By Stewart McCoy

Rhetoric is the new grid

The grid never changes. It is always the interior that changes, and that is what makes the thing come alive.

— Paul Rand

Constraints give us focus. In graphic design, we use grids as an instrument for ordering text and images on the page and screen. Similarly, rhetoric, the art of using language to communicate effectively and persuasively, offers constraints to help us focus on designing information that effectively communicates to our users.

Admittedly, rhetoric has negative connotations. Google “rhetoric” in the news, and it’s all politics and deceit. But beyond our preconceptions and rhetoric’s dirty laundry is a useful methodology for designing purposeful and effective websites.

Since the time of Aristotle, five principles have guided the parts and functions of intentional and effective communication; these principles are referred to as the five canons of rhetoric. The following definitions and explanations consider written and visual communication, although traditionally these principles concern verbal communication.

  1. Invention is the method of discovery. You have to know what has been said before deciding what to say. Invention is about what you will say.
  2. Arrangement is the method of organization. For example, when journalists write news stories they begin with the conclusion, the most important information people care about.
  3. Style is the method of presentation. Style is about eloquence and sits at the intersection of graphic design and information design. Elements of style include word choice; sentence and paragraph length and arrangement; image quality, content, and context; as well as document formatting through the use of typography and layout.
  4. Memory is the method of improvisation. On the web, memory is about contextual messaging. Think of how Amazon greets logged in users versus users who haven’t signed in/up.
  5. Delivery is the method of effective voice. During a presentation, delivery is concerned with speech and gestures. On the web, interaction design provides methods of delivery. For example, the redesigned Twitter changed the delivery of the communication it’s facilitating by adding a second column to see tweets in context.

These five principles are timeless; they guide effective communication across mediums, as well as languages and cultures. In following posts, I’ll share how these principles can be applied to web design. My next post will focus on the topics of invention and how to choose the best available means of persuasion in the context of planning a website.

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