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3.1: How does visual communication work?

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    How Does Visual Communication Work

    When we use visual communication, something happens that allows us to see the visual as more than a simple collection of different components—we don’t see a visual, we see the rhetoric embodied by the visual. As hinted at earlier with our sports team example, visuals don’t function as individual parts or even as a simple sum of their individual parts. Visuals operate using complex rhetorical systems that we’ll be referring to from this point onward as visual conventions.

    A rhetorical aside

    Now, before we go further we should probably take a moment and unpack the whole idea of rhetoric. Much like our usage of technical writing, rhetoric is a term that means a lot to a lot of people. By many definitions this entire textbook is a book about rhetoric, though I’ve not chosen to make rhetoric the term that we use over and over again to talk about what we’re doing. Rhetoric is, in our terms, the available means of persuasion in a given situation. If there isn’t any room for persuasion in a situation, there isn’t any room for rhetoric either.

    To unpack this definition, rhetoric is looking for points where you can work to bring others around to your way of looking at things, or at least the point of view or information you’re advocating for. Parents use rhetoric when they attempt to convince kids to eat a new food: “It tastes just like those tacos we had last week!” Razor manufacturers use rhetoric to sell their newest blade: “Get an even better shave than ever before!” Phone designers use rhetoric when they pitch something as the newest, the best, or as “magical.”

    In each of these cases, rhetoric is the identification of the audience, of what that audience values, of how the message will impact the audience, and then ideally the use of that information to create something that will appeal to the user/reader/hearer. Sounds a lot like our second chapter, doesn’t it? Thinking about the examples above, the parent is using their knowledge of the child’s appreciation of tacos to make a favorable comparison, to re-write the way the child sees a dish. The shaving example playing off the doubts you may have about your current shave—could it be better? The phone design is playing on your desire to have the best, the brightest, the shiniest, and to have the prestige (unspoken in this case) of having a device with all of these attributes. Each of these approaches is a rhetorical approach, one based on research and considerable of where a text is going, where it is coming from, and what it is about.

    Other definitions of rhetoric you may be more familiar with usually revolve around something being “just rhetoric.” These definitions are usually referring rhetoric’s role in making a text or idea more palatable, making rhetoric like a costume, a style, or even a seasoning for your text/idea. None of this is wrong, per se, but the focus on rhetoric as window dressing cuts off the most valuable part of what rhetoric brings to the table as a lens to see the world. Rhetoric may be many things, but it excels at helping us think through ideas to make them worthwhile to others.

    As I noted earlier, much of our text is based on rhetoric, though we’ve not been using the term directly. As someone who was schooled in rhetoric from start to finish in my doctoral training, the approach is the most fundamental one I can imagine. With that said, rhetoric is a very broad field of study with any number of applications. As such, I use technical writing and technical-writing-based terms to discuss much of the content of this text. Audience analysis is very much rhetorical analysis, but I prefer audience analysis because it hews closer to the technical and the formulation makes us more aware of the transactional nature of our writing. We could use rhetoric, but that is a broader term and for our case I prefer the more focused one.

    Having said all of that, visual rhetoric really is the best term for what we’re discussing right now because it gets at exactly what we’re talking about. We are looking at the available means of persuasion in the visual arena, looking at what visuals mean, what they do, and where the come from, and how we can use them to persuade and educate.

    Back to visual communication—how does it work?

    Much of the approach we’ll be using in this chapter involves visual conventions, a rhetorical concept developed by Charles Kostelnick and Michael Hassett in their book Shaping Information: The Rhetoric of Visual Conventions (2003). For Kostelnick and Hassett, visual conventions are an inherently rhetorical communication style that relies on a bevy of hidden conventions and histories to make sense, conventions that will change and evolve over time, rising and falling in response to the course of history. Their book is awesome and I recommend it to anyone and everyone who does visual design.

    With any given visual design, what matters are the visual conventions that the design creates, redefines, integrates, or ignores. These visual conventions are choices in the design process that have come to mean something to certain folks (sometimes even meaning different things to different people). These visual conventions have rhetorical effects—they move people to understand things a certain way, to treat information a certain way, and to see visuals as conveying a certain type of information or a certain type of authority or association.

    Sometimes a visual convention’s meaning is mandated—think about the road sign that you follow on any given drive. There aren’t really options when it comes to depicting the speed limit of a given stretch of road—the design is a convention that is used over and over again across the country. In each case when you see the speed limit sign, the combination of the white color, the shape of the sign, and the font and wording on the sign all signal to you that this is an official government sign informing you of the expected limit to your vehicle’s speed on this stretch of road. Sometimes the placement can vary to make the sign less effective for drivers (though perhaps more effective for officers giving tickets), but the sign always means the same thing because of the power of the visual convention and because of the various laws and ordinances preventing competition with other designs and information. In the case of these signs, the rhetorical weight of the national or state government is behind each visual because of the associations with that government and the interactions those signs can prompt with law enforcement because of their correlation with state and federal laws.

    In other cases, a visual design can be subject to tweaking and manipulation. Think about the veritable industry that has popped up over the last several years drawing on t-shirt mashups of various fandoms. The designs in those shirts often play on potentially obscure mashups of different elements of pop culture fandoms, creating a shirt that is quite meaningful to those that get the reference.

    Wearing a shirt with visual references is a rhetorical move—you’re showing those around you, or making the claim, that you are a part of a particular group with a particular mindset. When you put on an “I’m With Her” t-shirt or a “Make American Great Again” hat—you bring with you everything that anyone has ever associated with those visuals and invite classification of your political preferences. In fact, the power of political clothing in particular is something so great that it has spawned numerous laws and lawsuits related to voting and voter intimidation.

    As you may be aware, or not, the printed page is also a visual convention, a bit of visual rhetoric. When you see a printed page with black text and white paper and clear margins on each of the four sides, you realize you are reading a printed page. That, in and of itself, has implications! How many documents have you not read simply because they looked like a printed page rather than something more interesting or quickly readable? Visual rhetoric gets complicated quickly.

    Section Break - Visual Conventions

    1. What visual conventions are found on your campus? What do they signify and how are they specific to your campus?
    2. Are there any visual conventions you’ve ever misunderstood for any period of time? What were they and why?
    3. What types of visual conventions immediately turn off your interest? Why do you think that is? What are these conventions saying to you that immediately makes you lack interest?

    This page titled 3.1: How does visual communication work? is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Adam Rex Pope.

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