Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Visual Communication and Exprience

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.

The mere understanding of a Visual Communication graphic outcome in itself does not induce action. It is through the active interpretation of the outcome that shapes perceptual selectivity within the viewer (McCullough, 2005, p34). Through this cognitive processing, behavioural change is enacted through the viewer taking from the outcome a personal interpretation of varying strengths, dependent upon their own intellectual and socio-cultural ability. This intellectual appropriation of an action, suggested through the communicational situation created by the graphic outcome’s internal structure, happens within the communicational situation as a consummation of that very experience. When defining such an experience it is an essentially an autotelic experience that is being discussed. Psychologist Csikszentimihalyi (1990) frames two forms of experience - autotelic and exotelic (p67). These terms are derived from the Greek: telos meaning goal, auto meaning self and exo meaning outside. Csikszentimihalyi defines an autotelic experience as a self-contained experience where the reward is intrinsic to the experience itself, whilst exotelic is an experience where activities are performed for external reasons to the self. Experiences are a combination of both an internal and external elements, but it is within an autotelic experience that the optimal element is an end in itself that is intrinsically rewarding. Most experiences we have in our conscious day can be described as anaesthetic. For Dewey (1980) the description of an anaesthetic experience is one that does not begin or cease at any particular place, it is slack and discursive with no initiations or conclusions, where connections between incidental components within the experiences are unconcerning (p41). These everyday experiences are as Csikszentimihalyi names exotelic. They are external to our own existential self-determined purpose, and feature events we mechanically do as a norm of our existence.

Alternatively, an autotelic experience is an experience that in itself is self-purposeful which is analogous to a pragmatist philosophical aesthetic experience. From a pragmatist perspective an aesthetic experience is shaped not only through visuals, touch, smell, and hearing, but also from the past experiences of the individual experiencing it. But past experiences can at times be contradictory, ambiguous or complex. An aesthetic experience emerges from a lived experience, where the self can be lost in the moment but can return, feeling nourished and contented, the “irreducible totality of people acting, sensing, thinking, feeling, and making meaning in a setting, including the perception and sensation of their own actions” (McCarthy and Wright, 2004, p85). Dourish suggests from a pragmatist perspective that the world is “already filled with meaning. Its meaning is to be found in the way in which it reveals itself to us as being available for our actions” (2004, p116). The sharpness in contrast between a self-purposeful experience and everyday exotelic is immediately noticeable, even if consciously at the time it is not realised. In this sharp contrast it is impossible to combine the special qualities of the experience within the usual exotelic structure, so that the special qualities are given a status outside the everyday (p42).

So far this appears to be an intellectual process, but it is also an emotional, practical and mechanical process that together constitute integral components within experience. The complexity of these various components are interlinked and not ordered in succession during an interaction with events, people, objects and ideas. They do not assume ascendency over each other, but through the linkage move toward a culmination rather than a cessation. What is crucial here is that the culmination is not dependent upon the mechanistic component of the experience to finish, as the consummation is not wholly a conscious state. Within an aesthetic experience Dewey states that the experience is “anticipated throughout and is recurrently savored with special intensity” (p57). This type of experience is separated from the everyday anaesthetic experiences, and it is framed within this form of experiencing that a communicational situation is created by Visual Communication. As Frascara explains the act of communication is not the designer’s objective but designing the impact of that communication is (p13). The interaction between meaning and the viewer is paramount, and the interaction between visual elements within the graphic outcomes aids the reception, leading to the necessary change in behaviour. This interaction becomes a self-experience within the viewer once they take notice of the graphic outcome. How they engage making it a self-experience can be framed within a phenomenological flow proposed by Csikszentimihalyi. Dourish is aware that a phenomenological perspective framed using pragmatist aesthetics is only one perspective amongst others that has embodiment as a central focus. But he argues that phenomenology looks at “the pretheoretical, prerational world of everyday experience” (p106) making phenomenology a relevant starting point to account for the relationality between meaning and action.


CSIKSZENTIMIHALYI, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper
DOURISH, P. (2004). Where the Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. Cambridge: MIT Press.
FRASCARA, J. (2004) Communication Design: Principles, Methods and Practice. New York: Allworth Press.
McCULLOUGH, M. (2005). Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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