Visual Rhetoric Part 2: Tools for Design and Analysis

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.

By Randy Fox
Published January 19, 2013
AIGA encourages thoughtful, responsible discourse. Please add comments judiciously, and refrain from maligning any individual, institution or body of work. Read our policy on commenting.