How can someone utilise visual rhetoric, the techniques and/or strategies used to visually ‘wrap’ a specific target group, and then turn around to ‘unwrap’ your audience and how can you get your audience morally involved in your presentation?
The Question is on visual communication, and visual rhetoric in particular, are predominantly results-oriented, in other words, using the image to convince the viewer that he or she is required to do something or find something. It’s a compelling tone that is more than the unsuspecting viewer suspects because, although he or she is being engaged in an honest way, there is really no room for a reply. Furthermore, the sender is solely and purely in total control of this communiqué. Add to this the fact that the sender is often a wealthy and thus a well-positioned, commercial enterprise.
How can visual rhetoric be applied to engage the public in an active and moral way through the use of the appearance and content of a visual presentation? And by extension, how can design contribute to a self-confident and critical cultural climate?
Three theoreticians contemplated this issue in a short manifesto, upon the invitation of the Onomatopee Foundation (www.onomatopee.net). Three graphic designers were invited to give some form to this issue, so that the resulting text can serve as both a case study and a formal statement.
Art sociologist Rudi Laermans and graphic designer Karen van de Kraats went to work on this proposal, as well as design critic Max Bruinsma and graphic design studio Strange Attractors Design (Catelijne van Middelkoop and Ryan Pescatore Frisk) and finally, in a double role as both theoretician and designer, the design research bureau Metahaven (Daniel van der Velden, Gon Zifroni and Vinca Kruk).
Rudi Laermans wrote an incisive text, which basically states that design, despite wanting to be perceived as something thorough and critically eloquent, is not the sole domain of the image because texts are actually the essential conveyors of meaning. Laermans proposes that ‘Aestheticism is often just another word for not knowing, not being able to read an artefact and therefore devouring only its visual rhetoric viz. impact.’ And a bit further on: ‘Nowadays, the predominant forms of visual rhetoric, such as design and advertising, just want to mobilize a conscious attentiveness. They can not convince since they lack a surrounding discourse, a web of words in which they may resonate in such a way that they become persuasive.’ And ‘The primary message of every example of visual rhetoric is therefore an imperative: “look!”, followed by the next command “keep on looking!”.’
Today’s information society is absolutely screaming from every corner and hole for attention. It can be downright annoying having to be selective or having to ignore one of these loud screams for attention. At the end of his text, Laermans even has the gall to insist that even whoever has managed to make it through his text is actually guilty of visual consumerism, of bathing in the visual culture.
Karen van de Kraats has given the text an effective form by emphasising and accenting particular sections of the text. It’s interesting because in this way she places the text into the foreground as image. Slogans and pull quotes are emphasised and are placed apart on their own page. The publication itself can thus be approached from a number of angles. She has thus managed to successfully reach the postmodern and eclectic reader; the very type of reader that Rudi Laermans assumes we all are.
Max Bruinsma, in contrast to Rudi Laermans, has decided to emphasise aestheticism. The connotations of logos, especially those of large American multinationals, are for him the very raison d’être for the creation of his visual poetics, a poetry that finds a profound resonance in our western culture. The visual, typographical stature of logos such as those of IBM, LEGO, Google, et al., in its poetic connotation is liberated from the meanings of the word. When Bruinsma and the Strange Attractors replace IBM for the word GOD, set in the same typeface, Bruinsma believes the image suggests the phrase ‘The commander of life’.
Bruimsa gives the primacy of communication to the image. There is poetry to be found here, the representation of which escapes us. In this manner, Bruinsma and the Strange Attractors present us with visual evidence of god’s existence. For them, it’s not about denotation, the indisputable meaning of it, but more about connotation, the timbre. The god-like, that remains indescribable for us and suggests a certain imagination, is visual rhetoric, or rather visual poetry. Herewith Bruinsma presents not only visual evidence of god’s existence but a western-slanted proof of god’s existence. His burden of proof is simply cloaked in the clothes of a multinational. As we already know, these clothes are not always acceptable on every street.
The Strange Attractors have taken up Bruinsma’s argument by producing a pamphlet in the form of a poster with a visual side and a text side. On the visual side, we find the logos, along with some poetic captions. A nice detail is the inclusion of the names of the colours used, not in PMS language but names like Divine Red, Divine Green, etc. On the text side, we find a more detailed contextualisation of the pamphlet.
Meanwhile, Metahaven is not interested in text or image at all. Metahaven exist in a social and technological reality where the designer exists in an economic system in which he works during the day for someone else while in the evening he steps into a network where identity and visualisation are in a continuous state of flux. By increasing the frequency by which different cultures come into contact with one another, every standard handhold tends to lose its supremacy. The masses begin to appear to lead themselves as an entity of autonomous individuals. This results in a new visual language, one that is averse to conventions and social stature. Metahaven’s publication will premiere in Amsterdam in beginning of May. The other publications will also be presented again at this time.