Seeing the Text

April 14, 2008

With respect to the ‘Information Design’ aspect of our program, I offer the following annotation:

Bernhardt, Stephen A. “Seeing the Text.” College Composition and Communication. 37.1 (1986): 66-78.

Stephen Bernhardt might be called a visionary. I read another of his anthologized works about hypertext(ual arrangement) in the only class I ever took in Technical Writing two years ago and was blown away by the copyright date. Bernhardt has been envisioning the importance of chunking information into easily digestible grams for over two decades–well before the rise of Web 2.0 and the ever-increasing shortening of our attention spans and patience for the written word.

In this essay (I’ll again note the publication date of 1986!), Bernhardt makes a convincing (though, I wonder now how ‘convincing’ it was 22 years ago…) case for the rhetoricity of visual texts. By visual text, Bernhard means texts other than essays and books–pamphlets and brochures, memos and advertisements, for example–which adopt “visually informative strategies” in terms of signaling structure (67). In his words, “Visually informative texts achieve rhetorical organization, just as do texts which are relatively non-informative visually” (67). What a statement in 1986! What a statement now! Essentially, Bernhardt is rallying his rhetoric and composition compadres to heed cues in electronic media (at that time only peeking out from around the corner of a room filled by a single computer) that visual arrangement will eventually trump purely semantic organization in texts. No longer, Bernhard warns, will readers have to read long strands of text to establish flow; no longer will they have to move in a linear fashion to grasp a logical flow. Texts in the realm of technical and scientific writing are already moving into increasingly visual arrangement styles. Likewise legal texts and business ones to boot! Bernhardt wonders how students taught in composition classes of the day, which taught only the semantic arrangement of paragraph upon paragraph in an unbroken sequence, will fare in an outside world where visually arranged texts rule the day–and the eyeballs–of a busy public.

But the essay is not all lament. It contains four useful “gestalt rules” for rhetorically composing a visual text. Four information design principles, in other words, that students can use as a heuristic to guide them as they grapple with turning a white page into an interpellation document which will win the day by striking just the right balance between being aesthetically appealing and informative. By balancing, that is, the highly rhetorical considerations of audience and purpose.

The four gestalt principles Bernhardt explains are as follows:

  • Equilibrium or pragnanz – Strive to balance the text against the horizontal, vertical, and diagonal axises of the page
  • Good continuation – Strive to balance the figure/ground relationship of objects and texts on the page
  • Closure – Strive to provide this for the reader with a professional-looking print job (so all of the text can be read) and images that don’t float off the edges of the paper
  • Similarity – Strive to couple units which have similar meanings into groups by typography, spacing, and direction, as these units will then be grouped by the reader into a homogeneous chunk

Think what he’s talking about is junk? Here’s a good example from the web of these concepts used effectively. This is the homepage of an investment company called Vanguard. I’ve annotated the screen capture to show you the gestalt laws as they appear:

Although this is an older article, the call to action for composition teachers is still relevant, sadly. Bernhardt warns, “Classroom practice which ignores the increasingly visual, localized qualities of information exchange can only become increasingly irrelevant” (77). If we wanted to, we could write out the information displayed on Vanguard’s homepage in essay format. We could even verbally reproduce the image of the ‘ideal American family’ walking through the field of wheat on a sunny day. And it would have structure, organization, hierarchy of meaning, as all good essays do.

But would it be as clean and instantly digestible as the webpage is? Would we take the time to read it?

Probably not. Which is exactly Bernhardt’s point.

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