right and what needed fixing was a definite advantage our second year. We also found that proofreading was not a priority for students our first year; in the second, the teacher required students to have multiple classmates proof their work before it could be submitted.

In our second year, we also allowed students from different classes to choose the same book which meant we did end up with a few duplicates. Also, the top designs chosen by the students for each class were not necessarily the top designs chosen by the teacher and the library staff. This is why we printed out more covers than just the class winners–these designs could be called the honorable mention or staff picks category.

I have made one alteration to the lesson plan that I plan to include next year, because I think it will provide the students a better understanding of their own personal design opinions–the process of students selecting books they find appealing and unappealing and deciding why will hopefully allow them to gain the perspective of the consumer, not just the designer. At the completion of the projects, I think making a formal presentation is ideal, because students must defend their choices, which may, in turn, prompt more thoughtful designs. Next year, I also hope to involve students more in the process of nominating books for makeovers. We are very excited to begin this project again next year, and I think these few minor changes will make the process even more student centered and produce even better designs.

The design teacher said this was one of his students’ favorite assignments–mainly because they were creating a product for a real purpose that they could eventually see on display in the real worlds


The teacher and librarian will complete this lesson collaboratively. The librarian can complete the introduction of the assignment and participate in the creation, modification, and delivery of formative assessments. The graphic design teacher will work with students on creating their book covers using a design program such as Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Publisher, or any software that allows desktop publishing and formatting. The teacher will assess students based on design class standards.


The class visits the library. The librarian discusses with students the importance of the book cover in marketing-relating the idea to commercials, theatrical trailers, cereal boxes, etc. A book cover should inspire someone to choose the book to borrow or purchase.

Students then search the library shelves for examples of book covers that they find both appealing and not appealing. As a group, the students complete a list of reasons why book covers would inspire them to read or purchase a book (or leave it on the shelf).

Pull (or have students pull) a cart of fiction/nonfiction books that have unattractive or dated covers that could have a higher checkout rate if the cover were designed differently. For our projects, one year we chose fiction titles, and the next year we chose nonfiction titles. We pulled books we thought would be appealing to students based on subject, but that had covers that were decidedly not appealing Students (library aides, reading groups, etc.) could easily help in selection process.

Students in the design class should be allowed to select their own book to redesign. To avoid redundancy (and improve student assessment), we suggest that no two students in a class redesign the same cover. Students are not required to read the books prior to completing their book covers.


When all projects are completed, students vote on the top three designs for each class. Voting can be done in many ways. For one, students can present their designs to the class explaining why they chose their design elements and why their book cover is better than the original. Votes are based on the design and the presentation. Or, students could vote for the designs only. This past year, we had classes vote for the top designs from another period. For example, period 1 voted for the top from period 5. The best designs from each class were then displayed in the library for the student body to vote on. (I printed them on regular paper and displayed the new design next to the book with its current cover). We encouraged teachers to bring their classes to vote as well as for individual students to stop by before/after school or during lunch. The designs voted as the top three by the student body received prizes from the library (donated by community sponsors).

The final step of our process is to replace the old book covers with the students’ new designs. The first year, we printed out all of the completed covers as we only worked with one class. The second year, we printed all of the top winners from each class and ones that the library staff thought stood out as well. Our district printing office printed color copies of the winning covers on proof paper and cut them to size. We then placed the new cover over the old and fitted the book with new plastic covers. These books are now in regular circulation within the library.