Organizing and Delivering Effective Communication at the Intersection of Theory and Design

The fol­low­ing is part of the 2023 Cen­tral States Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion (CSCA) Con­fer­ence pre­sen­ta­tion by Dr. Kather­ine K. How­ell and Jason W. How­ell, MFA of Oral Roberts Uni­ver­sity. While not exhaus­tive of the con­text of the panel dis­cus­sion, the text descrip­tion, notes and images reflect the spirit of the event, and serve as a sum­mary of the key points.

In an ever-increas­ing visual cul­ture, the role of the visual com­mu­ni­ca­tor needs inten­tion­al­ity to help the stu­dent, employer, employee, client, and layper­son bet­ter under­stand, learn, and com­mu­ni­cate the com­plex and abstract issues of the pop­u­lar, cul­tural, and orga­ni­za­tional com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and graphic design pro­fes­sors will dis­cuss max­i­miz­ing the poten­tial power that teach­ing and under­stand­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion the­ory can have on the com­mu­ni­ca­tor (i.e., the designer). Con­cur­rently, an under­stand­ing of the mechan­ics and appli­ca­tion of visual cul­ture can pro­vide val­i­da­tion to exist­ing thought, as well as evolve bet­ter orga­ni­za­tional meth­ods for future cultures. 

Design­ers are in need of an under­stand­ing of the aca­d­e­mic the­o­ries that drive com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Peo­ple who cre­ate visual com­mu­ni­ca­tion are in need of under­stand­ing the con­ven­tions of the pro­fes­sion. We decided we needed some way to trans­late and coor­di­nate these two thoughts, a Rosetta Stone of sorts, which par­al­lels egyp­tol­o­gists his­toric trans­la­tion of visual hiero­glyphs through it’s ancient Greek text.

The prin­ci­ples of Weick’s Sense­mak­ing The­ory pro­vide us an exam­ple of review­ing a design arti­fact. The seven prin­ci­ples include: 1‑retrospection, 2‑enactment, 3‑socialization, 4‑socialization, 5‑ongoing, 6‑extracted cues, and 7‑identify. In look­ing at the exam­ple to fol­low, three of the prin­ci­ples are high­lighted. First, the prin­ci­ple of ret­ro­spec­tion. When look­ing back on expe­ri­ences, indi­vid­u­als are able to make sense of events, sit­u­a­tions, etc. through coher­ence and con­ti­nu­ity. The next prin­ci­ple is extracted cues. Brack­et­ing or set­ting aside cer­tain aspects or fil­ter­ing out cer­tain aspects of an arti­fact allow indi­vid­u­als to focus in on other aspects of what they are encoun­ter­ing. The last prin­ci­ple to look at with the exam­ple is iden­tity. Indi­vid­u­als make sense of their expe­ri­ences in ways that rein­force their indi­vid­ual sense of self and or their group iden­tity in ways that rein­force their self and other social norms to which they ascribe themselves. 

Across a wide range of pop­u­la­tions, aca­d­e­mic, pro­fes­sional, and schol­arly visual com­mu­ni­ca­tion is increas­ingly vital to inten­tional and clear com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Mutual under­stand­ing is impor­tant to both cre­ator and receiver. It seems that both of our dis­ci­plines are miss­ing a large part of the equation.

Her­bert Mat­ter’s 1934 Swiss Tourism Poster. From Her­bert Mat­ter Offi­cial Site
Paula Scher’s Swatch Watch USA Poster, 1984. From AIGA Design Archives

Matter’s Swiss tourism poster, com­pared with Scher’s swatch poster. When review­ing the “orga­ni­za­tional cul­ture” of Post­mod­ernism through the lens of Sense­mak­ing, we begin to address its effec­tive­ness and, even­tu­ally it’s impli­ca­tion to cul­ture. The com­po­si­tion, angles, color palettes, photo-repro­duc­tive styles, and inten­tional reuse of ele­ments (cross and skiers) con­nect these prop­er­ties to a cul­ture, econ­omy and lifestyle of an era approx 50 years earlier. 

The use of pho­to­graphic mon­tage, dynamic scale adjust­ment, and the inte­gra­tion of typog­ra­phy and illus­tra­tion cre­ate a dynamic and com­po­si­tion. Mat­ter uses images as repet­i­tive, pic­toral sym­bols that have been used in unex­pected ways (Meggs). The jux­ta­po­si­tion of angu­lar eye move­ment, both thought implied lines of pic­toral ele­ments, as well as the lit­eral lines of back­ground, typog­ra­phy, and graphic ele­ments, take the eyes on a zig zag pat­tern across the com­po­si­tion in a mat­ter rem­i­nis­cent of the ski­ing it represents. 

Scher’s homage to Mat­ter has adopted many of the styl­is­tic cues, lay­out and color; an inten­tional, ret­ro­spec­tive nod to the time and influ­ence the older poster had on the new com­pany and atti­tudes of the post mod­ern era. This sim­i­lar­ity is inten­tional and pig­gy­backs on the visual lan­guage of one era to usher in a new one, through sym­bolic and stereo­typ­i­cal icons. The viewer is using extracted clues, as a method of iden­ti­fy­ing with an aspi­ra­tional group. One of the defin­ing traits of post-mod­ernism is its inter­pre­tive nature, beg­ging for view­ers to par­tic­i­pate in under­stand­ing what is occurring.

Design­ers often “trial and error” solu­tions until “some­thing sticks”. The use of the prin­ci­ples is likely unin­ten­tional, but we pro­pose that many var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ca­tion could be deter­mined through fur­ther research, or analysis.