Forms of Persuasion: The Visual Rhetoric of Design Artifacts

Leslie Atzmon

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Graphic design historian Michael Golec has written that design history addresses “materials, forms, and concepts” that are applicable to both graphic design and product design. Golec also observes that although there is significant overlap between the two disciplinary discourses, their historical and critical research remains separate.i In this essay, I discuss the common role visual rhetorical analysis can play in graphic and product design historical work.

Traditionally, rhetoric has been defined as “the art of using language so as to persuade or influence others.”ii New work in visual rhetoric, however, is enlarging the scope of what can be counted as persuasive. As Charles A. Hill explains, visual entities are often not “obviously and explicitly persuasive.”iii This description makes room for the idea that certain cultural artifacts, such as designed objects, that were not previously seen as persuasive, in fact, have a persuasive dimension. I also would like to suggest that an artifact might be persuasive on more than one level. When we consider persuasion, we tend to think of verbal messages that have a narrow, tactical persuasive objective — a speech that wants to convince us to vote for so-and-so, or an ad that tries to persuade us to buy a particular product. We tend to ignore or overlook a different level of persuasion that has to do, not with a calculated objective, but with a larger interpretive framework, a worldview, or a broader set of meta-values or meta-beliefs. Design artifacts are particularly effective at this other level of persuasion; they offer audiences communicative data that reflect, and also orchestrate, an array of cultural concerns. Scholars of both graphic and product design need to attend scrupulously to the form, creation, and uses of designed artifacts. It is here that we see how design artifacts are involved in the generation of cultural belief systems...

ISSUE 2 | April 2008 | 01/05 | Past Radical Propositions