Design Theory in Technical Communication

Design theory, as applied to documents, focuses on the way changes in visual depictions, such as images, alter the meaning of those images. According to this theory, images carry emotional connotations, and thus, rhetorical procedures and devices can be transferred to visual design. Rhetoric is not solely a form of expression; it is a tool used to persuade and achieve a desirable outcome. While many designers believe information can be presented without attempting to be persuasive, the stylistic qualities, or design of the message, suggests otherwise. Since there are implicit associations people naturally make with all images, designers must be conscientious of rhetorical theory, specifically the implementation of ethos, logos, and pathos, in order to clarify meaning in a subject or work.

Effectiveness of Images in Society: Design Rhetoric

There is a three-pronged relationship utilized to describe design theory; the rhetorician or designer, the audience or recipients, and the medium or image. On the level of production, the designer creates an image using his/her devices which generate an effect on an audience. However, the designer does not control what type of reaction the audience has; he can only use what means are available to him to attempt to provoke a desired response. Thus, a designer cannot determine how a type of advertising will be received. Only when the public actually encounters a product can the effect be analyzed. Graphics, Web content, and advertising all fall under the influence of design theory because they all aim to achieve some type of response.

Ethos, Logos, and Pathos in Design

All human communication is inexorably linked to the rhetorical process; thus, design for visual and verbal communication cannot be exempt. According to Gui Bonsiepe’s article, “Visual and Verbal Rhetoric” (1965) there is a relationship between image and text in contemporary advertisement. With respect to modern design, designers should take into account the functionality of an image, as well as its aesthetic and moral implications, because design has social, moral, and political dimensions. For example, the international signs denoting “man” and “woman” on a bathroom door are meant to be purely informative. However, upon closer inspection, the images are culturally determined. “Man” lacks clothing while “woman” is singled out by her skirt. Design theory indicates that there is no sphere of pure information, as the bathroom images exemplify. Designs must be tailored for particular clients and audiences in particular environments. This notion leads to the importance of ethos, logos, and pathos in design.
  • Ethos is an appeal to morality and ethics and is employed as a way to sway or appeal to an audience’s beliefs. With respect to design theory, ethos focuses on the aesthetic quality of a design and addresses the values and morality of an audience
  • Logos is an appeal to both logic and reason, and it aims to instruct. Logos is founded in practicality and utilizes signs of “intellectual authority” such as statistical images, hard edges, scientific drawings, and quotes to facilitate an idea, promote a product, or influence behavior (Ehses 4).
  • Pathos is an appeal to emotions and aims to provoke some type of emotional response from an audience. While these emotions are collectively shared by a group of people, they are also rooted in personal experiences and thoughts.

Semiotics in Design Theory

Semiotics is a word used to describe modes of communication in design. It is an interaction between visual and verbal discourse.
  1. Principles of Semiotics
    • A sign is not an autonomous entity and cannot exist by itself; it exists in relation to other signs
  2. Components of a Symbol
    • Material part of a sign = a form of expression
    • Meaning of a sign = form of content
The aesthetic quality of a sign gives rise to its meaning; one cannot exist without the other. Theory taken from “The Rhetorical Handbook,” by Hanno Ehses (pp. 8).