Sunday, April 10, 2011

Response to Handbook of Visual Communication: Theory, Methods, and Media

Overall, I found the first half of this anthology to be interesting. Like some of the other anthologies we have read this semester, some of the essays seemed to be more "on point" and timely than others. Although the book covers a wide range of topics in visual communication, I was most struck by two of the pieces in the "Perception" section of the book--Sheree Josephson's "Eye Tracking Methodology and the Internet" and Ken Smith's "Perception and the Newspaper Page: A Critical Analysis."

Although the methodology of the pieces was significantly different, it seemed that these two essays were in direct conversation with each other. Josephson's essay examined the influence of ad placement and advertisement animation on web pages in determining where readers' eyes looked most often. Smith's piece looked at three different styles of newspaper layout with regard to the use of gestalt principles of design. Both pieces are concerned with how we can implement certain design choices to influence potential readers' responses to forms of media.

What I was left wondering after reading both of these pieces, however, was how the discussion from the first section of this book on aesthetics plays into design choices. With regard to Josephson's essay, which, to be fair, was written long enough ago that web design standards have understandably significantly shifted, it was hard not to think about the design of sites like MySpace or the pop up advertisements that use animation and blinking buttons. Although it may be hard to argue with her findings that advertisements placed at the top of web pages are, overall, the most effective at getting readers' attention, it seems that the most important design consideration today with regard to the web is the creation of a professional appearance that is eloquent in that the form it takes should be suited to the content presented. In other words, designing a web page that a reader would find to be annoying, too visually loud or confusing to parse visually is pretty much a sin. These are the choices, however, that are much more difficult to quantify. On one hand, Sandra Moriarty and Lisa Rohe's essay "Cultural Palettes in Print Advertising: Formative Research Design Method" seems to address some of the ways in which we can account for taste when we are designing, but, to be honest, I found the idea that encouraging designers to use chili peppers but stay away from sombreros and cacti when designing for a population with Mexican heritage to be a bit strange. On one hand, global communication courses will discuss the difference between cultures, for instance the difference between designing for a high or low context culture and the importance of using symbols that translate or are not offensive. On the other hand, simply encouraging someone to design using one set of colors and symbols while avoiding the color blue and donkeys seems to needlessly eliminate design options. Perhaps from a corporate perspective, this would be an acceptable policy, but it didn't seem to be that academically sound? My favorite restaurant back home is owned by a family from Mexico. Here's the mural from inside their restaurant and it's also printed on the t-shirts for the restaurant. I don't think it would pass the "Cultural Palette" test though...

Briefly, to return to Smith's essay, I am interested in how newspaper design has shifted over the years. All of these three designs that he chose to analyze seemed very outdated (even considering the format of papers such as the WSJ or the NYT). I would be interested to see this discussion taken forward to look at the format of different front pages throughout the country such using the Newseum's today's front pages feature. Again, though, with newspaper design, I'm not sure how much rules and gestalt principles come into play consciously at the end of the day. Guidelines held, different sizes of text in things like subhead and photo captions help, but all the rules in the world can still lead to an ugly/unreadable publication at the end of the day. Professional designers are often brought into daily publications when they decide to take on a redesign. With recent consolidations and cutbacks and outsourcing to central location design desks, at least one national newspaper chains have been attempting to redesign their publications to make it easier for one team of people to design 15-20 newspapers. These conferences have been especially problematic because it requires editors from across the country to agree on the ideal look of a publication. Good design's elusive.

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