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.

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.

Photoshop Magic

I am still incredibly excited about the module we’re currently working on, because I’ve always wanted a good excuse to learn a bit about Photoshop. People always say Photoshop is the most powerful tool out there of its kind. Even my PC-bound newsroom has a copy of Photoshop that’s compatible with Windows. I now know a little bit about Photoshop — but that little big is enough to make some impressive-looking stuff.

For example, political cartoons would be a breeze with Photoshop. The ability to cut figures out of a photograph also lends itself to newspaper work. And there are countless other ways I can use these newfound techniques to create photo illustrations suitable for newspapers or magazines.

A problem enters, though, when we get into the realm of ethical visible rhetoric. In the newspaper world, there is a fine line between photo illustrations and photos that are represented as “fact” (although, given some previous class discussions, that’s a farce). It is considered highly unethical to flip a photo, for example. The only real manipulating that’s considered acceptable is lightening or darkening an image — and even that may be criticized, as in the O.J. Simpson case. The real problem lies in the fact that the manipulating of an image will always matter to someone. Even in the case where the artist thinks the result is artistic and nothing more, someone might misinterpret the message.

Grayscale image with color hot-air balloonMy solution to the problem lies in making clear the difference between a “true” photo and a photo that has been manipulated. The designation “photo illustration” is intended to demonstrate this, and, often, photos that are manipulated to represent a certain viewpoint are clearly not “true” photos (meaning a reasonable viewer can discern this.) I would be interested in hearing what others have to say about this, especially others who do not work in the media industry. In the meantime, all I can do is my best to clearly represent truth, even when working with manipulated images.

Postmodernism, politics, and polysemy

Although I’ve studied postmodernism before, at least in passing, I had somehow forgotten about the fascinating concept of simulcra. Sturken and Cartwright define simulcra as “hyperreal identities with no recourse back to a real person, their composite media image being more real than real.” Perhaps, without a Lacanian background, I just read over this part before. But in terms of the real, mass media, and public personalities, this is a pretty earth-shattering concept.

My first instinct was to go back to the dawn of modern mass media — that is, TV. The first simulcra was perhaps based on John F. Kennedy. The 1960 presidential debate may show one layer of identity, as viewers felt that JFK was suave and handsome while Nixon was … well … not. Many, many layers of identity later, JFK is a national icon whose memory is undoubtedly more real (in the Lacanian sense) than the man himself was. Probably every national public figure since JFK has been the inspiration of these layers of “hyperreal identity.”

I think this phenomenon is inextricably linked to another facet of postmodernism: the fact that culture encompasses everything. The difference between highbrow and lowbrow culture is strained under the postmodern gaze. Take a look at the video link posted above. Does that debate look more like a presidential debate of today, or more like a couple kids running for president of the senior class? Our definitions of what is highbrow and what is lowbrow have changed considerably since that era. Those definitions were even in flux at the time, with both presidential candidates trying to appear simultaneously approachable (lowbrow?) and intelligent (highbrow?). It had already been years, at this time, since the innovative (some might say crazy) postmodern explorations of artists — and cultural trendsetters — like Jackson Pollock and Yves Klein.

The motivation of these artists also has a peculiar link to politics — “emphasis was on the action and expressive movement use to produce the work, rather than the system used to create the piece or the resulting composition’s appearance.” If we take appearance is a synonym for the real, this statement relates directly to politics — not only 1960s politics, but also the politics of today. Emphasis is on who can deliver the best sound bite, who can be the most mainstream on the right issues, who cleans up nice or the camera — all forms of movement and action. It’s rare to see someone focus on the “system of creation” of modern politicians. Instead, they distract us by saying they can’t be defined by a party platform. It’s even rarer to see anyone pinned down to the real. Instead, politicians adjust to each particular situation, resulting in an identity that is mediated by only a particular audience — an identity that may have no “recourse back to a real person.”

Is it any wonder our political system is in its current situation? Trying to make sense of the whole situation is like trying to understand the meaning behind “Number 1, 1948.” Even given appropriate clues, the polysemy of each of these products makes the task damn near impossible.

Pregnancy and public ownership

I almost forgot to blog this week, because I’ve spent hours on my latest project. (I might have gotten a little over-excited … )

I had debated doing something about the globalization of media, with my argument being something along the lines of “Local media are important.” Then, during class, someone said something that tripped an idea. I have recently studied images of pregnancy in an independent study on medical rhetoric, and one thing that struck me was how often pregnant women are bossed around, ignored, made to feel stupid, and generally abused. While talking to pregnant friends and seeking out other narratives, I found a recurring feeling that a woman’s pregnant body is not her own. I set out to combine these two ideas, and ended up with a research question about how the globalization of media has caused this public ownership of the pregnant body.

Britney Spears on cover of Harper's BazaarOne thing that really struck me as I went to work on this project was the truth about how much pregnant women are ignored. People generally think that pregnant women get a lot of attention, but that’s really not true; it’s their bellies, their fetus, that get all the attention. Very little effort is expended in determining the feelings and status of the woman. Sure enough, when you do a Google image search for “pregnant,” most of the photos that come up show engorged breasts and swollen bellies. Very few even show, much less focus on, a woman’s full body or face. In fact, the few instances in which a woman’s face was shown generally fell into two categories: 1) the pregnant woman in question was famous and her face was a selling point (like the Harper’s cover with Britney Spears shown above) or 2) showing the face was a necessary part of placing a pregnant woman in context. In my research, I found only one exception. It was an artist’s rendering, so I was not terribly surprised that it deviated from the dominant viewpoint.

Having completed this module, I am still left with a question. Is it possible for pregnant women to take back their agency without seriously endangering themselves or their babies?

I don’t know the answer to that – and I don’t know any women willing to risk it.