The Rhetorical Chain

Rhetorical Chain: a string of arguments that pass through and connect people and organizations

Design as Rhetoric

A lot of people see design as the bastard child of rhetoric. If you think about it, it makes sense. The five “canons” of rhetoric, brought forth by Cicero or somebody, consists of:

  • Invention and Discover
  • Arrangement
  • Style
  • Memory
  • Delivery

These phases all have corollaries in design. I won’t go into that, but it should be pretty obvious to most designers. In addition to the phases of Rhetoric, there are three devices of Rhetoric to appeal to an audience:

  • logos - logical appeals
  • pathos - emotional appeals
  • ethos - ethical or moral appeals

So when thinking about the development of any iconic design object, such as the iPhone, it’s easy to see these aspects of rhetoric play out. Designer’s at Apple wondered what people wanted in a phone, and invented or discovered needs. Those needs were probably logical (“I need to check email all day”), emotional (“I want to see the face of the person I’m calling”), etc.

In addition to design projects relating to rhetoric, lately, I’ve noticed the business process that surrounds design to be full of applications of rhetoric. When working on a project for GSK, my design firm made an argument to GSK as to why we should be chosen for the project. This included a presentation that made logical and emotional appeals to the members of the GSK group.

When working for GSK, we realized that not only did our client contact need to believe in the work we were all doing, but also GSK at large, which meant the creation of more presentations, this time to a different audience with different appeals.

The final product was a B2B solution, so we needed GSK to make a strong argument to its business customers, and then those business customers needed to make a strong case to their employees who were the final customers. So the arguments made looked something like this:

>My Design Firm -> GSK Client -> GSK as a whole -> Corporations -> Employees

And so was born my concept of the Rhetorical Chain. This came up again when I was asked to make a pamphlet for a funeral I was attending. I took all the information, put it into inDesign and kept it tasteful. I simply got rid of some formatting that made the schedule difficult to read (the original word document had the funeral content text flush against the left margin, speaker information flush again the right margin, and occasionally a column centered with a song to be performed). And I changed the type, reduced line length in a few places, and formatted all the images to make sense. When showing what I did, there was an overwhelming response of dissatisfaction. “why can’t it look like the other pamphlets?” was the prevailing question. I responded with appeals to efficiency, readability, aesthetic pleasantries, but none of it worked, and eventually what was printed was the Microsoft Word version. This was another instance where convincing was part of the job, and in this instance I failed.

The life of a designer is a life of fight. Fight against the ugliness. Just like a doctor fights against disease. For us, the visual disease is what we have around, and what we try to do is cure it somehow with design.
–Massimo Vignelli

Another win for ugliness.

The Shift

The concept of rhetoric as I’ve laid it out has been very much about persuasion and control, and one definition is such. But instead of marking the control definition of rhetoric with an author, I am going to label it the modernist definition of rhetoric. In a modern world, where designers bend and flex metal to make precision objects, and where consumer products can be seen as arguments for how we should live our lives, rhetoric becomes a tool for persuasion, the iPhone is a statement by Apple saying “You should have internet in your pocket”. The shift is a subtle one–one that I am seeing not just in design, but in art, poetry, and business. The shift is from modernity to post-modernity, which I think I technically missed, and which I no nothing about, but will speak on anyway. There should be a whole post on post-modernity and Dreu and Second Road, but that’s another story.

Design as Dialectic

So the subtle shift in design from rhetoric to dialectic, or even ore subtle from modernist rhetoric to a post modernist rhetoric, is mirrored by the shift from societal modernity to post modernity. In the modern world, I think there was a fetishization of not only the new, but the precise. In the modern world, there was the invention of the assembly line that analyzed human movements and reduced them to almost mechanical precision. The question to be answered was always “How can we control people as precisely as machines?” In Christianity, the modern God controls Jesus, the world, us, in a mechanical and absolute manner, and this same era brought on the Tailorist Movement and mechanical ways of controlling and running businesses, moving to the use of spreadsheets and reporting systems to understand groups of people.

However, I think that era has ended. I have no interest in making arguments and I have no interest in working on design projects and having them turned down by clients. I want to move from rhetoric, the creation of arguments, to dialectics, or the creation of conversations where one does not overcome the other, rather one uses the other to grow, change, and develop something completely new. I think design objects are going to move from arguments of how we live our lives, to manifestations of our desires and values, and designers will no longer be controllers, but rather facilitators between groups.

April 02, 2009 |