By Mark Lavish
Though most of us communicate with images and words on a daily basis (hello, memes and GIFs!), we still tend to associate professional writing with the linguistic mode. Having to take a visual design class as a writing major can therefore come as a surprise. You might ask, “If I am interested in writing, why should I learn about visual design?” The answer is rhetoric.
Rhetoric, or how we “persuade a given audience, for a given purpose” (J. Nugent) is something most students learn about in their first college writing course. The most important lesson of rhetoric is asking the right questions about “for whom/why/where/what” to craft messages that work for the target audience and context. This is true whether the message is a flier, instruction manual, newsletter, or a traditional college essay. Since professional writing is all about making information work for users, the connection to rhetoric is evident.
“Ok, but I’m a writer, not a designer. Why do I have to take a design class as a writing major?”
The answer is twofold. First, all professional writing documents include design elements. Effective design elements make your writing more usable – think images to explain and illustrate, headings to provide access points and create hierarchy, white space to separate and indicate clusters of information, etc. Second, understanding the basics of design makes you a better writer. Why? Because it prompts you to think about the document as a whole and how readers will interact with it. Designers, just like writers, shape information to make it work for the audience. In other words, to create something that prompts action, designers just like writers must consider the audience’s needs, which requires a keen attention to the linguistic and visual elements of a document. Really, as a writer, you are a designer.
“How do I use visual design? Isn’t it just making something look good?”
Let’s see how you can use these concepts in your own designs. Word-based documents usually follow syntactic rules: you organize words into clauses, sentences, and paragraphs to get your message across. Plus, you wouldn’t want to publish writing that is full of comma splices, incorrect capitalizations, or inconsistent points of view. Think of syntax as a way to structure and make your message understandable to your audience. Visual design pretty much does the same thing. It relies on principles such as: making sure there is a clear focal point for the audience to see the hierarchy; using contrast and repetition to amplify the structure of the message while also ensuring the overall design remains cohesive. In other words, documents that rely primarily on visuals also follow syntactic rules to help an audience understand their message. Below are a couple comparisons to illustrate this point. The two examples are text-based documents that include the exact same content but are designed differently:
Left: At a glance, it is hard for the eye to see what is happening in the document because it does not use headings aside from a title that blends in. Also, it does not really attempt to section any text, leading to massive, unappealing paragraphs that are exhausting to work through.
Right: Each section has been labeled with a proper heading, which uses a larger contrasting blue font that pops out from the body text and allows for quick scanning. White space makes it easy to see and visually separate the different sections.
If your audience needs a document to access information fast, they probably will pick a model like the document on the right with a design that allows readers to almost immediately understand what is being said, even if they are just skimming.
Next, let’s look at visual documents, specifically two fliers. Although both serve similar purposes (i.e., promoting live music events) and target similar audiences, the design differences are drastic:
Left: The lack of contrast between the yellow and white makes the text hard to read, which means it is very easy for an audience to miss key information. While they provide contrast, the images are warped and in low resolution. The absence of a clear focal point makes it difficult to move throughout the flier. In other words, the overall structure is hard to see and understand. Someone familiar with any of the three bands might recognize that this is an event poster, but others might be left confused or not even give the document a second glance.
Right: The graphic creates a large and visually attractive focal point. The contrasting colors (red, black, and white on a purple background) make the text stand out and easy to read. Note also how clean the logo and the images are (side note: the flier on the right implements conventional flier size [16.5”x10.5] unlike the flier on the left). Although the flier could be edited more, the use of basic design principles makes the message more visible and accessible for an audience, even at a fast glance.
“So what’s the main takeaway?”
Well, writing and visual design have a lot in common. Rhetoric helps us to see how they are connected. Since we live in a visual age where social media and other online tools have become primary modes of communication, it is important to be aware of rhetoric and to use it to your advantage when writing and designing. Rhetoric is creating something for a specific audience for a specific purpose, so creating a meaningful document–visual and textual–must involve a conscious awareness of who you are writing to and for what purpose. Therefore, it is important to ask yourself a few questions when drafting: what is the purpose of this document? Who is it trying to reach? The way to answer those questions is to use rhetoric when planning and creating your content. Remember that as a writer, you are a designer, and as a designer, you are a writer.