Visual Rhetoric Part 2: Tools for Design and Analysis

Written by
Randy Fox
January 19, 2013

In our pre­vi­ous arti­cle, we dis­cussed visual lit­er­acy, visual rhetoric, what makes a visual argu­ment and what a rhetor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion con­sists of. We ended with a ques­tion: how do visual com­mu­ni­ca­tors eval­u­ate effec­tive design? First, we must con­sider the rhetor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion — audi­ence, pur­pose and con­text. Next, we must ask our­selves some crit­i­cal questions:

  • Am I arrang­ing the infor­ma­tion for the view­ers to understand?
  • Are the impor­tant aspects of the mes­sage emphasized?
  • Are the typog­ra­phy and graph­ics pre­sented in a clear manner?
  • Do I have enough or too much content?
  • Have I estab­lished the cor­rect tone through­out the document?
  • Have I estab­lished cred­i­bil­ity and trust with my audience?

There are sev­eral ana­lyt­i­cal tools and prin­ci­ples that can be applied through the design process that help us eval­u­ate and process visual struc­ture. The fol­low­ing are six visual cog­nates devel­oped by pro­fes­sional com­mu­ni­ca­tion strate­gists Kostelnick and Roberts: arrange­ment, empha­sis, clar­ity, con­cise­ness, tone and ethos. They are terms used to describe the rhetor­i­cal sit­u­a­tions of a document.

Arrangement refers to the visual com­po­si­tion of a doc­u­ment. The arrange­ment of infor­ma­tion in a doc­u­ment deter­mines the over­all struc­ture. Does is appear to be orga­nized, or is it messy and con­fus­ing? Does it demon­strate hier­ar­chy and lay­er­ing of infor­ma­tion? Is the infor­ma­tion acces­si­ble to the view­ers? Understanding the rhetor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion will help deter­mine how design ele­ments should be arranged on a page.

Emphasis demon­strates a level of impor­tance by draw­ing atten­tion to a spe­cific area of the doc­u­ment. Text set in a bold­face font in all caps cen­tered in the mid­dle of a page is an exam­ple of empha­sis. Color can also draw atten­tion when applied to design ele­ments by using line rules or var­i­ous shapes to con­tain impor­tant infor­ma­tion. The size and place­ment of pho­tographs, illus­tra­tions and graph­ics (charts and graphs, for instance) can also draw attention.

Clarity helps the viewer under­stand the doc­u­ment clearly and swiftly. This is an impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tion on all design lev­els; from choos­ing the appro­pri­ate type­faces to set­ting mar­gins and estab­lish­ing a grid struc­ture, all ele­ments of a design must be clear and easy to under­stand for the audi­ence. Visuals such as illus­tra­tions, pho­tographs, charts, and graphs also need to be con­sid­ered for style and mean­ing. Finally, the over­all struc­ture of the doc­u­ment needs to be well orga­nized so as not to cause the viewer con­fu­sion or frus­tra­tion. Again, these deci­sions all depend on the rhetor­i­cal situation.

Conciseness refers to the con­sid­er­a­tion of con­tent. According to Kostelnick et al. (1998), visual con­cise­ness “means gen­er­at­ing designs that appro­pri­ately suc­cinct within a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion (p. 19).” Each design ele­ment should care­fully con­sider adding to the rhetor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion of the document.

Tone is the over­all voice of the doc­u­ment and can be estab­lished with the use of visual lan­guage. If the doc­u­ment does not have the cor­rect tone, the mes­sage could be mis­in­ter­preted or lost com­pletely. For exam­ple, large head­lines set in a bold type­face and all caps may be per­ceived as seri­ous and harsh. Or, using basic illus­tra­tions that are easy to under­stand will make the doc­u­ment appear more casual and friendly.

Ethos refers to cred­i­bil­ity. Visual lan­guage can estab­lish a rela­tion­ship between a designer and reader of the doc­u­ment by estab­lish­ing trust. For instance, cartoon-style graph­ics may lead the viewer to believe the sub­ject mat­ter doesn’t need to be taken seriously.

Consider the six cog­nates demon­strated in the adver­tise­ment for Hospital Alemán (image above). The arrange­ment of text ele­ments and graph­ics bal­ance the infor­ma­tion and makes the ad easy to under­stand. The tree is empha­sized by its size and color and cre­ates a point of focus for the viewer. Clarity is achieved through the san serif type and the sim­plic­ity of the graph­ics. The infor­ma­tion is con­cise,yet enough to com­mu­ni­cate the mes­sage that par­ents can­not always keep their chil­dren from get­ting hurt, but if they do, Hospital Alemán is the place to go for help. Tone is estab­lished in sev­eral ways: the use of color, arrange­ment of design ele­ments, and the choice of graph­ics. The gloomy, gray back­ground gives a sense of dread. The color blue used in the top area of the tree seems cold and scary, which is rein­forced by the bro­ken white ves­sel. Ethos is sup­ported by the label located in the lower right cor­ner con­tain­ing the hospital’s logo.

As demon­strated in the adver­tise­ment, the six cog­nates are strate­gies imple­mented with visual lan­guage. However, accord­ing to Kostelnick et al. (1998), the cog­nates are inter­de­pen­dent. They do not work inde­pen­dently and should bal­ance each other as one rein­forces the other (p. 22).

Another design tool worth explor­ing is the the­ory of Gestalt, which is based on the psy­chol­ogy of per­cep­tion. Be sure to check in next week as our last arti­cle of this series will dis­cuss the prin­ci­ples of Gestalt and how they are applied. We will also sum­ma­rize every­thing that has been cov­ered in this series.

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