The Rhetoric of Typography

We can all lie and we all know it. We rely on the integrity of an organization or an individual to provide us with good—meaning true—information. It is often impossible to verify or prove that the information we are given is truthful and, if truthful, correct. Therefore, the value we apply to so much of the information we receive depends on the reputation—the integrity—of the presenter or the source of information, and we tend to judge integrity by the rhetoric used.

Rhetoric is concerned with those factors that attempt to ensure a predetermined interpretation of factual information. Language is regularly manipulated to achieve such a function and typography can, indeed should, reflect and reinforce the arguments within a given text. For this reason, there is a commonly held prejudice that pejoratively associates rhetoric specifically with deceit and seduction. However, if one believes that language is invariably about debate, upholding a point of view, or simply explaining the facts as one understands them, rhetoric must also be concerned with imagination, with form-giving, and with appropriate use of language to facilitate all forms of social interaction.

In fact, it is difficult to imagine any information that does not involve some degree of interpretation. Our contemporary distinction in typography between information and persuasion reflects historic concerns about the merits of plain and ornamental styles of presentation. Because of this, many typographers believe that information can be presented without ever referring to modes of persuasion. Yet all communication, no matter how prosaic, has interpretable, stylistic qualities that go beyond the stated content of the message, and therefore become ornamental.

Even the choice of typeface, for instance, a decision that is unavoidable, must add something to the reader’s perception and therefore could be described as ornamental. Consequently, the issue that typographers must face relates not to persuasion or the lack of it, but rather to the intentions behind it. So, typographers must question the purpose, the function of the given text, before any typographic decision is made.

Legible typographic design comprises a codirectional concatenation governed by a reader profile that relates to style or visible rhetoric. The profile results from analysis of comprehension levels on age, education, and culture. The term kinetography defines the combined verbal/visible, rhetorical function of typography in technological environments.

The typographer must take three distinct actions to achieve legibility:

  1. Analyze and comprehend author’s and editor’s intent.

  2. Translate the intention through symbolic reference into typographic signs.

  3. Arrange the typographic signs into recognizable and comprehensive gestalts.

Typographic legibility contains the properties of text/images that symbolically represent readability. It forms an integral part of the design algorithms of visible language. Thus, legibility results from an interpretation of readability: a property of text that results from developing verbal language in an easily understandable rhetorical style (verbal language). It requires the expert consideration of a set of infinitely adjustable, concatenated, multivariate, overlapping, geometric modules and complexes that constitute typographic style (visible language).

Typographic designers must possess knowledge of the human elements that relate to the communication process plus the skills that enable them to use electronic tools. The knowledge and ability to interpret readability into legibility derive from a comprehensive education and training in typography and type design. It does not derive as a by-product from using electronic tools.

Almost all human reasoning about facts, decisions, opinions, beliefs, and values is no longer considered to be based on the authority of absolute Reason, but instead, is seen to be intertwined with emotional elements, historical evaluations, and pragmatic motivations. In this sense, the new rhetoric considers the persuasive discourse not as a subtle, fraudulent procedure, but as a technique of ‘reasonable’ human interaction, controlled by doubt and explicitly subject to extra logical conditions.

Umberto Eco — Italian Scholar and Semiotician

So, designing the appearance of any typographic layout involves a degree of rhetoric. The effectiveness of typography depends on the use of marks, symbols, or patterns that are familiar and pertinent for a given audience. A functioning message is one that succeeds in connecting with the habits and expectations of its audience. A conscious rhetorical approach to typography would be one which accedes that all design has social, moral, and political dimensions, that there is no sphere of “pure” information, and accepts the challenge to design typography that is functionally and conceptually appropriate for its purpose.

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