Kostelnick, Charles and Michael Hassett. Shaping Information: The Rhetoric of Visual Conventions. Carbondale: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Primarily written for designers, this book argues conventions are the key to shaping information. The book claims that although we live in an information age inundated with visual language (e.g. charts, texts, graphs, illustrations, icons, screens) the structure of that language evades scholars of rhetoric, design, engineering, etc. “Although scholars have theorized how visual language develops in social and cultural contexts, these avenues of inquiry remain fragmented across many disciplines. Furthermore, scholarship has failed to recognize the pervasiveness of conventions, how users shape and share them in groups, and how designers adapt and combine them for specific situations. As a result, insofar as it functions in any kind of orderly system across the broad spectrum of information design practices, visual language remains theoretically untamed” (4). In the face of that uncertainty, Kostelnick et al posits that in order for us to employ visual language in a way that reliably relays meaning, we must go through a process of normalizing or codifying its practices (for both those who design/create and those who read/interpret). The process the authors describe is shaped by conventional practices that are invented, codified, and then modified by users in (visual) discourse communities.

What I like about this book is the wide-ranging use of the aesthetic (although this is not altogether acknowledged). Sometimes it is referred to as a style or genre, sometimes a sensibility, at other times a cultural force. Most scholarship rarely deploys more than one use for the aesthetic. In general, the aesthetic in Shaping Information falls into the category of the discourse community which encompasses “groups of designers and readers and the hierarchical relations among group members that define and certify conventions” (82). The aesthetic is found in the cultural subset of the discourse community, which entails: “values, attitudes and knowledge, including aesthetics, that are shared by members of national or ethnic groups and that shape conventional codes” (82). [The authors claim this but then don’t discuss it].

Regarding the aesthetic, the authors point to two interesting studies: “In separate studies, James Mangan and Rune Pettersson, for example, outline how picture-making conventions reflect cultural and physical attributes of the designer’s environment, while William Horton illustrates the ways in which designers of pictures and icons can undermine their designs by ignoring the cultural values of the users. Those values are invariably linked to aesthetics, a key form of cultural knowledge that often plays an important, yet unacknowledged, role in conventional practices” (4).