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.