Writing. Design. Social Change.

Posts tagged ‘visual rhetoric’


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).

Leave a comment

Diana George. “From Analysis to Design: Visual Communication in the Teaching of Writing.”  College Composition and Communication 52.1 (September 2002):  11-39.

Diana George discusses the importance of bringing issues of visual literacy into the writing classroom. Primarily, George addresses the history of the visual within the field of composition studies from the 1940’s to the present. She claims that due to the history of composition studies, we have limited the possibilities for the visual in the teaching of writing. Reflecting on some examples of interesting student work George claims: “The work of these students and others like them has convinced me that current discussions of visual communication and writing instruction have only tapped the surface of possibilities for the role of visual communication in the composition class” (George 2002:12)  She says: “Our students have a much richer imagination for what we might accomplish with the visual than our journals have yet to address” (12)

Attention visual rhetoric people! This comment of George’s must be addressed:

“Within the tradition of verbal/visual communication I am outlining here, only certain kinds of “visual” assignments seem possible for a writing course. Primarily, these would be assignments that use visual images as prompts for essay writing” (George 2002: 20).

Leave a comment
%d bloggers like this: