Category Archives: English 350: Visible Rhetoric

All entries in this category are related to English 350: Visible Rhetoric, a class I took at Illinois State University in the Fall of 2008.

Coming down the home stretch …

Work on my portfolio proposal is going very slowly, so I’ve been concentrating on a related paper for another class. I decided to apply to present that paper at the New Directions Conference next year, so I worked up an abstract to submit. I’m really hoping that having that abstract in hand will provide a little inspiration for my other projects! The abstract is as follows:

The experience of pregnancy has changed in modern times, and one of the biggest changes is the advent of fetal ultrasound. Expectant parents look forward to the ultrasound as confirmation of a pregnancy and a chance to “meet” their child. The purpose of fetal ultrasound has undergone a massive shift; it was once used sparingly as a detector of fetal abnormality and now is most often considered a social event. Almost all modern women in the United States have at least one ultrasound scan over the course of carrying a baby – but therein lies a fundamental problem. This paper will examine the reasons women choose to have those scans, and it will further posit that popular and medical rhetoric does not adequately inform women about the potential effects of fetal ultrasound, and thus influences them to have the scans. I will analyze the situation via several different analytic approaches: the societal perception of fetal ultrasound, the messages of media targeting pregnant women, physicians’ rhetoric to pregnant patients, the patriarchal tendency to support the use of fetal ultrasound, women’s reasons for consenting to fetal ultrasound, and, finally, the ethical implications of the intersections in these areas. Those intersections may also be complicated more by the application of feminist and rhetorical theories. Although this paper is not yet complete, I expect to conclude with a number of ways in which the medical community could be more transparent and ethical in its presentation of fetal ultrasound to potential users.

This text is within at least three frames …

Framing is really all about creating context, and I enjoyed the parts in Graphic Design that pointed out how often we use those contexts every day without even realizing it. One piece of example work, in fact, was made up entirely of the frames we constantly use on computer screens (pg. 100). The text you’re reading here is framed – at least – by the computer screen, the window you have pulled up with your Internet brower, and the design of this web site.

A grid, as described in Thinking with Type, is basically a network of related frames. Any sort of grid divides a given space – which is likely a frame itself – into a network of smaller frames within which a designer will then work.

I also enjoyed thinking about the different ways gridding and framing can work. In TT, Lupton discussed how typography can be a frame. “Typography is a form designed to melt away as it yields itself to content” (115). This observation goes back to the most basic principle of design: Good design is invisible. The most effective frame is one that viewers don’t even notice. (Of course, this changes if the frame is actually the subject of a piece — but, in that case, the frame is performaing an additional function besides framing that supersedes framing.) If a non-designer viewer stops to notice a frame when attention should be directed inside the frame, that’s an error. (Have you ever noticed the frame on the Mona Lisa? Didn’t think so.) Framing, then, is the beginning of design. It has to occur first, and the rest of the piece will flow into and around it.

Choices I can’t choose

I’m really struggling with my final project for this class. (For anyone reading who’s not in the know, I’m writing a proposal for my master’s portfolio.) I’ve always suffered from a general lack of direction in terms of career. I never wanted to pick an undergraduate major, and I still stutter around quite a bit when people ask me what I’m going to do with my master’s degree. So, my main dilemma is that I don’t know how much to focus my portfolio. My two major interest areas are medical and visual rhetoric. The biggest paper in my portfolio will be on the visual rhetoric of ultrasound — a neat combination of the two. (Chapter 8 of Practices of Looking is tailor-made to be a source for that paper.)

Thus far, I’ve spent time thinking about the final format of the portfolio as well as what I want its ultimate purpose to be (aside from getting that master’s degree). I hope to use my portfolio — which will take shape as a web site — for the very practical purpose of getting a job I will love. I also want it to be something I can add to so that I can chronicle my academic work in the event that I start work toward a doctoral degree in the future. With the format and purpose decided upon, the content is making me draw a big blank. Right now, I’m thinking I’ll create sections within the portfolio — maybe something like “Visible Rhetoric,” “Medical Rhetoric,” “Journalism,” and “Other Professional Writing Projects.” I also think I’d like to include a section about my teaching experience, minimal though it is. Something like this might be ideal.

Suggestions, anyone?

Globalization and freedom

In my opinion, Chapter 9 in Practices of Looking encompassed way too much material. There’s so much to talk about, and just not enough time to do it in the space of a single chapter.

I’d first like to address the interaction of the terms the authors first introduce: globalization, convergence, and synergy. These concepts are often looked at with either unabashed zeal or fearful hesitance. Professionals in the media industry are particularly conflicted about this scenario. It means we can reach more consumers, but it will eliminate media jobs. This will decrease diversity, thus silencing some voices. Of course, the beauty of the Internet is that anyone can be a publisher — but the truth of the matter is that one must have some sort of brand identification in this day and age in order to command an audience. Mere access is no longer enough.

I was also intrigued by the discussion of First vs. Third world conceptions and uses of media. (And I found the original meaning of Third World particularly interesting — I never knew it meant anything beyond “impoverished.”) The idea of television being more powerful than a military force — which it certainly is — was frightening. I also never knew that an international convention had established airwaves as belonging to respective countries. I find this increasing rhetoric of ownership disturbing, although I can also see why it is necessary.

Finally, my pet topic for this chapter: pornography. Sturken and Cartwright devote just a few pages to the issue of pornography, but I think it is vitally interesting. For all intents and purposes, pornography represents the most visible Internet-based battlefield out there. Feminist critics like the late Andrea Dworkin assert that pornography subjugates women, period, and that we must therefor wage war on pornography — and free access to the Internet, by extension. Other feminists argue just the opposite — that pornography is integral to women’s liberation. I take my direction on the Internet censorship argument from a couple of landmark Supreme Court cases dealing with the dissemination of pornography (and those decisions are largely based on the First Amendment). Basically, we cannot censor material intended for the eyes of consenting adults. (Children add a new facet to the debate, but one case establishes parenting as the appropriate venue for censorship of Internet porn to children.) I think forthcoming court rulings on online pornography will likely illuminate the path all Internet content will eventually have to follow. This will have a profound affect on all the globalization and convergence currently occurring.

A Return to Basics

The thing I most like about graphic design – besides the fact that it’s just cool – is that it’s really all about mastery of the basics.

Lupton and Phillips seem to note this even with the title of their text: “Graphic Design: The New Basics.” The sections on hierarchy, layers, transparency, modularity, grids and patterns confirm this. I have dealt extensively with all these elements in my short career – and I am by no means an expert designer. Yet my boss, a designer with 40+ years experience, bases his work on the same principles. (The one that most comes to mind is the grid. He uses a grid format, with story packages in modules, every day – but he can do things within that grid I can’t – and, yet, the finished product is always immediately identifiable as our particular newspaper. So, I can really see how the grid can “encourage the designer to vary the scale and placement of elements without relying wholly on arbitrary or whimsical judgments” (175).)

While all the principles mentioned above are important, hierarchy stands out to me as the most important. Hierarchy goes far beyond the aesthetic, and often the consumer of a designer’s material may not realize the designer has chosen what the reader’s eye will see and when. Thus, hierarchy imbues design work with a serious sense of responsibility. (That’s not to say those other elements don’t; it’s just that they all are subservient to where they are placed in the hierarchy of a piece.)

Take, for example, rollover ads. Blogger Stephen Baker notes in this entry that such ads can be pretty unethical. He’s right; these are the ads that expand into the space where you just clicked, and suddenly you’re heading to a site you never wanted to see and downloading cookies you never wanted contact with. This morning, I visited the Peoria Journal Star’s Web site and was confronted with one of these rollover ads. (It’s already been removed or I’d post a link. The paper’s site is While I understand that the rollover ad might be effective, the Web page designer at least has a responsibility to not let such an ad take up residence right on the front page, at the top, where most people will certainly be clicking on the headlines listed in the space the ad will expand into. (In this particular case, the designer’s ethical duty may include working with an ad representative or even the advertising client to find an alternative solution.)

Client-based work

Ah, it’s been a while since I’ve worked for a real client.

Our projects this week had an entirely new spin than anything else we had so far done. Knowing that an actual potential client would evaluate our work and perhaps choose to expose it to thousands of people provides a little more incentive to create a clear, compelling message. The greatest challenge in such a situation is often to produce a piece of communication that is both compelling and also agreeable to the client.

There have been times in the past when I have run into situations where what was clearly a better choice ran counter to something a client wanted. It is at this point that visual rhetoricians have to decide who they’re actually serving: Are they interested in getting paid, or doing it right? When does doing it right really matter — is it moral, or just about pride? And how do you strike a balance?

In one case, I convinced a client (a humane society) to use more pictures of animals. The society wanted to project a very professional look and so didn’t want to include photos of animals — but this was central to their mission. We compromised and came up with a document that was both cuddly and sophisticated.

In another case, working on a brochure for an engineering firm, I received explicit instructions on what to include in the document. In this case, the audience was specialized and I, as a layperson, could do little more than take direction and employ my design skills to best effect.

My point, I suppose, is that it’s vital to communicate with clients. You may be able to create a better product if you can loosen their limitations. Or, they might teach you a thing or two. In rare cases, it might turn out that the client’s prescriptions are unpalatable enough that the partnership can’t work out — echoing Rock’s worries. His essay, although pretty abstract and vaguely reminiscent of something out of a superhero movie (“Peter, with great power comes great responsibility”) does strike a chord. In order to work in the field of visible rhetoric, one will also have to be able to work with people.

Information Communications Professional Technical Document Design

This week’s design readings were informative for me in a number of ways. They made me feel a little schizophrenic – as talk of design often does – because I wanted to engage them in about six different ways at once. (As Schriver notes, design is in everything from the newspaper to the height of your high heels.) While the principles of design are constant (as is the knowledge that sometimes breaking with principles is the best course), they can be applied in very different ways depending on context.

I was most struck in Schriver’s piece by the acknowledgment and foregrounding of the fact that design does not happen as the last step in a document (at least, not in an effective one). We recently developed a set of templates at the newspaper where I work. Although these templates were intended to be for use during elections (they provide visual rhetorical strategies for comparison using all the CRAP principles), they could be applied to a lot of other things with the aid of a competent designer — and reporter. These templates are examples of design coming before textual content is even a thought. I might send a reporter out to get me a photo of each of several candidates and the answers to certain questions in order to complete the document I have designed to flow with that particular content. (See the example below — the reporter had to know and understand this design before beginning work on textual elements.)

Context was also a major facet of Markel’s analysis, particularly in the final section that focused on critique. For example, one image was from a company magazine and a question accompanying it asked if there was a enough white space. For a magazine, the answer was no. For a newspaper, the white space allotment was acceptable. That point, for me, is the most important. All the CRAP principles, accessing tools, resource limitations and audience engagemtn techniques aside, a good designer always, always has to be aware of context.

That said, I think context is also the answer to Schriver’s naming quandary. What I call “document design,” whenever I do it, depends on who I’m doing it for. When I volunteered to design a magazine for a fifth-grade class, I called it “magazine design.” When I work at the newspaper, it’s “page layout.” When I’m working on a project for school, I tell people I’m doing “technical communication.” And when I’m talking to a fellow technical communicator, I generally say “professional communication” — because, to me, that seems to be the most apt term for what I do.

But then again, I am my own context. It’ll be different for everyone.