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).