Why rhetoric?

A writing exercise of little importance.

During my thesis review one of the advisors and I got into a back-and-forth discussion about whether rhetoric was the correct way we (designers) should thinking about and approaching design. He believed it should not, I believed it should. He believes in working with the “direct perception” or “embodied knowledge”  JJ Gibson describes in his work on ecological perception (designers, you know, affordances) as you approach your designs. I also think we should.

I spent winter break balancing both philosophies in my mind. I can appreciate using rhetorical analysis as a tool to approach design and learn/discuss how it does work on people. I initially chose to use literally theory to approach design for vague, personal reasons. I have cherished how much my English background influences how I think about problems, people, communication, and design….the world really. I say it’s vague because I don’t know the specific way to apply what I felt I got from four years of English coursework into design.

What I ended up ultimately doing for my thesis, I used different linguistic and rhetorical theories as a framework to analyze different elements of interaction design. How is our actions on device metaphorical? What kind of persuasive communication techniques might they be applying? How are they stylistic and what does that do to create identity? It ended up being an exercise in thinking critically about what design elements do and broadened the way that I thought these elements (or others) could be used. Whether it be visual, auditory, haptic, or whatever other kind of information that can be sensed.

On the other side of things, the professor argued that this “languaging” of interaction creates a level of abstraction away from what our body inherently knows about an object. It takes it further from it’s context and its use. It might lock us into one perception of what and object is and can do. If we call something a chair, we are forever forced to think of it conventionally (what our learned patterns of interactions are with a chair) whereas it might have so many other possibilities. Or, things we don’t imagine to be chairs can be just as sitable. Design can have embodied knowledge by designing for the relationship between man and object/experiences. Chairs reflect certain needs that our body has: to bend at the knee, to have a flat surface a certain height from the ground and, for comfort, might have support for our backs—all working together to help the body rest. Compare this to poorly designed objects that might more function-driven rather than relationship driven. For instance, he described this cartoon of what an alien scientist might predict humans look like based on what our computers are designed like: A person with a hand that had one finger for clicking the mouse, a hand with like 84 keys to use the keyboard, one eye for staring at the screen, and just a giant bottom to sit on the floor while we used our device.


I couldn’t find the comic but I came up with my own version.

A valid and elegant argument. We should be designing with the relationship between human-to-experience in mind. There is a way to combine the two in a natural and lovely way that makes the device and new technologies more greatly accessible to more people because how it works and functions is more readily understood. Approaching design problems with this perspective no doubt helps you come up with different solutions that you might have before. I believe this too.

But also believe in the other thing, languaging and analyzing interactions.

Is that ok? Is it possible to have two conflicting philosophies wrestling in your mind while you work? Can they work together? Support each other? Can you start with one and try the other?

I mean, I certainly can because I’m a gemini. ;)

I thought about how I personally resolve the design ideals I have when working. I know that I approach problems extremely analytically at times and reflect on my work even more critically. But I also know that I act and react to things fluidly because on the basis of things that I can’t articulate. Like, I might make something and refine it until it gets a certain quality but I don’t know what quality that is until I find it. And think about the hundreds of things I interact with on a daily basis that I don’t even notice because they fit so effortlessly into my practices.

But on the other hand, as a teacher last semester and this year, I find value in articulating these thoughts and sharing them with other people in order to change perceptions and for designers to evaluate their own work. Yes, in an ideal world everyone would want get to practice and make and practice and make (is that implying we should all be apprenticed?) But not everyone has the luxury of doing design activities like that and there should be an understanding of why what designers do is important and how to push the process forward through design exercises to the people we serve anyway…

I’m starting to babble. Let me make a list.

The issues (or questions) I see with direct perception:

  • Technology can create a completely different experience for us that is unlike what we see in our real world, should we embrace or shun it? Advances in technology have allowed for things to happen that aren’t natural so how much should we accommodate prior experience in our design?  This might be a case where I am just not understanding correctly. I’m unsure how to resolve that (the infinite possibilities of technology) if we focus on what we have seen and experienced. I’m unsure of how far it should go in any direction if we limit it to things that provide us inherent knowledge. It sound very physical, product-design oriented when, realistically we are moving into a screen-centered life where our objects can instantly refresh and showcase new functions. Technology extends our abilities to do things, which to me means that it’s already stretching what’s natural. A pencil enables us to write and there for our ability to keep track of things (our memory) and to communicate to people far away (from Don Norman).
  • I want to see more how this is dealt with in the digital space. I’ve seen some of the experiments done with our technology being more literal with what it’s showing (like skeuomorphism) and there’s a debate right now if that is or isn’t helpful. Maybe the answer is that we shouldn’t have screens at all or maybe the problem is that the screens we have don’t reflect the screens we actually should have. But the thing is, screens exist and until the new solution is found, we have to deal with them. Do we keep making our computer files look like little file folders to help people understand? Even if those file folders themselves is another product created by man that the next generation might not understand—like the floppy disk for saving? Obviously then we have to think about what the screen is designed for, what form it takes. Maybe it shouldn’t be a rectangular brick just because then it would fit in with all our other rectangular products. Maybe we shouldn’t be interacting with glass. But then this grows into a question about industrial design…which is great but it’s doesn’t feel realistic for one person to have all these skills.

Why I chose rhetorical analysis techniques:

  • Rhetoric exhibits the same artistic and technical skills to impact audience in intangible ways. How an orator or writer accomplishes his goals has been studied and approached by academics and is a familiar task for the literate. It’s relatable. Being literate is a metaphor we live by: being literate in language, reading, math, economics, cooking, or whatever…is an idea we are familiar with. It’s been studied intensively from multiple angles and applied to many other fields (ex: visual rhetoric). Different approaches to analyzing artifacts have been explored, I have a literary theory anthology sitting right next to me and here are the main titles for sections: Feminism, structuralism, linguistics, narratology, rhetoric, phenomenology, reader response, post-structuralism, deconstruction, post-modernism, psychoanalysis, psychology, historicism, political criticisms (marxism to cultural marxism), gender studies, ethnic literary and culture studies, critical race theory, colonial, post-colonial, transnational studies, and cultural studies. And within that, each different niches, parts of language, and types of documents have been explored. It’s a field where the design of communication and understanding has been evaluated in depth and I think it’s completely valid to look at how English does it. You can see from these anthology that it’s not about how the grammar and terms determine meaning. It’s obvious that they’re asking readers to look at these works in context: In the context of the time, the gender of the author, the intended reader, and through philosophies. If that’s not an incredible design exercise, I don’t know what is! (Yes, I mean that exclamation mark!)
  • Part of understanding and sharing knowledge is articulated in some way, through words. Having a common reference point is a valuable an often that is done through words or illustration—

Tangent: as I’m writing this I keep going back and forth. I automatically think about opposites when I work (when I claim something I think about how it could be approached from the other side). And then I have to pause to work it out. But do you see what I mean? It’s such a gray are to say design should or shouldn’t be approached in a certain way. I am certainly not the first person to say that a designers should use a variety of frameworks to take a problem (My advisor gave me a set of Lockton’s design cards that encourage designers to approach design from certain perspectives). So why am I even spending time right now wrestling these two ideas if I do think they should be used in conjunction with each other? Couldn’t you fall into the same pitfalls by designing things using a Gibsonian perspective and designing repetitive solutions? Doesn’t it imply there’s some ideal solution to design problems that we could reach by perfectly matching people to the products they use. But that’s an unfeasible solution for a business to to personalize every product, isn’t it? If your design accommodates 99% of the roughly 7 billion people on earth (sometime in their lifetime), then you’ve left out 70 million people. But this probably not important. I’m probably getting caught up in the wrong issues. 

—We have this ability to share and sending information over digital devices and in that case it becomes flat and those beautiful industrial-designed affordances cease to be there…(then again, a picture says a thousand words). (Unless we send 3D printed devices which, right now I hate because they’re all made out of plastic). I think it’s really important to strive to create new object, but there has to be way of tacking the 2D screen design problems that exist today. Just like Apple reinvented the way we interacted with computers through their visual Macintosh displays (compared to the previous DOS computing methods). Should our devices change form every time they change function? Or should the screen disappear in the function?

  • (Part of) our understanding is manifested through language. While yes, calling something a chair and associating it with x definition might enclose our understanding of it (we think it’s only for sitting, or even a certain kind of sitting), it also might be necessary to get through our day—our lives—through patterns of activities. To just see a thing and use it. If you discover an object can accommodate a need perfectly, why not use it for the purpose? (then you get a bunch of single-function objects like a bagel spatula…).
    Then you ask yourself though, how many missed opportunities you have for improving your life by reimagining what other objects can do, to play the devil’s advocate.

Maybe part of the problem isn’t discovering which way to approach these problem is the highest form of design. What might be needed is only practice in not necessarily making, but stretching our minds creatively to repurpose or reimagine both products and problems. You can do that by making or analyzing. Both over different experiences and different kinds of knowledge. With analytical knowledge By analyzing things more literally with words, I begin to develop a design vocabulary and perspective of what is of concern. What to look for and what might be important. And when I go into a project I can consider. For example, when a brand new student to design learns about the different parts of typography, they are, arguably, better equipped to make their own typographic decisions. They know something like an x-heigh or the shape of a counterspace can be a changeable element and the way the characters work together can enhance a mood and communicate differently. Just like knowing about something might lock you into single-mindedness, not knowing might do the same. You don’t question how something is because you don’t know enough about how it could be different. Or if you’re not naturally a question-er (maybe that’s the problem?) You don’t know, for instance, that a more durable material could exist that is better than glass, metal, plastic, or wood. It equips you with things that can change and this knowledge helps you approach problems.

I know that, on the other hand, people not knowing about something can lead them exactly to re-thinking an object unexpectly.

Where I seem to keep going is there is no set way that person can or should design. There can be no BuzzFeed article on “you’re doing it wrong” or “10 ways to design the best thing.” The way people discover things and they way the can be surprised is different for everyone in different contexts. Giving them as many possible to explore and learn about these methods in a way that is engaging and long-lasting (that they enjoy!) seems to be valuable.


Taking off for now. Be back soon!

Thoughts? Discussion? I'd love to hear 'em!

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