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.”


One Response

  1. great post, thank you.

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