Friday, 17 September 2010

The Interpretive Role

Frascara’s (2004) reframing of graphic design as an outcome of Visual Communication releases Visual Communication to demonstrate itself as deeper and richer than just the unfairly perceived design of an ‘artifice’. Within its internalized design processes beats a semiological heart, where contextually the relational configuration of image and text is reliant on a direct relationship with the person interpreting it.

This relationship is situated within the internal and external life of the graphic design - within “itself, the medium, the place and the time” (Bergstrom, 2008, p82). Frascara suggests that this is the design not of a product, object or visual, but the design of a “communicational situation” within which the design impacts on the knowledge, attitudes and behaviour of the ‘receiver/user/viewer’.

Therefore there is an interactive element to graphic design, between message and ‘receiver/user/viewer’, through the use of the design over duration of time (p13). Bergstrom uses the terms internal and external to explain this. The semiological relationship of how the text and images are laid out in the design; the choice and use of typography; and the art direction of tone, colour, composition, flow and balance, are all the internal variables of Visual Communication that a designer manipulates.

There is a misconception that within a design the meaning is set by the designer, in fact what this refers to is a denotational meaning. An image or phrase in one social context may mean one thing to a ‘receiver/user/viewer’, and in another context something else. But the connotational message the target ‘receiver/user/viewer’ interprets leads only to construct the intended meaning. This visual perception is “pervaded by our attitudes, values and experiences” (Bergstrom, 2008, p80), and affect the process of interpreting the message.

It is within this crucial area that the rhetorical nature of the visual communication engages the ‘receiver/user/viewer’ proactively in understanding the designed message, relevant to their cultural context, to aid successful reception. Bergstrom refers to the designer operating from a ‘perspective of proximity’ to decide upon the internal variables of a design and how they will perform once externalised in space and time.

From a ‘perspective of reception’ the ‘receiver/user/viewer’ visually perceives a connotational meaning through their own cognitive and emotional interpretation based upon their own previous experiences. Through this external involvement of the ‘receiver/user/viewer’ in the reception, interpreting and comprehension of the message, behavioural change can be induced leading to an embodied action.

Barnard (2005) presents the discipline of Visual Communication as a “signifying system, within a much larger system” as a visual constructor for how a “society constructs and communicates meaning” for itself (2005, p67). The visual organisation of the design itself must aesthetically be appropriate and congruent to “establish clear relations of importance, inclusion, connection, and dependence”, and then to “guide the sequence in the perception of a message” (Frascara, 2004, pp67-68). Aesthetics attracts and retains attention to communicate possible actions to facilitate interaction.

It is certainly a Visual Communication aim to seek interpretation of a connotational meaning by a ‘receiver/user/viewer’, rather than their passive acceptance of understanding the surface denotational message. This is crucial to aid the construction of meaning that will then elicit the embodied action and change in behaviour that the design seeks. Understanding itself, Shusterman (1992) insists, should be understood as “corrigible, perspectival, pluralistic, prejudiced, and engaged in active process”, and that understanding “initially grounds and guides interpretation, while the latter explores, validates, or modifies that initial ground of meaning”.

He further insists that even understanding on a highly intelligent level is “unreflective, unthinking, indeed unconscious” whilst proper interpretation is deliberate, critical and conscious thought characteristically involving a “problem-situation”. Interpretation acknowledges that there may be other interpretations or meanings, whereas understanding merely accepts without engaging further (p133). Understanding is acceptance, but interpretation leads to behavioural change.

Csikszentimihalyi (1990) in discussing his FLOW thesis provides a valuable insight into how the processes within a 'communicational situation' consciously/subconsciously happens; where the outcome of the ‘perspective of proximity’ and the ‘perspective of reception’ operate to change behaviour. He says,
"consciousness is phenomenological in that it deals directly with events – phenomena – as we experience and interpret them, rather than focusing on the anatomical structures, neurochemical processes, or unconscious purposes that make these events possible." (p26)
[cont. soon]

References used:

BARNARD, M. (2005) Graphic Design as Communication. Abingdon: Routledge.
BERGSTRÖM, B. (2008). Essentials of Visual Communication. London: Laurence King Publishing.
CSIKSZENTIMIHALYI, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper.
FRASCARA, J. (2004) Communication Design: Principles, Methods and Practice. New York: Allworth Press.
SHUSTERMAN, R. (1992). Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art (2nd ed). Blackwell.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Heidegger vs Husserl: Phenomenological choices

In the course of my research towards developing a framework for a Visual Communication Phenomenological Methodology, I have now followed literature back to Nursing sources. Several recommended papers have been useful, and in turn they have also pointed to other possibly useful nursing sources.

Lopez and Willis (2004) help to clarify the different philosophical underpinnings to a Phenomenological study, and the importance of positioning the study clearly within one of the two philosophical schools of Phenomenology.

I'm basing my study on Moustakas' (1994) guidelines, but those are merely generic and non-partisan. As Lopez and Willis state "implementing a method without an examination of its philosophical basis can result in research that is ambiguous in its purpose, structure, and findings" (p726). So I will need to position my research methodology firmly within either the eidetic or hermeneutic schools.

Eidetic Phenomenology is descriptive of the phenomena, and is Husserlian in its philosophical roots. Hermeneutic Phenomenology is interpretive and owes its philosophical roots to Heidegger, a student of Husserl. Where the importance of choosing the philosophical school for a study resides is in how its findings are generated and used. Both schools deal with this differently. Hence the importance of not being generic in the design of the methodology, but philosophically specific.

In Eidetic (Husserlian) research it is important for the researcher to absolutely 'bracket out' prior personal knowledge and biases, to achieve "transcendental subjectivity". This results in the researcher holding in "abeyance ideas, preconceptions, and personal knowledge when listening to and reflecting on the lived experiences of participants" (p728). From these lived experiences features or essences that are common under Phenomenological scrutiny emerge that represent the phenomena's true identity. This is so so that a generalised description can be made, through a foundationalist approach, with a belief (reflecting scientific values) that these essences "can be extracted from lived experiences without a consideration for context" (p728).

In the Hermeneutic philosophical school (or even movement) its application has predominantly been in Theology, and its purpose is to go beyond mere descriptions of core concepts, or essences, "to look for meanings embedded in common life practices" (p728) to bring out what is normally hidden in human experience. Its focus therefore is on what humans experience rather than know within what Heidegger terms being-in-the-world. This situates the experience within a context of a life-world, which all sounds comfortably similar to what Dourish (2004) and Suchman (1987) discuss in part of their respective theses.

As Lopez and Willis discuss "Heidegger asserted that humans are embedded in their world to such an extent that subjective experiences are inextricably linked with social, cultural, and political contexts" (p729). In Hermeneutic Phenomenology its foundational aspect is on the "interpretation of the narratives provided by participants in relation to various contexts" (p729), meaning that unlike Eidetics, the context remains crucial to understanding through interpretation. A fundamental divergence in approaches between the two schools lies in the act of 'bracketing'. In Hermeneutic Phenomenology making any preconceptions on the part of the researcher explicit and explaining their use within the research has a long tradition. Absolute 'bracketing out' that prior knowledge is inconsistent with an interpretive approach. This is a crucial difference I need to build into MY methodology.

Finally Lopez and Willis summarise that an interpretative approach is "useful in examining contextual features of experiences that might have direct relevance to practice. Moreover, a critical hermeneutic framework can enable the researcher to bring to light hidden features of an experience that would be overlooked in a purely descriptive approach" (p734). They urge for careful consideration of which school to choose to inform the analysis. Naturally I feel my framework approach to the methodology is more interpretative, and that will be more useful within design (more on this in a future post).

References used:

DOURISH, P. (2004). Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. Cambridge: MIT Press.
LOPEZ, K.A., and WILLIS, D.G. (2004) Descriptive Versus Interpretive Phenomenology: Their Contributions To Nursing Knowledge. Qualitative Health Research, 14(5), pp726-735.
SUCHMAN, L. (1987). Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-Machine Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.