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Semiotics and designing Theories of design may inform practice or aid

understanding, though this is not an absolute
Robin Kinross distinction. Semiotics promises benefits to design
theory in recognizing the semantic dimension (ignored
by information theory), but in extrapolating from an
α-historical linguistics it has no means of dealing
with the material activity of designing; either as aid
to practice or to understanding. The proposal of a
visual/verbal rhetoric promises to link theory and
practice, and to recognize designing as a social
activity. But designing will remain obstinately out of
reach of any formal theory.

Preamble: theory and practice the intractability of these conundrums, it is no

Semiotics has been present in design theory for a wonder that the theme of semiotics and design has
considerable time: 25 years, at least. It has had a proved so largely unrewarding.
ghostly presence, as a possibility or promise, but The notion of a theory of design can be clarified
never quite pinned down; its identity and its place by making the distinction between ideas or theories
within design have remained uncertain. Two factors that bear on the practice of designing, and those that
can be identified as explanations of this. First, the concern the criticism or appreciation of design
problems of the semiotic enterprise itself. Is it a work. Of course, this cannot be a sharp distinction.
discipline in its own right, or rather a mediating Designers are ordinary people too: we live in a com­
inter-discipline? An art or a science? What is its rela­ mon world. Historical knowledge, for example,
tion to linguistics? 'Semiotics' or 'semiology'? Peirce spans the divisions of design practice and criticism
or Saussure? And, if Saussure, then in which edi­ of design; while it may be generated by non-
tion? The semiotic literature is large in ground- practitioners, it feeds into the consciousness of those
clearing discussion of such issues, and not so large producing new artifacts. And, in general, it is a con­
in contributions that put semiotic ideas into prac­ dition of the well-being of designing and design
tice. The second factor in the frustrated relation of theory that they stay in touch with the common
Robin Kinross works as a semiotics to design has been the difficulties of world: the world for which they work. Nevertheless,
freelance editorial typographer designers in constructing theories about their own despite this recognition of shared ground, the very
and writes on the theory and
history of designing. activities. What is the nature of design? Is it sensible notion of designing, as a distinct and professional­
Author's address: to think of one all-embracing activity of design, ized activity, carries with it the supposition that
125 Torriano Avenue from engineering at one extreme to fashion design at there could be a body of theory peculiar to it. So one
London N W 5 2RX
another? If it is a job and a profession, can it be a can proceed on the assumption that there will be
© Robin Kinross 1986
discipline too? Can it have its own theories, or must a need for theories that bear on the practice of
it always borrow from other fields of theory? Given design—the field of design method—and, as another

Information Design Journal 4:3 (1986), 190-198. DOI 10.1075/idj.4.3.02kin

ISSN 0142-54711 Ε-ISSN 1569-979X © John Benjamins Publishing Company
Robin Kinross · Semiotics and designing 191

matter (though a related one), for theories that of reality, or does it rather acknowledge that we
illuminate design products. must always employ such markers in perception?
Much of what is said of semiotics suggests that it Such an example suggests that theoretical reflec-
belongs with those theories that help us to under- tion and practical action do best when they coincide
stand the products of design. Thus David Sless, and play off against each other. But theory and prac-
elsewhere in this issue, likens the semiotician to a tice are different, even if they can be intertwined. In
fashion critic (not a designer). Semiotics is always the case of the person examining photographs, the
described as being concerned with reading, with activity could be either theoretical or practical—it
decoding, with interpreting. These are essential depends on how it is directed. The critic may look
activities—and reading is certainly an activity and a as intensely as the designer, and may even earn
construction of meaning. Nevertheless, to interpret money with this looking (if it results in some article
something given is one thing; to determine and to or review), but the difference becomes apparent
oversee its material production is another. Again, when we consider the kind of demand placed on
the distinction is not an absolutely clear one, and each viewer and the contexts in which the viewers
should not be overstressed. For designing is not are acting. If the critic works to formulate ideas, the
creation out of nothing (as in the idea of the genius- designer works to get the images produced (or
artist, conjuring unexplainable beauties from a reproduced) in a thoroughly real, material sense.
void). Rather it is a matter of working, usually with While both may work to deadlines and under
given materials, constrained by many intercon- pressure, the pressures on the designer—the respon-
nected and often pressing factors. sibility for a job of production—are of a different
Consider a graphic designer, hurrying to com- kind from those on a critic. So the two worlds of
plete layouts for a catalogue by next Monday. theory and practice come to distinguish themselves:
Which photographs to choose? It may be a com- the library or the private study (usually a world of
promise between those that show best what needs solitary activity), and the more social world of the
to be shown, and those that show less but which design office—its shelves populated by trade
would reproduce better. The designer acts as an.in- catalogues, directories, files, and specimens of work.
terpreter of the meaning of images; and it is in such Theory becomes manifest in books and journals, in
moments that theoretical understanding comes to lecture and seminar rooms—and splits off from the
play its part in practical design work. To stay with practice of the design office or workshop.
this example of choosing photographs, it may well
be that recent developments of theory in discussion The promise of semiotics
of the meanings of images are coming to influence The large and simple attraction of semiotics to
the ways in which designers are deploying images. design theorists is that it offers a concern with the
For example, the question of whether to crop an im- meaning of objects and images. Information theory,
age, whether to show the edge of the frame, whether which had provided the set of ideas most borrowed
to bleed it off the page. These questions are ab- from in conceptions of design activity, can postulate
solutely practical (the stuff of everyday graphic no more than signals: disturbances in a cycle, pass-
design) and also entail matters of high theory, in ing down a channel, from an unintelligent emitter to
their concern with the representation of the world: an unintelligent receiver. There is no semantic
does the imposition of a frame deny the continuum dimension here. Semiotics introduces the sign, and

Inf. Des. J. 4, 3 (1986) 190-98

192 Robin Kinross · Semiotics and designing

with it the whole domain of meaning and the motivated': there is no necessary connection be-
human world; and thus might point a way out of the tween the meaning of any word and its phonological
aridities of information theory. structure. But, in the realm of visual depiction too,
Information theory may have had its day as a the meaning of an image is never obvious. A
source of ideas and metaphors with which to think photograph may bear the imprint of reality (light
about designing (this reliance was at its peak in the acting on film at the moment of exposure), but
1950s, and lasted well into the 1960s), but we are even—perhaps especially—the meaning of a
still living under the spell of'information'—with the photographic image is never obvious. It may show a
spread and popularization of 'information tree, yes; but what kind of tree? Here it is the viewer
technology'. In this now universal phrase, 'informa- who decides, according to learnt categories. What
tion' serves to suggest the component of intelligence season of the year? How old is the tree? When was
or software that differentiates this new technology the photograph taken? Was there a wind blowing?
from the old. On the other hand, and in other con- What is the importance of such considerations in
texts, 'information' suggests the communication of understanding the image?
essential messages (as against the fripperies of press The presence of a semantic dimension is in-
advertising, for example), whose effectiveness can evitable. It invades even those communications that
be really evaluated and probably quantified. The intend to be purely functional: texts and images are
name of this journal testifies to the hopes that reside always produced by particular people with par-
in this notion of'information', as do the courses in ticular purposes, and so bear the traces of human in-
'information design' or 'visual information' that tention. For example, the character of the producing
now seem to be springing up—where previously institution can be seen in the linguistic and visual
there had been mere 'graphic design'. Manoeuvres qualities of government forms: both (as is well
in the labelling of courses may not amount to much understood) in the traditional byzantine-
more than a change of head-gear (with no effect on bureaucratic productions, and (as may be less ob-
what goes on underneath)—though, even as such, vious) in the recent experiments in simplified and
they suggest at least a wish to come to better grips humanized forms. The latter lay claim to a new
with the subject. And though the current vogue for spirit of enlightenment, or efficiency through the
'information' may partly be traceable to a theory language of sympathy.
that proved a dead end for designers, this cannot be Analysis of the meanings and motivations of
used as a stick with which to beat present attempts seemingly banal artifacts has indeed been one of the
to direct graphic design to matters of need. contributions of the semiotic habit of thought, as
In this context of information design, with its David Sless suggests. The consideration of seman-
characteristic emphasis on users' requirements, an tics can open up the dimensions of ideology and of
awareness of the semantic dimension becomes all politics. This semiotic contribution is in the first
the more apposite: as a continual reminder that place to the criticism of products, and it has largely
understanding is more than just reception of remained as criticism. Any effect on the designers of
messages, but entails a construction of meaning and products has come indirectly, through processes of
that this 'meaning' is subject to influence from a feedback and through slow infiltration into the com-
very large set of factors. In the fundamental insight mon culture.
of Saussure, linguistic signs are arbitrary and 'un- In considering the possible contribution of

Inf. Des. J. 4, 3 (1986) 190-98

Robin Kinross · Semiotics and designing 193

semiotics to graphic design, as in the example of a might contribute to design theory.

semiotically-inspired analysis of government
communications—it is necessary to make an obvious The language analogy and its perils
but fundamental distinction within the 'dimension One of the attractions of the semiotic view is that it
of meaning'. Any text has a level of simple or literal has offered the means of attributing meanings to
meaning, and a level of attributed meaning. A form otherwise mute objects. In one field of design in
that requires a woman to state whether she is mar- particular—architecture—semiotics was welcomed
ried or not has that as part of its literal meaning. An by some critics and by theoretically-minded archi-
analysis of this question on a deeper level would tects as providing a way through the obstacles
consider assumptions behind it: of how women and against which post-Second-World-War versions of
men in this society are expected to conduct their modernism had foundered. Semiotics provided a
lives; what are normal arrangements; what is ac- legitimation for elements in a building for which
cepted or condoned or refused. Such factors seep in- justification on grounds of simple function was lack-
to the verbal texture of government communica- ing: elements of decoration. The vogue for semiotics
tions (the smallest details of sentence construction in architecture is passing, now that the reaction
and vocabulary), and they will also, there seems against modernism has gained enough confidence to
little reason to doubt, mark the visual texture of follow its instincts without intellectual justification.
these productions. Or, to return to the example of Buildings can again have meanings—as has been
the photograph of the tree, the literal meaning of the their ancient right, until the intervention of certain
image has already been disclosed—it is just that (a versions of modernism.
tree). The further, deeper analysis might consider The analogy with language proposed by semioti-
such things as the way this tree stands against dark cians has the attraction and the sense of reassurance
clouds: a suggestion of threat; or does the tree that is brought by all such attributions of larger
betoken shelter and safety from a coming storm? significance. Just as with Freudian theories, we are
Isolated in this flattened landscape it seems to be a told that however confused and muddled the im-
last protest against rapacious agriculture. And so the mediate reality seems to be, it is amenable to
analysis would go on. analysis, can be shown to have causes and reasons,
It may be doubted that this kind of analysis has and can even be construed as a system. So, if we are
anything especially 'semiotic' about it. Is this not to believe the suggestion that communication of all
what any pragmatic commentator, sensitive to kinds can be understood on the model of verbal
meanings and implications, has always done? In- language, then we should expect to find an ordering
sofar as one accepts that semiotics amounts to this system of the same kind as that found in language.
kind of analysis, one then accepts that the hoped-for The difficulties of transposing linguistic analysis
'science of signs' has become just a style of thought, to other areas of enquiry are by now clear. For ex-
characterized by a concern to demythologize, to ample, in the field of pictorial imagery, if one speaks
show up latent ideology, using a language marked of the 'syntax' of an image, what then in the image
by a stock of key words (code, discourse, text, corresponds to the 'adjective', what to the 'noun',
denote, signify, etc). It seems that attempts to what to the 'verb', and so on? And even if someone
develop a strict, quasi-scientific semiotic analysis were to posit isolable units, analogous to linguistic
have been given up by the cultural critics who ones, in a non-linguistic example, can the analogy be
Inf. Des. J. 4, 3 (1986) 190-98
194 Robin Kinross · Semiotics and designing

sustained across a large number of examples, as tangular sheet of wood bearing painted letters'.
ideas of linguistic structure can? It seems that such While 'symbol' in semiotics is a fairly precise
analogies can be no more than vague ones, and that category of sign, in graphic design it tends to be
they collapse as soon as one tries to work them out used very loosely, to refer to any more or less a
in any detail. abstracted image that stands in for some idea or
A particular confusion is likely in the application human enterprise. These confusions are then com-
of semiotics to graphic design. Semiotics—or rather pounded by the disagreements within semiotics over
semiology (the strand that derives not from Peirce terminology. All of which would help to explain
but from Saussure, and which has been most in- why semiotics has never really proved of much
fluential among commentators on visual images)— assistance in the designing of graphic symbols and
has been largely developed by the application of systems of symbols—the field for which best hopes
ideas taken from linguistics. As, for example, in the for it as a contribution to practice have been ex-
anthropology of Lévi-Stauss, in the cultural analysis pressed. The apparently common terms of semiotic
of Barthes, the psychoanalysis of Lacan, and in the theory and graphic design seemed to raise in some
trains of thought and investigation that this work graphic designers hopes of help from the elixir of
has set up. Here the linguistic analogy is stretched the 'science of signs': ungrounded promise is a
beyond mere analogy, to constitute an enormous ex- characteristic of elixirs; characteristic also is the
tension of language itself: the world becomes a disappointment that follows application.
'text', to be read and decoded or (in the most recent The gravest objection to a large strand of
twist of theory) deconstructed. There are con- semiotics follows from certain emphases of
siderable objections to this view. Saussure.1 In making his celebrated distinctions
An immediate and local objection from the point between langue and parole, and between synchronic
of view of graphic design is the confusion caused and diachronic approaches to the study of language,
when the apparatus of semiotics is applied to Saussure was concerned to move linguistics in the
material that is closely allied to the linguistic: the directions indicated by the first terms of these pairs.
text matter which is so large a component of graphic His aim was a study of the system of language (la
design. The semiotic tools, when turned back from langue) and its rules and structures with correspond-
the non-linguistic towards the linguistically- ingly less interest in the idiosyncrasies of individual
saturated object of enquiry, come to seem at best utterance (la parole). And linguistics should turn
over-emphatic, at worst superfluous. The first, away from its nineteenth-century, exclusively
literal meanings of a text can be understood without historical (diachronic) concern with the evolution of
the application of the special armoury of semiotics, forms of language—towards a (synchronic) study of
designed to unpick the meanings of mute objects. the system as a functioning whole, at any one time.
Terminological confusions—such as Roger Smith Saussure's position can be seen as a necessary and
discusses elsewhere in this issue—make clear the un- appropriate one, given the context in which he was
wieldiness of applying semiotics to graphic design. working. But that provides no justification for the
Words such as 'sign' and 'symbol', which have ac- semiotic enterprise of taking over Saussurian
quired precise and specialized meanings in
1. This follows the line of argument suggested by Timpanaro
semiotics, are then fed back into the gross, material (1970, pp. 135-219); and see also the criticisms advanced by
world of design—where 'sign' may mean 'a rec- Eagleton (1983, pp. 109-15) and Anderson (1983, pp. 40-55).

Inf. Des. J. 4, 3 (1986) 190-98

Robin Kinross · Semiotics and designing 195

linguistics and applying it to non-linguistic material. straints, and the properties of glue.
One objection here is the doubtfulness of the The distance of recent theory from the world of
linguistic analogy, as already discussed. And this practice is very marked—ironically—in the work of
criticism becomes all the stronger when one con- those who have been among the loudest in profes-
siders the characteristic emphasis of Saussurian sions of materialism and political commitment. In
linguistic on 'structures', without history and Britain, this may be seen in the field of cultural
removed from the ordinary world of discourse be- studies, for example in some of the articles pub-
tween people. An historical approach may be lished in the journal Block. The dominant influence
reasonable in a discussion of language—a uniquely here (it is now on the wane) has been the struc-
slow-changing and intricate human institution—but turalist marxism of Althusser, in which the business
such an approach becomes misleading when of refining and polishing the theoretical apparatus
transferred to material of a quite different character. absorbs all the critic's interest and itself comes to be
This 'material' is just that: composed of physical seen as 'practice'; any concern for the world of
matter, where, by contrast, language is non-material everyday, practical realities is lost, and, if raised,
and abundant. Physical objects, whose meanings the dismissed as 'empiricism'. History is denied in this
semiotician lays claim to, have a substance and a synchronic view, and with this denial there disap-
presence that discussion limited to 'significance' and pears any prospect of an explanation of material ob-
'structure' (mental, abstract structure) cannot begin jects and processes.
to touch. The growing body of work in cultural studies is of
The tendency of semiotics, particularly as it has some importance to the criticism of design—in par-
been developed in the hot-houses of seminar rooms ticular as this exists in the theoretical and historical
and academic journals, has been to ignore the components of design educational courses (what is
material nature of objects and conditions of produc- called in Britain 'complementary studies', 'liberal
tion and use (their history). Even in the discussion studies', 'related studies', or some other suggestion
of literature, where a non-materialist approach of the rag-bag)—and in view of the possibility that
might be plausible (if literature is seen as composed those teaching on these courses will turn to a
of non-material language and ideas), the abstract semiotically-influenced set of ideas as a source of
interests of semiotics have proved unrewarding. theory. The result of this teaching on the education
Thus, in the literary criticism inspired by the struc- and practice of designers is not easy to imagine: it is
tural anthropology of Lévi-Strauss, the mechanism hard to see how what is often remote theory could
of a text is unpicked and laid out, usually as a series impinge on workshop and studio practice. But one
of binary oppositions; but always leaving the reader source of difficulty in this relation is clear: cultural
with a feeling of'so what? what does such analysis studies has been developed in application to popular
explain?' The structuralists have not made any im- culture and is in opposition not only to an exclusive,
pression on the criticism of design, partly for high culture but also to all distinctions of value
reasons of the non-academic and mysteriously within culture. It thus conflicts with the high-
enclosed world of design. But it would be hard to minded, reforming and occasionally revolutionary
see what success structuralism could have in dealing tradition of designing (of William Morris—and com-
with an activity so embedded in the material pany), which would certainly maintain distinctions
world—a world of deadlines, invoices, machine con- of good and bad in the ways in which the material

Inf. Des. J. 4, 3 (1986) 190-98

196 Robin Kinross · Semiotics and designing

world is ordered: on such presuppositions must any theory will ever be adequate to an activity as com­
confident design education be based. plex, various, and as rooted in the material world as
designing: and certainly no off-the-peg theory
The passing of structuralist semiotics bought from the academic fashion-houses. Design
It is characteristic of graphic design education in theory needs to correspond to the informal and
Britain that it should be registering the presence of mixed nature of its object—the activity of
semiotics a decade or so after these ideas have passed designing—and will inevitably borrow ideas, but
from the centre of the world of high intellectual needs also to think for itself, from practice.
discussion. That is, if one identifies semiotics with
the Parisian or in fact Barthesian structuralist Post-amble: the suggestion of a visual/verbal
semiology, rather than with the tradition of Peirce rhetoric
and Charles Morris. In his later writings, Barthes This paper has been concerned to consider relations
came to abandon the method-governed approach of between semiotics and design, and has assumed
his structuralist phase (1964a; 1964b) for an ap­ some acquaintance with the essential ideas of
proach that absorbed elements of semiotics but semiotics, as taken up from the writings of Peirce
which gave up pretensions to strict system (1975, and Saussure. It may be helpful now to point to the
ρ.145;1977). few contributions to the semiotic literature that bear
It is not necessary here to investigate in any detail directly on designing. The most substantial work
the transforming of structuralism into post- has been that emanating from the Hochschule fur
structuralism, and the implications of this mutation Gestaltung, Ulm, under the guidance of Tomás
for the semiotic theory that had been a part of struc­ Maldonado. David Sless refers to the papers
turalism. Anderson and Eagleton (both 1983) have published in Uppercase (Maldonado and Bonsiepe,
provided succinct analyses of this development. It is separately and jointly, 1961). These are of con-
clear that the shift to post-structuralism promises no siderable interest, though they suffer from a wooden
benefits for design theory. Its chief ideas and translation that makes difficult ideas unnecesarily
slogans—as they will be percolated into complemen­ obscure. Work on semiotics by Maldonado (1959)
tary studies courses, for example—offer no better and Bonsiepe (1965; 1968) also appeared, in rather
purchase on the world of designing than did struc­ good English versions, in the school's journal Ulm,
turalism: less, insofar as the notion of language which may be as inaccessible as Uppercase but is
becomes further inflated to eradicate any idea of in­ worth the effort of hunting down. The passage on
dividual identity and responsibility. The emergence semiotics and design in the book that Maldonado
of post-structuralism does however diminish wrote after leaving Ulm (1972, pp.119-23) is of in-
(through its sometimes convincing criticisms of its terest as an epilogue to that phase to work, up to
earlier self) the claims of semiotics to constitute a 1968—the year that proved fatal for the HfG, as for
science or discipline. Semiotics may provide scat­ other things. The Ulm contribution is still relevant
tered insights, but those still looking for a ready- for its strenuous investigation of theories that might
made theory on which to depend will not find it in bear on practice, and for a continuously critical at-
the corpus of semiotic writing. titude that enabled it to work through a phase of
This returns us to the question of a theory of unreasonable devotion to scientific method and on
design. It seems clear that no single, self-contained towards a more socially engaged position.

Inf. Des. J. 4, 3 (1986) 190-98

Robin Kinross · Semiotics and designing 197

The work of Maldonado and Bonsiepe (and one "Pure" information exists for the designer only in
or two others associated with the HfG Ulm) may arid abstraction. As soon as he begins to give it con-
seem uncomfortably 'intellectual' by certain stand- crete shape, to bring it within the range of ex-
ards (those of British design journalism, for exam- perience, the process of rhetorical infiltration
ple), but it never quite loses contact with the or- begins.' However, three paragraphs further on,
dinary world of designing. One of its contributions Bonsiepe retreats from this position, and concedes
was the beginnings of a new visual/verbal rhetoric: that a train time-table or a table of logarithms might
conceived as a development from classical rhetoric, be 'examples of information innocent of all taint of
but modified by the inter-discipline of semiotics. A rhetoric'. One doubts this. The truth seems rather
particular appeal of this is its possible function as a to lie in Bonsiepe's first and more absolute state-
common ground for theoretical and practical work. ment: that as soon as content takes 'concrete shape'
This rhetoric would be a way of understanding the it takes on associations and meanings that exist
mechanisms of a visual/verbal product and also an beyond the hypothetical domain of pure informa-
aid that could inform (and improve) visual/verbal tion. Believers in purity of visual/verbal information
production. The call for rhetorical analysis has sur- might seem to be on stronger ground with cases of
faced more recently in the work of some literary text or image produced on screens or by highly-
critics. Thus Terry Eagleton closes his bracing constrained typewriters. The lesson from such ex-
survey of theories of literature with a proposal for amples might be that a certain degree of technical
the revival of this ancient practice that 'saw speak- sophistication is necessary, to enable recognizably
ing and writing not merely as textual objects, to be different products to be constructed by the same
aesthetically contemplated or endlessly decon- means; and also that a period of time is necessary,
structed, but as forms of activity inseparable from while conventions of arrangement evolve.
the wider social relations between writers and In two recent papers (1984a; 1984b), Hanno
readers, orators and audiences, and as largely Ehses has revived Bonsiepe's suggestion of a
unintelligible outside the social purposes and condi- visual/verbal rhetoric.2 Ehses' presentation is at-
tions in which they were embedded' (1983, p.206). tractive: 'since all human communication is, in one
This remark, with appropriate substitution of terms way or another, infiltrated rhetorically, design for
('designing and producing' for 'speaking and visual/verbal communication cannot be exempt
writing', etc), applies just as well to graphic design. from that fact' (1984b, p.4). So, he suggests, to ac-
So far, in the articles by Bonsiepe and in Barthes' cept that all communication is concerned to per-
venture into this field (1964b), visual rhetoric has suade is to accept the social and moral-political
treated only 'persuasive communication' of the most dimensions of all designing, and it is to accept that
obvious kind—press advertisements. Bonsiepe 2. Another recent call for a 'visual rehetoric' has come from
(1965, p.30)—writing clearly as a designer—was Michael Twyman (1979). Twyman's long project of the des-
concerned to dispute the suggestion that persuasive cription and classification of a postulated visual language lies
outside the scope of this paper: the linguistic science that he
(rhetorical) communication was limited to advertis- sees as a model for a theory of typography is unspecified,
ing: 'Informative assertions are interlarded with though presumably not of the Saussurian-semiotic variety
rhetoric to a greater or lesser degree. Information (Twyman 1982). But in this project, as in semiotically-derived
work, an informal analogy (visual things are a bit like language:
without rhetoric is a pipe-dream which ends up in they have meanings) is perilously inflated to a suggestion of
the break-down of communication and total silence. elaborate system.

Inf. Des. J. 4, 3 (1986) 190-98

198 Robin Kinross · Semiotics and designing

all our actions and artifacts must answer to moral- promising—in teaching above all. But whether this
political arguments, and it is to reiterate that there is rhetoric can go beyond identification of broad con­
no sphere of pure technique or pure information. cept ('antithesis', etc) to touch the details of text and
The difficulties of some new rhetoric appear image has yet to be shown. The dangers of rhetoric
when one starts on the business of applying the con­ are fairly obvious and are evident in the history of
cepts of classical rhetoric in specific instances. One the degeneration of classical verbal rhetoric: of a
has to get over the barriers of Latin and of the com­ new academicism and formalism, in which
plex definitions of rhetorical figures. In the practical guidelines grow into a restrictive network of fences.
experiment on which he reports, Ehses (1984a) As regards the analysis and criticism of design, the
asked his students to design a poster for a per- promise of rhetoric is that it can open up com­
fomance of Macbeth; each student was to produce a munication between the worlds of theory and prac­
poster that corresponded visually to one of the tice, by providing common terminology and pro­
rhetorical figures (antithesis, irony, metaphor, per­ cedures. If this were to prove itself, then rhetoric
sonification, and so on). The approach seemed suc­ would have succeeded where semiotics, which has
cessful to Ehses and his students—as a simple aid to remained irredeemably in the world of theory, has
thinking and to producing ideas that might not have failed. But it is not at all clear how this visual/verbal
been promoted otherwise. One knows this as a rhetoric could extend its concerns back from the
feature of any design method concerned to generate artifact produced to the full range of factors that in­
alternative procedures—and the least virtue of a form the production of the artifact, nor how it could
design method is that it suggests a starting point and interrogate the fine details of an object. Again, as
a way of getting down to work. At this quite modest with semiotics, there is so much that this theory
level, as a stimulus and a guide to overall concepts cannot discuss.
in design work, a visual/verbal rhetoric would seem

Anderson Ρ 1983 Bonsiepe G 1968 Maldonado T 1972

In the tracks of historical materialism Semantic analysis Design, nature, and revolution: toward a
Verso Editions, London Ulm, 2 1 , 33-7 critical ecology
Barthes R 1964a Eagleton T 1983 Harper & Row, New York
Elements of semiology Literary theory: an introduction Maldonado Τ and Bonsiepe G 1961
Jonathan Cape, London ( 1967) Basil Blackwell, Oxford Sign system design for operative
Barthes R 1964b Ehses H 1984a communication
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