Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Communicational Situation

This post is part of a draft for a new academic paper aimed at a graphic design journal and represents an idea-in-progress. Feel free to comment but questions on how or what next will be answered in future posts as I construct my paper.

With its pervasiveness, graphic outcomes of Visual Communication vie for our attention embedded in our Westernised waking world. From shop shelves, to our streets, to our screens and even our mobile devices we are surrounded by combinations of text and image that manipulate our decision making within a communicational situation. But despite this pervasiveness the impact of Visual Communication’s outcomes are under-valued and perceived as problematic. Some reasons for this are that graphic outcomes are judged as being too subjective, giving “the illusion of [false] benefits (…) to help us 'make sense' of complex situations” (Love, 11 April 2010); or they simply are taken for granted as ‘noise’ (Meggs, 1992) within a visual channel of communication that is so deeply ingrained in our socio-cultural existence (Crowley, 2004, p182). These misconceptions leaves out so much of the intellectual design process and the emotional and social contexts (Kolko, 2010, p102) that Visual Communication draws from. Visual Communication is beyond mere decoration of doing the 'aesthetic bit’ - the artifice at the end of a long engineering, marketing or construction process.

Therefore the interaction within the internal life of the graphic outcome that a designer carefully crafts between its visual communicational hierarchy of type and image is not where its purpose lies. This would be artifice. The communicational situation created by the interaction of the graphic outcome’s denotational and connotational meaning, rests in the act of public interaction with it. As Frascara suggests the impact that a graphic outcome has on “the knowledge, the attitudes, and the behaviour” of the public interacting with it (p13) is more important. This is the external life of the graphic outcome, and is where its ‘aesthetics of use’ rests that go beyond the issues of simply form.

This external life of a graphic outcome exists within an existential aesthetic experience across the visual, a time and a place; and develops a truly interactive rather than passive relationship between the audience and the outcome. This existential reception in time and place is of course manipulated by the designer through the internal variables of the design, but only partly. From a ‘perspective of proximity’ (Bergstrom, 2008, p32) the designer balances the semiological relationship of these internal variables - how the text and images are laid out; the choice and use of typography; the art direction of tone, colour, composition, and flow. The communicational aspect of the graphic outcome is constructed by the designer either connotationally or denotationally but not ‘set’ by the designer. The meaning of the intended communication can either be on a deep level or a surface level. This is dependent upon the initial purpose of the design, but in principal there is a relationship between the viewer and the design. This ‘reading’ of the graphic outcome may only be truly revealed over time, and open to reception on an individual basis. Depending upon the individual they may not experience the full meaning as it can be completely dependent upon the context it is received in by the viewer, pervaded by their personal “attitudes, values and experiences” (Bergstrom, 2008, p80). This is an affective phenomenon where the designer attempts to frame the message to be interpreted, reliant on a direct relationship with the person interpreting it. It is emotional, cognitive, interpretive, and cannot be reduced to a procedural process of measurement. It is an aesthetic experience that goes beyond the surface into use… and phenomenologically interpretive.

Under-pinning such a hermeneutic (interpretive) phenomenological perspective is essentially an existential philosophical ground espoused by Martin Heidegger. Simplifying some heavy philosophy I may be forgiven for summing this up as the being of being. That opens things up into a consideration of the self in the lifeworld which can be separated into four existentials: lived space; lived body; lived time; and lived human relation (Van Manen, 1990, p101). These four existentials of lived space; lived body; lived time; and lived human relation can be differentiated from each other. But they can never be separated from each other. Our sense of self - our being of being - is constituent of all for parts. We exist bodily in time, in space, and not in isolation - we have experiences in interconnected situated moments. It is these existentials that inform our behaviour and can be calibrated to alter our future approaches to experiences. It is within this phenomenological space that the visual graphic outcomes of Visual Communication communicate to the public across time and place.

The cultural identity of the individual is influential to construct and interpret the graphic outcomes meaning. Barnard argues that this is a semiological communication, an aesthetic choice that is culturally connected and carries meaning (p28) through evoking a cognitive and emotional response. This is socially situated, and within this socio-cultural context understanding through interpretation (relevant to their personal context) shapes actions affording a change in the behaviour of the viewer. The ‘aesthetics of surface’ attracts and retains attention, but it is within the ‘aesthetics of use’ that the communication is made. This is mostly performed subconsciously on the periphery of everyday life, hence being perceptively ingrained in visually cultured societies. McCullough argues that both Architecture and Interaction Design address how context shapes actions, the former frames intentions whilst the latter connects mental states “to available opportunities for participation.” He describes these processes as ambient with peripheral benefits that are not found “in the seductive objects of attention” (2005, p47). Visual Communication also frames intentions and creates opportunities for participation. It’s ground is in framing decisions (which is more than creating mere ‘aesthetics of surface’), a visual constructor for how a “society constructs and communicates meaning” for itself - a “signifying system, within a much larger system” (Barnard, 2005, p67).

Visual Communication as a visual constructor for ‘aesthetics of use’ 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). This is crucial to aid the construction of meaning that will then elicit embodied action and change in behaviour that the graphic outcome seeks. The aesthetic factor within the outcome attracts and retains the attention to communicate possible actions, enabling understanding in the individual. But understanding can merely be accepting without further engagement (Shusterman, 1992), it is through interpretation that behavioural changes are facilitated. Understanding the communication is an active process that can be personally revised, influenced by an individuals own existing knowledge and therefore prejudiced in a way that unless open challenge can lead to misunderstanding. Understanding helps ground and guide interpretation, and it is through interpretation that an individual can explore, validate and modify their understanding. Interpretation acknowledges that there may be other interpretations or meanings, whereas understanding merely accepts without engaging further. Shusterman suggests that understanding on a highly intelligent level is “unreflective, unthinking, indeed unconscious” whilst proper interpretation is deliberate, critical and conscious thought (p133).


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

BERGSTRÖM, B. (2008). Essentials of Visual Communication. London: Laurence King Publishing.

CROWLEY, D. (2004). Design Magazines and Design Culture. In: R. Poynor, (Ed.), Communicate: Independent British Graphic Design since the Sixties. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd., pp182-199.

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

KOLKO, J. (2010). Thoughts on Interaction Design. Burlington: Morgan Kaufmann.

LOVE, T. (2010) Are Visual Approaches to Design Outdated? 8 April. PhD-Design [online]. [8 April 2010]. Available from: https://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/cgi-bin/webadmin?A1=ind1004&L=PHD-DESIGN#11

McCULLOUGH, M. (2005). Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing. Cambridge: MIT Press.

MEGGS, P.B. (1992) Type and Image: The Language of Graphic Design. J. Wiley and Sons, Inc.

SHUSTERMAN, R. (1992). Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art (2nd ed). Blackwell.

Van MANEN, M. (1990) Researching Lived Experience: Human Science for an Action Sensitive Pedagogy. Ontario: The Althouse Press.

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