By Charles Kostelnick
Purpose: By recognizing the importance of aesthetics, which have infused technical communication for centuries, designers can more effectively meet audience expectations and achieve key rhetorical goals, including heightening audience engagement, arousing emotion, and enhancing credibility and persuasiveness. Designers can integrate aesthetics into technical communications by deploying visual conventions generated by larger cultural forces, by applying design principles that foster beauty, and by inventing novel forms.
Methods: Aesthetic theory, both ancient and modern, and insights from practitioners create a foundation for defining beauty; research and usability studies examining audience preferences provide empirical evidence about the functional value of aesthetics; and aesthetic developments in the nineteenth century and the subsequent shift to Modernism serve to illustrate the cultural influences on design. The Design Methods Movement affords a springboard for exploring the design process and the nature of creativity.
Results: Although theorists and practitioners hold conflicting views on the role of aesthetics in functional design, many consider it an important factor that makes designs attractive and engaging to audiences. The pursuit of beauty continues today through the application of culturally based conventions and design principles associated with beauty.
Conclusion: The cultural knowledge embedded in visual aesthetics operates silently, even imperceptibly, as technical communicators deploy aesthetic conventions to meet audience expectations and to streamline their design processes. At the same time, technical communicators need leeway for creativity and novelty as they adapt visual elements to specific rhetorical situations, often seeking audience feedback about their aesthetic preferences to create engaging, persuasive, and usable designs.
Keywords: aesthetics in technical communication, visual rhetoric, history of information design, technical illustrations, data visualization
- Although aesthetic elements are often seen at odds with functional design, they continue to be a major factor in designing text, illustrations, and data displays.
- Deploying aesthetic elements has several rhetorical benefits, including engaging audience interest, enhancing clarity and persuasiveness, arousing emotion, and strengthening credibility by meeting audience expectations for effective design.
- Designers can integrate aesthetic elements into technical communications by including culturally based conventions and by applying design principles associated with beauty, including parallelism, balance, color, and details.
- Designers can measure the effectiveness of aesthetic elements both qualitatively and quantitatively by seeking feedback from audiences about their design preferences.
With advancements in digital technology, visual communication has played an increasingly important role in technical communication. Within the US and around the globe, visual communication encompasses a wide array of forms, including typography, page and screen design, data visualization, illustrations, and icons. These forms appear in a wide variety of communications ranging from instructions, reports, and descriptions to warnings, websites, videos, and social media. Visual language has become a critical factor in designing usable communications, and its presence in our field is likely to become even more pervasive in the future. However, because of our focus on clarity and functionality, we can easily overlook the beauty that permeates information design and the role of art and aesthetics in enabling designers to achieve their rhetorical goals.
Design as an art form enriches technical communication in several ways, some of which are explicit, intentional acts while others are more collective, social, and implicit. On the one hand, designers deploy visual language in a variety of forms—typefaces, pictures, colors, and other visual elements—and artfully compose them for a given communication, aesthetic choices that are idiosyncratic to a specific designer and situation. On the other hand, designing and interpreting these many forms of visual language rarely happen in a cultural or aesthetic vacuum. Throughout the history of design, aesthetic movements in painting, architecture, and other arts influenced technical drawings, typography, and data design. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any visual elements in technical communication that haven’t been shaped by representations in the fine arts and the broader social and cultural forces that foster them. That convergence culminated in the early twentieth century when Modernism explicitly melded aesthetics and functional design, with geometrical forms and perceptually based concepts (e.g., contrast, focal points) dominating the visual landscape, as they still largely do today.
The cultural knowledge embedded in visual aesthetics, however, operates silently, even imperceptibly, as technical communicators deploy the conventions of visual language to streamline their design processes and to match the aesthetics and visual style of a given era in order to meet audience expectations. Conventions encompass all areas of visual communication, ranging from typography and page and screen design to illustrations and data visualization. Visual conventions are continuously shaped and sustained by discourse communities—disciplines, organizations, and cultures—as these conventions emerge, evolve, and expand (and sometimes lose) their currency (Kostelnick & Hassett, 2003). Aesthetics play a key role in shaping conventions, especially through the influence of culture, as I will illustrate with both historical and contemporary examples. Nonetheless, despite the pervasive role of visual conventions in shaping visual language, technical communicators need leeway for creativity and even novelty as they adapt visual elements to specific rhetorical situations, often seeking audience feedback to ensure effective designs. And whether or not these aesthetic elements have explicit functional value—and often they do—they still achieve rhetorical ends: engaging and persuading audiences, appealing to their emotions, and engendering their trust.
In this article, then, I will begin by exploring conflicting perspectives on blending art and practical design. Then I will establish the longstanding relationship between aesthetics and technical communication, and I will explain the nature and origins of beauty and how it can be invoked in information design. I’ll then examine how the visual language of technical communication embodies conventional codes that accrue from changes in aesthetic taste, focusing on nineteenth-century design and the shift to Modernism that followed. Finally, I’ll examine creativity and design processes for creating communications that integrate art and aesthetics. Along the way, I will explain and analyze the implications for contemporary practice in both print and digital communications.
THE ROLE OF ART IN PRACTICAL COMMUNICATION: CONFLICTING VIEWS
To the extent that technical communication is an art form, what role do aesthetics—principles and cultural values that we associate with beauty—play in its visual design? How exactly does visual art manifest itself in technical communication? Do designers blend art and function? If so, how? Although these questions can be answered in several different ways, we might be skeptical about even asking them in the first place.
As technical communicators, we value information products that are functional, efficient, and user-centered. As a result, we generally believe that functionality and aesthetics are incompatible: Like water and oil, they possess conflicting and irreconcilable qualities that just don’t mix. Allowing visual art to infiltrate the design process exposes it to subjectivity and frivolous excess, which sound dangerous, out of control, and inappropriate. In short, technical visuals should remain an objective, art-free zone with no place for aesthetics.
This concern about art infiltrating practical communication is shared by influential designers. For example, Edward Tufte (1983) belittles charts and graphs designed by artists who dress up data to make it more palatable to their audiences (pp. 79–80). In doing so, designers sacrifice clarity and complexity for feckless embellishment, what Tufte calls “chartjunk” (pp. 107–121). Other designers and theorists have expressed (or at least implied) a similar concern about art or ornamentation creeping into aspects of practical design, including typography (Warde, 1956), data design (Bertin, 1981; Few, 2012, pp. 2–9, 141–44), and color (Brockmann, 1991). And most textbooks in the field of technical communication advocate minimalist design, free of visual elements that distract readers, impede visual processing, and merely arouse emotion. Often when aesthetic elements are invoked, moreover, they are regarded as mere surface features that designers deploy at the last minute to “pretty up” communications.
Not all designers, of course, have rejected the incursion of art (or artistic methods) into practical communication. Indeed, some of these same designers acknowledge, even celebrate, the aesthetic qualities of effective design. In the realm of data design, Tufte (1983) devotes a whole chapter to aesthetic elements (pp. 177–190); a TED Talk by designer David McCandless (2010) titled “The Beauty of Data Visualization” explains the creative potential of digital design; Noah Iliinsky (2010) claims that a “beautiful” data design should contain “novelty” and engender a “spark of excitement” (p. 1); and Nathan Yau (2013) explores several highly creative works of contemporary “data art” (pp. 74–84). On a more theoretical level, Lau and Vande Moere (2007) examine “information aesthetics” in data design—that is, “the degree of artistic influence” on a given data display and “the amount of interpretative engagement” it engenders (p. 88)—and develop a design model combining data, aesthetics, and interaction (p. 89). Dragga and Voss (2001), moreover, argue on ethical grounds for including pictorial elements in charts to foster emotion and empathy, and Carol David (2001) illustrates the historical connections between the fine arts and portraits of individuals and professionals, particularly women.
In the realm of typographical and document design, aesthetic movements and culture more broadly have long provided a theoretical and intellectual foundation for practice, as Ellen Lupton (2004) demonstrates with the evolution of text design. Indeed, most popular guidebooks draw from an aesthetic pool of concepts to explain (or inspire readers to implement) design principles and practices (e.g., Williams, 2015; Parker, 1989; White, 1988), though with no pretense that designers aim to create fine art. Indeed, Jan White (1988) compares typographical design to painting, which for most practical communications functions at the “workaday, house-painting level” (p. 1). Aesthetics have also been acknowledged as playing an increasing role in Web and interface design (Reinecke & Bernstein, 2011; Tractinsky, n.d.) and enhancing the user experience overall.
Whatever the nature of the design, aesthetics are deemed to have rhetorical impact, partly by arousing emotion and heightening audience engagement. As Donald Norman (2004) points out, aesthetically pleasing product designs are more useful because they generate positive emotions (p. 19). In the realm of practical communication, Kathyrn Riley and Jo Mackiewicz (2011) explain how aesthetic elements can make documents “visually appealing” and can capture the attention of their audiences (pp. xx–xxi). As Karen Schriver (1997) puts it, “Readers’ interpretations of documents are shaped by thinking and feeling, by the subtle interplay of cognition and affect” (p. 189). Aimed at captivating their audiences with artful creativity, websites like Dribbble (2020) feature online galleries of applied illustrations, animations, and text designs. Indeed, the very covers of Technical Communication are replete with beautiful, captivating images, many of which have been designed competitively to capture the attention of readers.
THE AESTHETIC TRADITION: PERSUASIVE IMAGES OF TECHNOLOGY AND PRACTICAL INFORMATION
Using beautiful images to engage audiences, arouse their emotions, and persuade them has occurred for centuries in various forms of technical and professional communication. Figure 1 shows a drawing from a nineteenth-century collection of the French architect Viollet-le-Duc (1875–1877), famous for his drawings and restorations (including Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris). This architectural rendering visualizes an Italian country house that includes a cutaway on the side of the building that provides both a view of its structure and a glimpse into its interior, pictorial elements that enrich the clarity and usefulness of the image. The house is embellished with vegetation (urns and palms) and is situated in a serene, picturesque landscape in which human figures immerse themselves. Of course, we could argue that an Italian villa of this style is certainly intended to possess beauty and that its depiction as a beautiful object, complete with well-shaped trees and an expansive lawn, should not surprise us. However, this visualization technique has much wider, more long-term currency, exemplified by contemporary renderings of houses, office buildings, and public spaces that create appealing pictures of designed objects in their contexts of use (see Ashwin, 1984). A similar descriptive beautification occurs in photos in annual reports, which show executives and employees in their best, most ideal poses to create a positive impression on the audience. In all of these situations, an attention to aesthetics heightens persuasion.
In fact, practical drawings have incorporated aesthetics for centuries as a means to persuade audiences. The visual arts (painting, drawing, architecture) have long shaped technical communication, beginning with early engineering drawings in the Renaissance and continuing into the Enlightenment and the Romantic and Victorian eras. Figure 2 shows a mechanical drawing from Agostino Ramelli’s Le Diverse et Artificiose Machine (1588) that envisions a water-pumping apparatus. The striking three-dimensional perspective view, the carefully arranged landscape around the well, and its stylized vegetation and tree foliage emulate paintings from the Renaissance and make this picture more credible and persuasive. At the same time, this picture departs from fine arts pictures by deploying techniques suited to its practical aims. For example, the neatly cleaved cutaway beneath the ground clearly displays the hydraulic technology, revealing its gears, pipes, and other parts, which are lettered to correlate with textual notations—picturing conventions that emerged in early engineering drawings (see Kostelnick & Hassett, 2003, pp. 36–37). These mechanical parts enable the figures operating the pump to experience strong agency, illustrating the efficacy of new and innovative technology (see Ferguson, 1992) while invoking the empowering humanistic vision of the period that fostered creativity in both engineering and art. In these ways, the aesthetics of technology infuse this picture, making it both usable and persuasive—attributes exemplified by Leonardo da Vinci’s engineering drawings and by the flood of drawings that succeeded them (e.g., Besson, 1578; Zonca, 1607; Böckler, 1673).
This synergy between art and technology initiated in the Renaissance continued well into the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century with the shift in aesthetics toward simplification and greater transparency, agency, and egalitarianism. Figure 3, for example, pictures a weaving machine in a plate from Diderot and d’Alembert’s influential Encyclopédie (1751–1765), which included 17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of plates (Recueil de Planches, 1762–1772), many of them picturing tools, machines, manufacturing methods, and a wide range of practical trades. Figure 3 shows a machine for making ornamental tassels and fringes, its lone operator busily at work, a strong and assertive hero-agent that typified renderings of technology similar to Ramelli’s in Figure 2. The operator’s strong agency reflects the Enlightenment program to democratize knowledge by broadening the pool of who was pictured—not just the elite classes, but virtually anyone engaged in a trade—and by making that knowledge accessible to all. Contentedly ensconced in his cubicle, the operator embodies the aesthetics of the period: rational, lucid, and egalitarian.
Another example of an aesthetically pleasing object appears in Figure 4, a late nineteenth-century drawing of a paper-cutting machine (Sanborn, 1880). Rendered with shades and shadows, the machine appears as an ideal object, situated in abstract space without contextual details. Like many newly invented machines of the time, the technology is pictured as a desirable object, an affecting assemblage of metal gears, handles, adjusting wheels, and other parts, right down to the pins and bolts. The style of the drawing, with its fine ink hatching to show subtle variations in shading and light, gives it a realistic, almost photographic presence. This precise, exacting aesthetic of the new industrial age pervaded most drawings of technology at the time, from steam engines and locomotives (see Baynes & Pugh, 1981) to factory machines, farm implements, and hydraulic equipment. These machines, large and small alike, fueled the Victorian age, and their epideictic visualizations paved the way for the functional aesthetics of early Modernism.
Some practical drawings also embody aesthetic properties because of their narrative qualities, their ability to tell stories (see Kostelnick, 2019, pp. 97–130), which typically occurs in instructional materials—for example, manuals for operating equipment and wordless instructions for assembling products and completing do-it-yourself projects. Many visual narratives use a highly abstract style that mirrors or even mimics the composition of a comics-style narrative, such as issues of the U.S. Army’s PS Magazine illustrated by Will Eisner (1951–1971) or the 9/11 Report illustrated by Jacobson and Colón (2006). A comics-style series of pictures appears in Figure 5, which shows a page from instructions by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for safely using nail guns (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2013). In a sequence of pictures and words, a veteran construction worker tells a rookie about the serious and potentially dangerous business of using a nail gun to frame buildings—here explaining how to prevent the tool from accidentally discharging. The drawings exemplify the casual freehand aesthetic of the comics medium that most contemporary readers have experienced in a superhero story, graphic novel, set of instructions, or even a textbook. The conventional visual language of this aesthetic—an abstract series of pictures with figures and word bubbles—makes a rather gruesome topic accessible and inviting—and remarkably persuasive.
Story-telling with animated illustrations can create an even more seamless and cohesive narrative, which is simplified and enhanced by beauty. Figure 6, for example, shows a screenshot from an animated illustration created by Phil Szczepaniak (2020) that narrates how a wood processing plant converts tree logs into strands (fragments) for making OSB, a common building material used in houses and other structures. This visualization, accompanied by up-tempo music, shows the journey of the logs as they are loaded into a hopper and stripped of their bark (pictured earlier in the animation) and then sorted and grouped as they head to the stranding machine, which appears here on the right. The traveling logs are all uniform in their color and shape—ideal logs free of knots, bends, and blemishes that would distract the audience from the smooth, carefree operation of the machines. The plant and its moving parts are shown in contrasting cool and warm colors (blue and orange) and are abstracted from their surroundings, which keeps the focus on the narrative and carefully controls what the audience experiences. As Phil observes on his 3deeit.com website, he designed the animation to capture the attention and engagement of his audiences, especially at trade shows. The aesthetics of this visual narrative contribute substantially toward achieving that goal.
As we can see from these examples spread across a long stretch of history, images in technical and professional communication have been shaped at least in part by aesthetic factors and influences, which enhance both the clarity of the images and the engagement of their audiences, often through emotional appeals. And as we’ve seen, aesthetic elements also contribute to the persuasive power of images to convince audiences that the objects visualized are credible, effective, and beneficial. The idea, then, that practical images have an affinity with, or are at least compatible with, art or aesthetics reflects a longstanding tradition.
PRINCIPLES OF PRACTICAL ART: THE ORIGINS AND NATURE OF BEAUTY
Applied forms of design that are created with a skilled “craft,” as Howard Risatti (2007) argues, can achieve aesthetic legitimacy on their own merits as functional products, distinct from works of fine art. If art and aesthetics, then, also play a role in designing practical information, at whatever skill level, how should we describe these elements? What visual attributes do they have, and what effects do they have on their audiences? Generally, aesthetics are typically associated with beauty: in our field, the beauty of pages, screens, illustrations, or data displays that have pleasing proportions, that are consistent, and that integrate complementary forms and colors that are soothing to the eye—in other words, visual compositions that embody effective design. The arrangement and semiotic interplay of these design elements parallel what Michael O’Toole (2011) calls “the Compositional function” of a picture or other designed artifacts (pp. 23–29).
Designers of technical information invoke beauty in many of the cognate principles and concepts they apply in composing their communications. A study by Miles Kimball (2013) provides a roadmap: Concepts like balance, rhythm, unity, and alignment, among many others, all invoke the quest for beauty as well as relate closely to perceptual principles. Similar principles linking beauty and perception are advocated by authors of popular design guides like Robin Williams (2015) as well as in academic courses in graphic and document design.
Our ideas about beauty and its relation to perception (as well as culture and emotion) derive from many sources, both ancient and modern. The Roman architect Vitruvius (C. 30–20 BC/1826), for example, claimed that “Beauty is produced by the pleasing appearance and good taste of the whole, and by the dimensions of all the parts being duly proportioned to each other” (p. 15). This classical standard for beauty—produced by good proportion among the elements in a composition, including symmetrical arrangements (p. 12)—dominated design at least through the Renaissance and Enlightenment (see, for example, Beaumont, 1752, p. 12). Of course, as Umberto Eco (2004) points out, standards for defining beauty vary from one culture or historical era to another (p. 12). In the modern world, beauty has increasingly been defined by the pleasurable feelings that it evokes. George Santayana (1896/1955), for example, defines beauty as “an emotion” (p. 31), as “pleasure objectified” (p. 33), as “an ultimate good, something that gives satisfaction to a natural function, to some fundamental need or capacity in our minds” (p. 32). Nonetheless, he identifies certain traditional qualities that arouse these emotions, among them various aspects of symmetry, including “bilateral symmetry” (p. 58), “recognition and rhythm” (p. 59) and “unity in variety” (p. 61).
The idea that beauty induces pleasure was a longstanding belief—held by Vitruvius and others in the classical world—and in the Enlightenment, Edmund Burke (1759/1967) described the sensory stimuli that cause it. In his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke defined attributes of the beautiful by contrasting them with those of the sublime. According to Burke, objects that possess beauty are “small” and “smooth” (with “gradual” changes in shape), possess “delicacy,” and have “clean and fair” coloring (pp. 112–117; 151; 155–160); beauty, moreover, is also closely associated with “grace” and “elegance” (pp. 119–120) and evokes emotions of pleasure and love (pp. 91, 124). The sublime, on the other hand, is fostered by “obscurity” (pp. 58–64), “vastness” (pp. 72–73), “infinity” (pp. 73–74) and “darkness” (pp. 80–81) and arouses feelings of pain, terror, and “astonishment” (pp. 39, 57–58). In technical communication, which emphasizes clarity and transparency, visual elements gravitate toward beauty—toward forms that are geometrical, elegant, and harmonious—in other words, those that most please us. Nonetheless, the sublime and the grotesque also have a place in practical visuals, typically in safety warnings that show people in distress: electrocuted figures, fingers caught in machines, eyes and lungs exposed to poisonous gases, and bodies penetrated by nails, which appear elsewhere in the nail gun safety guide (Figure 5).
Beauty has also been defined mathematically, beginning at least with the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who discovered the geometrical origins of beauty in the proportional relationships of forms (Eco, 2004, pp. 61–87). In architecture, the geometry of triangles, circles, and other shapes creates the underlying framework for facades, floor plans, and structural engineering. Likewise, practical communications often employ mathematical ratios to achieve aesthetic effect. In document design, the rectilinear grid that structures information on a page has its roots in Cartesian mathematics and the rational worldview of the eighteenth century (Williamson, 1986). Likewise, newsletters are typically set in three columns (or multiples of four or five), a mathematical pattern that’s both functional and pleasing to the eye. Websites also have similar compositional properties based on ratios and relationships that provide the underlying structure for text and images. In data design, the mathematical proportions of the “Golden Rectangle” (Tufte, 1983, pp. 189–190) are often followed, whereby the width (X-axis) of a line or bar chart (or scatterplot) is visibly wider than the height (Y-axis), a geometry that gives the aspect ratio both stability and variation. In all of these instances, structural integrity and consistency infuse the design with beauty.
This mathematical aesthetic can also be found in drawings that reveal proportions and detail. Figure 7, a line drawing of a revolving steam engine from the mid-nineteenth-century (Artizan Club, 1855), visualizes an explicit array of mathematical facts. The flat, two-dimensional drawing (here in cross section) became the standard method of representation as mechanical engineering evolved as a discipline and required greater precision. The drawing displays all of the fixed and moving parts—levers, rods, boiler tubes, and other steam engine components—some of them represented with cross hatching (showing areas cut through) and with dashed lines (showing surfaces behind the front plane) and annotated with upper- and lowercase lettering. This abstract, rational explanation of this complex object is steeped in its own visual logic, as elegant and unadulterated as a mathematical equation.
Engineering drawings—especially those from the nineteenth century (like Figure 7) that show the relationships between the mechanical parts and gears of steam engines and other powerful machines—possess beauty because of their geometry, spatial arrangements, and intricacy. Exploded drawings also exhibit beauty, with their objects elegantly floating in space along a central axis (see Kostelnick & Hassett, 2003, pp. 64–65). These drawings are fictions because objects never float in space in such an orderly pattern, nor are machines shown in cross section (like the one in Figure 7) actually sliced through, nor do water pumps (like the one in Figure 2) have the earth and masonry removed so we can see their mechanical parts: In each case, the drawing conveniently and conventionally side-steps reality in favor of an orderly, functional, and beautiful rendering.
This kind of structural elegance that persuades us to accept an altered reality also appears in organizational charts, where the arrangement of positions and people in an abstract network both clarifies and simplifies their relationships. Figure 8 shows the organization of key personnel in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), including assistants to the secretary, national directors, and regional administrators. Visualizing these positions on the chart with centered text surrounded by boxes (with smooth, rounded corners), aligned vertically and horizontally and connected by linework, gives the display a disciplined structure that enhances its ethos. At the same time, the modest splashes of turquoise provide points of emphasis and lighten the tone by evoking a popular contemporary color, revived from the 1950s. Overall, the chart displays an airy, understated elegance that typifies contemporary digital design. Of course, depending on the nature of a given organization, this neat, highly structured arrangement of people and their relationships to one another is often not quite as clear-cut and simple as the chart that visualizes them. By using the conventional visual language of the genre, organizational charts beautify the truth to create an image, however closely connected to reality, of an orderly and coherent world, an aesthetic enhancement that both persuades audiences to believe in this world and bolsters their confidence in the display.
Structural elegance and transparency assume new forms in contemporary technical illustrations in which animations create fluid and complex compositions that engage (and delight) audiences with their spatial dexterity. Figure 9, for example, shows an animation by Jacob O’Neal (2020) that illustrates the operation of a sewing machine. The composition of this animation is tight and focused as well as artfully arranged. As the animation progresses, the machine appears from a variety of angles, with the illustrations magically zooming in and out to explain various features—here, how a thread passes through the bobbin to create a stitch. The machine is shown both as a fully assembled object as well as in parts, with lighter lines showing its structure in the background. The movement around the machine, the detailing, the light and elegant drawing style, and the red background uncluttered by contextual details heighten the beauty of this device and elevate it aesthetically and rhetorically by clarifying and celebrating its operation.
Some Attributes of Beauty in Technical Communication
Based on the examples examined so far, we can begin to create an inventory of design elements in a given composition—of a page or screen, drawing, or chart—that evoke beauty. Elements like parallelism, balance, color, and detail are likely candidates, though by no means does a beautiful design have to embody any or all of these attributes. Many of the design elements in this tentative inventory are rooted in Gestalt principles and intertwined with Modernism and its emphasis on perceptual clarity (see Butler, 1984, pp. 30–31; Lupton, 1986, p. 51; Arnheim, 1969).
- Parallelism provides a key aesthetic element because it creates rhythm and consistency among design elements that create a sense of proportion, which has a longstanding association with beauty and has the uniformity and perceptual comfort that Burke describes in his Philosophical Enquiry. Parallelism can take many forms: graphical elements like bullets, rules, shaded boxes, and borders; a set of abstract icons on a desktop menu, bars on a chart, color coding on maps, or a series of instructional drawings with the same style, size, color, and framing. Organizational charts, like the one in Figure 8, embody graphical parallelism in the boxes representing key personnel: the repetition and alignment of these forms, their shading, and the lines connecting them.
- Balance (or compositional symmetry) also provides a means for achieving beauty, primarily as a pure form of proportion touted by ancients like Vitruvius. As Burke claimed, viewers find smooth and subtly curving forms (like circles) attractive, examples of which appear in the machines in Figures 2, 4, 7, and 9. Distributing elements evenly across a page or screen can create a similar effect, as one textual element or image balances and complements another in a given composition. The façade in Figure 1 illustrates this compositional balance, as does the wood framework of the weaving apparatus in Figure 3 and the distributed images in Figure 5. In its most extreme form, of course, balance can devolve into gray matter, which becomes sedate and disengaging. So we also need focal points to keep us alert and engaged: drop caps, pulled quotes, spot color, high-contrast images, and the like.
- Fine descriptive detail is yet another manifestation of beauty. Burke associates beauty with “delicacy” (p. 116), and the exquisite details of a three-dimensional picture of a designed building, like the Italian villa in Figure 1, give audiences a realistic idea of what it looks like in its environment, complete with trees, landscaping, and people inhabiting the space. Ramelli’s water pump (Figure 2) and the paper-cutting machine (Figure 4) also visualize fine details, as do the steam engine (Figure 7), organizational chart (Figure 8), and the sewing machine animation (Figure 9). This vivid description (or enargeia) fosters an emotional response (see Kostelnick, 2016), and the intricacies of such drawings can both delight and dazzle us.
- Color is frequently associated with beauty and aesthetics: pure, bright hues (not flattened with grayscale) evoke beauty, as do colors that are blended harmoniously (see Richards & David, 2005). Perhaps more so than other forms of beauty, colors play on our senses, like the turquoise in the OSHA organizational chart (Figure 8) or the red shirt in the nail gun instructions (Figure 5) that emphasizes the safety message. In both cases, color enhances usability and persuasion. On the other hand, color that beautifies a design might also weaken its functionality: On a chart or graph, complementary colors that are calm and pleasing to the eye, and that heighten ethos and elicit pleasurable emotions, might be a better choice than gaudy, high-contrast colors that more clearly and emphatically differentiate the data.
Although deploying design elements like these can help us visualize beauty, we can also identify composing practices that veer us in the opposite direction: multiple typefaces in close proximity, a lopsided distribution of visual elements on page or screen, visual patterns that resonate awkwardly (e.g., moiré effects), colors that clash with one another, and unedited details like misaligned lists, orphans and widows, and unfocused or pixelated images. Whether we are willing to admit it or not, avoiding these involves some aesthetic judgment in our quest for utility.
Empirical Measurements of Beauty
If visual elements in technical communication can, at least to a degree, also be considered an art form, how can their effects on audiences be measured? Numerous researchers have empirically studied subjective aspects of visual language, from typography to data design. In his foundational studies of typography, for example, Ovink (1938) studied the “atmosphere value” of typefaces by measuring the subjective emotions that readers associate with them (see also Brumberger, 2003). Tinker and Paterson (1942), moreover, measured the “pleasingness” of typefaces (what people like or prefer) and found a strong correlation between what readers find pleasing and what they perceive to be legible (see also Tinker, 1963, pp. 49–51, 72–73, 79, 117–118, 121–122; Burt, 1959, pp. 18–29). In the realm of data design, Bateman et al. (2010) found that participants in their study preferred charts with pictorial elements and had better long-term recall of them over plain charts. Furthermore, in her study of color schemes in PowerPoint charts, Jo Mackiewicz (2007) found significant variation in their “attractiveness” to participants.
Usability studies, moreover, also acknowledge aesthetics by often identifying what readers find appealing and what draws them to a communication in the first place. Two foundational studies illustrate this process: In creating educational materials on child development for low-income families, Michael Floreak (1989) and his team sought input about parents’ preferences for illustrations before creating a new design; in re-designing a telephone bill, Keller-Cohen, Meader, and Mann (1990) measured the audience’s preferences for the original design relative to the re-designs. Many studies since these, including those by Karen Schriver (1997), affirm the importance of audience preferences in assessing feedback during the design process. Today, methods of “preference testing” for “aesthetic appeal” can be applied to virtually any design and can be measured both quantitatively and qualitatively (UsabilityHub, 2020). In short, then, what audiences generally find pleasing—judgments based in part on aesthetic criteria—affects how (or if at all) those audiences interact with and interpret a design.
Aesthetic preferences have remained a major factor in usability studies, including those of UX design. For example, Lavie and Tractinsky (2004) measured users’ perceptions of websites based on “classical aesthetics,” which mirror traditional standards for beauty (similar to those I discussed earlier), and “expressive aesthetics,” which exhibit creativity and novelty. Although users in the study responded positively to both forms of aesthetics, Lavie and Tractinsky found that users clearly associated “classical aesthetics” with usability (pp. 286–290), confirming traditional standards for beauty. Given that audiences consider aesthetically pleasing Web designs as more usable, aesthetic judgments can provide valuable input, especially when they are solicited after “behavioral” testing (Whitenton, 2017). In short, aesthetics are playing an increasing (and surprisingly important) role in gauging user experience with empirical methods. Although we might be skeptical of methods that measure subjective aspects of design like aesthetics, preferences, and pleasure (which are all intertwined), empirical studies of subjective and emotional factors are conducted routinely in cognate fields like marketing and psychology. Doing so in our own field should have equal validity.
CULTURAL INFLUENCES ON AESTHETICS: A CATALYST FOR VISUAL CONVENTIONS
Designing and interpreting the many forms of visual language I’ve described so far rarely happen in a cultural or aesthetic vacuum. The aesthetic aspects of visual language also reflect larger cultural processes beyond the control of individual designers by embodying conventional codes that accrue from the shifts in taste from one historical period and design movement to the next (Eco, 2004, p. 12; see also Brasseur, 2003). These culturally based codes are often deeply embedded in our development and education from an early age (Kazmierczak, 2000/2001, pp. 178–180), and they encompass all aspects of design, including screens and interfaces (Reinecke & Bernstein, 2011). Culture has a ubiquitous presence in information design, as visual language conforms to the dominant aesthetic styles of a given era and place to meet audience expectations: A millennia ago, for example, Chinese medical drawings were made more credible and persuasive when they were deliberately adapted to the prevailing aesthetic tastes of the upper class and “scholar-officials” (Zhang, 2016). Today, however, aesthetic conventions constitute an invisible practice that is so pervasive and foundational that designers and their audiences enculturated in those conventions might not even acknowledge their presence.
So how, exactly, and in what form, do these larger aesthetic developments influence designers of practical communications, who may have no affiliation with a design movement or even a grounding in its visual principles? One way to answer these questions is to consider the relationship between the fine and applied arts, and culture more broadly, and how they overlap or interweave with each other.
Changes in taste driven by cultural forces permeate all areas of design—from drawing and painting to architecture and product design—as well as visual forms of practical communication like text design, illustrations, and data visualization. For example, page design from the medieval period to the present has been closely aligned with the cultural and spiritual values of a given era, as Western culture moved from the “point-based grid” of the medieval world (Williamson, 1986, pp. 15–18), immersed in Christian symbolism, to the more secular worldview of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, based on reason and Cartesian geometry (Williamson, 1986, pp. 18–21), to the modern grid based on modular design principles (Lupton, 2004, pp. 121–129), which were also applied in architecture and interior design. Similarly, pictures have reflected the aesthetics of a given era, beginning with the Renaissance and early engineering drawings (Figure 2) and continuing into the Enlightenment (the Encyclopédie drawing in Figure 3) and the Romantic and Victorian eras (Figure 4). Even data design has assimilated the values of larger aesthetic movements, as we’ll see. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any visual elements in technical communication that haven’t imitated (or echoed) the visual arts or been influenced by the cultural forces that shape (and reshape) them.
Sometimes these connections between culture and design can, ironically, be seen more clearly from a distance. To explore these connections, I’ll examine some nineteenth-century artifacts, then consider the shift to Modernism that followed. Visualizations of information in the later nineteenth century paralleled the aesthetic values of the Victorian period. For example, the image in Figure 10 from the U.S. Patent Office (1892) illustrates farming technology in an American landscape—here, an early implement for mechanically harvesting grain. Powered by a team of horses, the harvester relies on the movement of the wheels, connected to a belt, to set the apparatus in motion as it moves across the field, guided by the operator standing on the back. The setting in which this machine functions epitomizes American rural life in the nineteenth century, with a lone farmer ensconced in nature and operating freely and independently. His private domain clearly defined by the distant fences, this solitary agent dwells in a Romantic scene envisioned in the writings of Thoreau and Emerson, the idealized paintings of Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School, and the popular rural scenes of Currier and Ives. The style and setting of this drawing, along with the robust agency of the figure, integrate the cultural values of the historical moment to create a persuasive statement about the benefits of emerging technology.
Victorian design was also characterized by a plenitude of details, like the ornate neo-Gothic façades found in nineteenth-century hospitals, libraries, schools, and college buildings as well as in Victorian houses replete with towers, slender columns, elaborate trim, and stained-glass windows. The nineteenth century was also the age of Realism, in both literature and art (e.g., Dickens, Flaubert, Millet, Winslow Homer), which emphasized fidelity to minute particulars. That attention to detail, already evident in the paper-cutting machine in Figure 4, can be seen to an even greater degree in Figure 11, a technical drawing of a mechanical device for controlling the speed of a steam engine that generates electricity (Durham’s Governor, 1882). Here, the gears and other external components are illustrated in precise detail, with full shades and shadows to enhance their realism. To provide yet more descriptive detail, a cross-section of a gear appears on the right, and an elevation appears on the left. Both of these smaller drawings, which float in mid-air, are arranged to create an efficient—and aesthetically pleasing—composition. Intricate and balanced, with fine, smooth-flowing linework, this drawing embodies both the aesthetics of the Victorian era as well as the more universal attributes of beauty I defined earlier.
This same Victorian sensibility pervaded charts and graphs in the later nineteenth century. Data displays during this era, sometimes referred to as the “golden age” (Funkhouser, 1937, p. 330; Friendly, 2008) of data design, incorporated creativity, complexity, and lavish detail and color. For example, Figure 12 shows a rank chart from the 1898 Statistical Atlas of the United States (Gannett & United States Census Office, 1898) that plots the relative sizes of U.S. cities over a century Not surprisingly, New York and Philadelphia held prominent places at the top of the charts for decades, with newcomers like Chicago and San Francisco rapidly gaining ground. The vivid colors in the symbols representing the cities, the intricacy of these symbols, the network of sloping lines connecting them, and the sheer complexity of the display (visualizing a century of census data) exemplify the aesthetics of the period. Embodying the cultural values of its era, this chart drew from the same rich pool of aesthetic tenets that inspired the Victorian façade.
A similar emphasis on intricate detail appears in many other forms of practical communication of the period: the delicate, natural style of handwriting with its emphasis on contrasting thick and thin strokes; page borders with elaborate vegetative swirls; and graphical elements like the “north” symbols on engineering and architectural drawings, their intricate arrows mimicking the finials atop a tower or church spire (see, for example, Esser, 1877, p. 27). The aesthetic sensibility that generated these exquisite embellishments rippled through all forms of design, large and small, right down to the pen and inkwell.
This Victorian penchant for profuse detail and ornament met strong resistance with the advent of early twentieth-century Modernism. Fostered by the emerging industrial culture and a reaction to excessive Victorian ornament, this new approach to design generated a set of design principles based on functional minimalism, high-contrast geometrical forms, and perceptually based concepts (e.g., contrast, focal points), many of which still largely dominate design today. The synergy between aesthetics and functionalism, between form and function, was epitomized in the Bauhaus design school in Germany in the post-World War I era of the 1920s and early 1930s, particularly with the typographical designs of Moholy-Nagy (Craig & Barton, 1987, p. 163) and other early Modernist designers like architect Walter Gropius (see Kostelnick, 1990; Banham, 1960; Kinross, 1985). A similar functional Modernism appeared in Otto Neurath’s Isotype (1936, 1939) with its geometrical, high-contrast forms used to display pictorial symbols and quantitative data, a design method that was brought to the US by Rudolf Modley (1937; see Crawley, 1994).
Figure 13 shows a Modernist design from the U.S. Federal Emergency Relief Administration’s report On Relief (1935), which visualizes data about the plight of American workers during the Great Depression, especially those unemployed and receiving government assistance. The design emulates Neurath’s Isotype principles with its stylized, high-contrast icons that embody simple geometrical forms at a high level of abstraction. Epitomizing the new machine-age aesthetics, these pictographic icons—which represent people and resources—flow across the chart like reproducible objects on a factory assembly line. The sans serif text and use of black and red (a primary color) further exemplify Modernist aesthetics and contrast starkly with the decorative excesses of the Victorian age. In this unassuming but perceptually potent display, aesthetics and functionalism are inextricably wedded!
Today, the influence of Modernist aesthetics continues to ripple through contemporary information design, with its emphasis on lean functionalism, modulated by the design affordances and perceptual ecology of digital media. The chart in Figure 14, from the U.S. Census Bureau’s online Library of Infographics & Visualizations (2019), reveals the contemporary aesthetic of the digital infographic, here in the form of horizontal bar charts displaying popular occupations of male and female workers. The sans serif title and labels, muted colors, and silhouettes of human forms contribute to the light and airy composition. Unlike the flat, subdued bars atop this chart, the human forms standing beneath the plot frame have variation and depth, visualizing a highly inclusive workplace without revealing specific identities. The charts in Figures 13 and 14 both artfully display data about people and their relationships to work, but they are differentiated by the aesthetics of Modernism and its later-stage (Postmodern) digital incarnation.
At a given moment, these visual manifestations of aesthetics were probably so familiar that they remained invisible to their audiences and designers, deployed as part of the cultural conventions of the period—and re-deployed and interpreted without much deliberation or critique. However unknowingly this process unfolds, information design remains constantly permeable to cultural influence, which both enhances the engagement and efficiency of audiences and strengthens the credibility and persuasiveness of the designs.
ART AND THE CREATIVE PROCESS: A SYNTHESIS OF CONVENTION AND NOVELTY
The cultural knowledge embedded in visual aesthetics operates silently, even indiscernibly, as technical communicators deploy visual conventions—text, images, data displays—to meet audience expectations and streamline their design processes. At the same time, designers need leeway for creativity and novelty as they adapt visual elements to specific rhetorical situations. The perpetual tension between convention and novelty (see Butler, 1984), then, creates something of a conundrum when considering the role of aesthetics in technical communication: On the one hand, the aesthetic values of a given historical moment have a strong (and irresistible) influence on design, and on the other hand, designers need the freedom and agency to inject aesthetic elements of their own into a given communication. We might plot these tendencies on a spectrum:
Christopher Alexander explained this tension between convention and novelty in his Notes on the Synthesis of Form (1964), the manifesto of the Design Methods Movement, in which he describes “unselfconscious” and “selfconscious” cultures (p. 32). “Unselfconscious” cultures adhere to longstanding conventions (pp. 33–36), while “selfconscious” cultures are more invested in dynamic, innovative problem-solving in which in-depth analysis of the problem drives the design process (pp. 55–83). Although Alexander doesn’t address the role of beauty or aesthetics, his theory relates to practical visual communication in that designers can be considered working in an “unselfconscious” way when they routinely (and without much deliberation) integrate aesthetic conventions into their work. On the other hand, designers working in a “selfconscious” mode invent aesthetic elements for a particular design and situation, pursuing novelty to reach their rhetorical goals.
Visual Invention: The Pursuit of Novelty in Modern Design
To the extent that designers maximize their agency and gravitate toward novelty and visual invention, how does this process unfold? How do researchers and theorists explain the role of creativity in the design process? Although these complex questions don’t have simple answers, researchers and theorists have been studying them for some time, with mixed and sometimes contrary results. In his seminal study The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler (1967) identifies “bisociation” as the key factor, whereby disparate elements are brought together in new ways (pp. 35–38, 352). So a designer might intermix color, type, and images to create an innovative website; draw an illustration that blends realistic and abstract elements; or construct a hybrid data display that combines genres—say, bar charts on an interactive map. Although these novel designs might challenge audiences initially, they might also be more inviting, useful, and persuasive.
What role does artistic inspiration play in creating artful, novel designs? Karen Schriver (1997) critiques the “romantic” approach to design in which an ineffable inspiration guides the creative process of the designer, who remains largely detached from the needs and feedback of the intended audience (pp. 82–84). This “romantic” approach to creativity implies that we can’t comprehend how designers generate ideas, that creativity is something innate and mysterious, an idea that originated in the Romantic movement (in the later 1700s and early 1800s) and its deep belief in the creative powers of the imagination.
This intuitive notion of creativity, however, was contested in the 1960s and 1970s by the Design Methods Movement, which advocated a more explicit and rational approach to design (Jones, 1963; Alexander, 1964; see Kostelnick, 1989), similar to how engineers and scientists solve complex problems. According to Christopher Jones (1970), one of the founders of the Design Methods Movement in architecture, the goal of the “new methods” was to “make public the hitherto private thinking of designers; to externalize the design process” (p. 45), to demystify it by transforming the “black box” into a “glass box” (pp. 46–56). In this new paradigm, design was described as a transparent process consisting of “Analysis,” “Synthesis,” and “Evaluation” (Jones, 1963, pp. 54–55; Jones, 1970, p. 50), with the analysis stage holding the key. Consequently, methods for solving design problems could be controlled and replicated, even if the problems varied considerably, as is the case with architectural design where buildings serve their users in many different and often unique ways (Alexander, 1964).
Whether we conceive of the design as a mysterious and innate or as an explicit and replicable process, how can nondesigners learn to think like designers? How do instructors encourage design as a way of thinking? To answer these questions, Eva Brumberger (2007) suggests a variety of strategies, such as teaching design as a process, encouraging students to sketch ideas and to integrate words and images, and creating a “studio” setting that provides a space conducive to creative and collaborative design (pp. 385–390). Several additional techniques for stimulating visual creativity appear in Brumberger and Northcut’s Designing Texts: Teaching Visual Communication (2013)—among them a low-tech “natural” approach to enhance individual expression (Kostelnick, 2013). Envisioning a more collaborative, interactive method, recently several proponents of “design thinking” (Pope-Ruark et al., 2019) have advocated a pedagogical approach in which students create information products by actively consulting with their users. This participatory process disperses invention across both designers and their audiences while embracing the interactive affordances of contemporary digital design.
Novelty and Convention Combined: Aesthetics in Interactive Data Design
In virtually any communication, novelty and convention are, to varying degrees, integrated to produce aesthetically appealing designs; these two coalesce in especially striking forms in contemporary data visualization. With the invention of digital tools for charting, graphing, and mapping data, the field of data visualization has exploded, both in the number of visualizations and their complexity and popularity, with numerous online archives and international awards recognizing creative, exemplary, and beautiful designs (see McCandless, 2020; Kantar, 2020). These innovations continue to multiply as more designers acquire the skills to transform data into useful works of art, pursuing novelty while working primarily within the conventional visual language of traditional genres (bar and line graphs, scatterplots, maps, and area charts). Aesthetics play a key role in this creative process, as designers deploy forms that evoke beauty and enable users to personalize the data, which stimulates the emotions and makes the experience more pleasurable (see Kostelnick, 2016). Combining the two—by creating graphical beauty and inducing user interaction—engenders the “information aesthetics” described and modeled by Lau and Vande Moere (2007).
Figure 15 shows a visualization blending data and beauty in the form of a complex interactive map of “How the U.S. Generates Electricity,” which appears on the Carbon Brief website (Evans & Pearce, 2017). This display visualizes the various sources of power—both renewables like wind, solar, and hydroelectric as well as carbon-based sources like oil and gas—across the US, with the size of the circles (bubbles) indicating the relative energy generated by the power sources. So what makes this chart, and other data visualizations akin to it, beautiful? The surface aesthetics certainly contribute: the vibrant array of colors, the pervasive circles (smooth, symmetrical forms that Burke associates with beauty), and the intricacy of composition. But beyond those, the interactivity of the chart personalizes the experience by allowing users to choose data based on their interests and geographical locations. For example, users can zoom in on a particular state or select an energy source as well as mouse over a given source for textual details. These interactive features were carefully planned by designer Rosamund Pearce (2018) to give users maximum flexibility to explore the data and thus make their experiences successful and engaging. That interactivity, which personalizes the data exploration, and the exquisite graphical coding, which elicits pleasurable emotions, enhance the “information aesthetics” of this display, beautifying the data and heightening its rhetorical effectiveness and impact.
CONCLUSIONS: FROM THEORY TO PRACTICE
Art and aesthetics have inundated design for centuries, and they continue to do so today with an ever-increasing variety of visual forms. Designers should acknowledge these visual elements in their work and routinely deploy them to meet the goals of their communications, whether those elements take the form of conventions generated by larger cultural forces, design principles intended to foster beauty, or sheer novelty. In recommending these actions, however, I’m not suggesting that technical communicators try to transform themselves into artists (or graphic artists) or that they radically change their approach to designing pages, screens, pictures, or charts and graphs. In most situations, designing technical information primarily for aesthetic impact isn’t realistic or desirable: Most rhetorical situations just don’t warrant it, and an excessive attention to art and aesthetics can devolve into perceptual distraction and impede usability.
On the other hand, designing without any aesthetic elements or judgment leaves some important rhetorical cards on the table: engaging audiences in the communication, appealing to their emotions, persuading them and building credibility with them, and meeting their expectations about what looks conventional and appropriate. Besides, designing information that delights and pleases audiences can rarely be regarded as a liability rather than a benefit. And despite the inherently slippery and subjective nature of aesthetics, the preferences of audiences for what they find attractive and pleasing can be measured and quantified and productively funneled into the design process. And, not the least, an attention to aesthetics fosters creativity, one of the aspects of technical communication that makes it human and satisfying, to both designers and audiences alike.
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I wish to thank the guest editors, Felicia Chong and Tammy Rice-Bailey, and the three anonymous reviewers for their perceptive and wide-ranging suggestions for revising my manuscript.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charles Kostelnick is a professor at Iowa State University, where he has taught technical communication and a graduate and undergraduate course in visual communication in business and technical writing. He has authored Humanizing Visual Design: The Rhetoric of Human Forms in Practical Communication (2019), co-edited Visible Numbers: Essays on the History of Statistical Graphics (2016), and co-authored Shaping Information: The Rhetoric of Visual Conventions (2003) and Designing Visual Language: Strategies for Professional Communicators (2nd ed., 2011). He is available at email@example.com.