Design Theory in a Digital Age

I received an alumni newsletter the other day that announced the retirement of my college professor, Hanno Ehses. After 35 years as a professor in the design department at NSCAD University, Ehses is signing off. It is during a time when the communication design industry should be looking back at his body of work and considering how it should be applied in this rational, digital age.

On the inside cover of his design paper Rhetorical Handbook, he is quoted:
“The impact caused by the collapse of the Modern Movement and its doctrines confirms remarkably well an old wisdom: ‘There is nothing more practical than a good theory.’ The high energy of Modernism released over many decades and energizing generations of designers, is declining. The resulting disorientation, together with the maturing of design as a profession, has led to a renewed interest in theoretical issues.” Hanno Ehses (published 1988, second edition 1996)

Perhaps we are at a similar cross-road. Our interaction with communication is becoming more of an experience retrieved through not only visual and verbal means, but touch and motion too. In his series of design papers, Ehses connects the age-old practice of rhetoric with visual communication and presents a thorough examination of how rhetorical devices are used in graphic design.

In Design Papers 5, co-author Ellen Lupton explains that “rhetoric is a vocabulary which describes the effective, persuasive use of speech”. She continues to explain that it “is not a fixed set of stylistic rules, but an open description of the patterns and processes of communication”. Earlier in Design Papers 4, Ehses explains that “it is a persuasive tool used to inform (rational appeal), to delight and win over (ethical appeal) or to move (emotional appeal) an audience”.

Today, a majority of our interaction with communication is on a computer. We see plenty of rhetorical devices in use, including metaphors (an implied comparison against two unlike objects), personification (assigns human characteristics to inanimate objects), and parallelism (a similarity of structure in a series of related elements), among others. We are also seeing growth in semiotics — the science of signs. We use radio buttons to signal a choice or vote, chevrons to imply there is additional information, triangles to indicate there is a collapsible section of information, and so on. It is the signification of these signs, symbols, and actions that designers are challenged to encode while keeping intuitive.

Towards the end of the paper, Ehses quotes the proverb “If you want to get new ideas, read old books: read new books if you want to find old ideas”. This returns us to the argument that there is nothing more practical than a good theory – it is timeless. In an environment where the communication medium is in constant change and users are always learning how to retrieve and exchange information, having a core thought is essential to keeping the learning experience intuitive.

Thank you Hanno for all you have taught me and have a wonderful retirement. I will continue reading old books and forever be a student.

List of publications: “Semiotic Foundation of Typography”, “Representing Macbeth”, “Design and Rhetoric: An Analysis of Theatre Posters”, “Rhetorical Handbook – An Illustrated Manual for Graphic Designers”, “Remarks on Drawing, Design, and Rhetoric”, “Speaking of the Heart” and “Design on a Rhetorical Footing.”

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All Your Words Are Belong To Us

To my mind one of the most stunning developments on the web this year have been the almost total unhinging of content ownership. One must wonder what this may mean for the professional content developers, such as journalists and even bloggers, not to mention the content developed by a company for their own website.

I am thinking of two products, from very different companies, but together they paint an early picture of what might be happening to web-based content.

The first is sidewiki from Google. This is a browser add on that allows anyone–anyone–to paste any comments on any webpage. I am quite surprised that there has not been more controversy about this and, perhaps, it is just because it has not been widely used so far (?).

I don’t know how you feel about having anyone in the crowd have the ability to say anything they want about your website on your website, but I find the idea somewhat disturbing. A lot of thought and creativity goes into a website (a good one, anyway) and enabling random people to make random comments (warranted or not) on someone else’s site seems akin to allowing taggers to deface the buildings in the Googleplex.

Is this where we’re going? Is this where we want to be going? Is this leakage of social media into places where, perhaps, it might not belong? Let’s remember, this is the web, where we once could buy pet food and order groceries…but not anymore because the model didn’t hold up. Could we be seeing the same kind of over-the-edge “irrational exuberance” we’ve seen before?

Along with sidewiki I have recently discovered a browser add on that I absolutely love, but I have to wonder if, at some fundamental level, it might smack of the same kind of issue–that of causing one to wonder, who owns the content? Who owns the experience? The overall look and feel? And, yes, even the ads on a site?

The add on is readability, which turns a cluttered, hard-to-read website into a lovely, print-like page. Sans ads, banners, anything but the main copy. After using it for the last day I have to say, I love it, yet it does inspire some guilty pleasure. Certainly, there is an argument to be made that if the marketers, designers, and other web-zoids hadn’t gone crazy with the unimportant, distracting clutter, that a program like this wouldn’t ever be necessary.

Granted. And I agree completely. And, like sidewiki, readability does seem to intrude on the ownership of the overall experience of someone’s property. Certainly, most of us would never put up with this in the “real” world. Our building facades are ours, our signs are ours, and our cars are ours, and they look as we want them to look. When that look is altered without our approval we find that intrusive.

Should we feel any different about our websites?