Saturday, 27 November 2010

The Visual Communication Perspective

Visual Communication is a design discipline focused upon communication through the manipulation of the relationship between text | image. Within this discipline the two main design outcomes are graphic design and illustration. The discipline’s name places the emphasis upon the method (design), the objective (communication) and the medium (visual), rather than just the creation of graphic forms (outcomes). (Frascara, 2004, p4). Graphic design certainly is a commercial activity with a connection to marketing and advertising, but it performs beyond mere subservience to business models. It shapes much of the visual culture of the modern world (Crowley, 2004), but as a discipline Visual Communication is misunderstood by other disciplines. Other disciplines interchangeably use any of the following terms when referring to Visual Communication: Visual Design, Communication Design, Interface Design, Web Design, and Graphic Design (see Table 1).

Although designers traditionally have focused upon practice, there is a theoretical basis to their work that maximises the transmission of the central message within their design solutions. The sender of the message operates from a perspective of intention; the messenger (the designer) operates from a perspective of proximity; and the receiver reacts interpretively from a perspective of reception using their feelings and perception (Bergström, 2008, pp32-33). The materials to achieve this go beyond the printed page, and include typography, colour, form, texture, line, weight, composition to create discourse and emotional engagement with the communication. The shaping and selecting of the most apt visual combination of elements is important in order to transmit an intended message. The semiotic process of the visual signifier leading to a signified communication to an audience is usually within a specific socio-cultural context, and is intended to rhetorically elicit some form of behavioural change in the audience. The designer’s skill and ability to do this effectively is more complex than it first appears, and less self-serving and subjective the more it is understood. It is true, to a degree, that to some designers their work is implicit and creatively intuitive and devoid of theoretical rules; but the discipline is deeper than this.

Barnard uses the phrase “communication is a cultural phenomenon, not an engineering problem” (2005, p28) with which he means that this construction can only be investigated semiotically and through qualitative methods. Jorge Frascara (2004) attempts to reposition the understanding of Visual Communication as a proactive facilitator of behavioural change. The core of their arguments rests in the relationship between text | image to incite a change of behaviour in the viewer, using the rhetorical and semiotic structure underlying this relationship. Frascara says, “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.” (2005, p28). Through this framework for identifying behaviour, experience is evoked by tangible and experiential engagement with an artefact or in a situation, whether physical or digital. Interaction designer Jon Kolko sees this contextual framework as a methodology to connect ‘people, technology, and the emotional qualities of sensory data’ (p41) together to discover the effectiveness, scalability, usability and engagement of the solution. His use of the term ‘sensory data’ suggests that that data is mediated in some way. If data is to be classed as sensory with emotional qualities, then an aesthetic is emerging. This is phenomenological and Visual Communication has historical precedence in balancing the ‘tension between structure and freedom’ (Helfand, 2001, p61).

Some of the early Modernist progenitors that influenced the discipline’s development, Rodchenko, Lissitzky and Moholy-Nagy, moved ‘freely across the boundaries’ (MacDonald, 2004a) that defined its development into a less commercial and more experimental, rhetorical direction. From the manifestos of Contructivism, Futurism, de Stilj through to the minimalism of Bauhaus (Lupton & Miller, 2009, p62) and the International Style; the semiotic experimentation of visual language has led to the position where the viewer is equally involved in the processing of the visually communicated message. Typographer Jan Tschichold strove for a clear and ambiguous form of emotional clarity in communication. In his essay on New Typography he for urges that “a fresh and original intellectual approach is needed, avoiding all standard solutions” to achieve communication. Visual Communication’s visual language has developed “a ‘grammar’ of contrasts (instability/balance, asymmetry/symmetry, soft/hard, heavy/light)” (Lupton and Miller, 1999, p64). Within this tension comes a benefit of ‘structured clarity’ with a capacity of inventive expression, a liberation of a ‘subjective point of view as an enhanced expression of fact - not at the expense of it’ (Helfand, 2001, p62).
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 as an influence upon Interaction Design. From the literature on Visual Communication the word phenomena is widely used to describe the discipline’s internal and external characteristics. Heller (2001) refers to ‘design phenomena’; Margolin (1996), Williams (2007), Huck (1997) and Barry (1997) all use the term ‘phenomena’ in different philosophical and sociological contexts when explaining aspects of Visual Communication; and Margolin, Hill (2004), and Smith (2005) take their theses deeper into phenomenology. But all stop short from using phenomenological methodologies to explore their individual perspectives. Kenney (2009) in his book on Visual Communication Research Designs, he features examples of Ethnography, Discourse Analysis and Content Analysis as qualitative research methodologies. But nothing on phenomenological methodologies despite the literature using the term ‘phenomena’ quite freely.

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