Saturday, 14 August 2010

Organisation of the Perceptual, Emotional and Cognitive Processes

Frascara, in discussing Visual Communication's focus on selecting the visual elements of text and image communicate it's "Sinn"* says,
"Every shape evokes a response - more or less cognitive, more or less emotional. This demonstrates the importance of designers in the organization of the perceptual, emotional, and cognitive processes to be followed by the viewer, beyond purely aesthetic issues. It would be a fundamental error to believe that in design one can deal with the form independent of content, or with sensorial, independent of the cognitive and the emotional." (2004, p65)
Barnard folds into this the semiological roots of Visual Communication,
"Signs and codes are the bases of meanings in semiology. And signs and codes are explained in terms of learned and variable cultural rules. For semiology, then, communication is a cultural phenomenon, not an engineering problem, as it is in communication theory.” (2005, p28)"
Semiologically the Mise en Scene of a design's elements are produced and organised by the designer to facilitate the reception by the viewer. This is constructed through culturally specific manipulation of image and text as the cultural positioning of the elements aids the generation of meaning. Barnard continues,
"So for semiology, communication is the production and exchange of messages and meanings, not the transmission of messages. A message or meaning is something constructed in communication, not something that pre-exists communication. ” (2005, p28)"
He uses the phrase "communication is a cultural phenomenon, not an engineering problem" with which he means that this construction can only be investigated through qualitative methods.

The Interaction Design heavy weight Bruce Tognazzini (he founded the Apple Human Interface Group and acted as Apple's Human Interface Evangelist) wrote back in 2003 in an AskTog article "It's Time We Got Respect" that,
"(I have had managers who have) told me flat-out they could not hire such a 'designer' because their engineering-trained executives would not allow squandering company money on such 'soft' people when they could hire another engineer. Besides, they already had a graphic designer to make things pretty (if unusable). 'Designer' is perceived by the predominantly male population of both computer company management and engineering as a wimp word.” (2005, p28)"
Unfortunately this prejudiced attitude to designers, especially Graphic Designers, still continues. In a PhD-Design ListServ post Dr Terence Love recently provoked a backlash from 'soft' designers when he posted a discussion question "Are Visual Approaches to Design Outdated?" (2010). Love, from an engineering design background, is just one example of how this narrow functionalist perspective on how Visual Communication works is still perpetuated. As Tog says in his article seven years ago,
"Engineers also have trouble differentiating between graphic designers, who primarily limit themselves to the surface of the interface, and interaction people, who, like building architects, need to concern themselves with each and every aspect of a project, right down to core technology decisions.” (2003)
This argument is dealt elsewhere on this blog where I argue that we are more than the artifice, that we are designers of the 'aesthetics of use', so I won't continue this here, but will turn this back towards the phenomenological aspect.

If communication, meaning, interpretation and construction can only be understood through qualitative means then, I argue that a methodology of understanding this through adaptation of research methods taken from Phenomenology would help reposition Visual Communication's status. As sections of the HCI research community are also looking to a Phenomenological paradigm over the last decade to understand experience, especially aesthetic experience, this strengthens my research perspective.

* Sense, generally synonymous with meaning at a conceptual level [Bedeutung] (Derrida, 1981, p29)

References used:

BARNARD, M. (2005) Graphic Design as Communication. Abingdon: Routledge.

DERRIDA, J. (1981) Semiology and Grammatology: Interview With Julia Kristeva. In: J. DERRIDA. Positions. London: The Athlone Press, pp 15-36.

FRASCARA, J. (2004) Communication Design: Principles, Methods and Practice. New York: Allworth Press.

LOVE, T. (2010) Are Visual Approaches to Design Outdated? 8 April. PhD-Design [online]. [8 April 2010]. Available from:

TOGNAZZINI, B. (2003) It's Time We Got Respect [online]. [Accessed 2nd January 2009]. Available from:

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