no.27 vol.7 spring 1998

A rhetoric of images

In her book Good Looking (1996) Barbara Stafford advocates a revaluation of “imaging (as) the richest, most fascinating modality for configuring and conveying ideas.” This is of course an objective that graphic designers, as imagers by vocation, wholeheartedly support, but it also points to the core of what is so difficult in contemporary media-based communication. To acquire the status of serious conveyors of ideas, images still have to overcome the remainder of a “class struggle” that is deeply embedded in our culture. There still is a marked “upstairs, downstairs ” division between images and words: words rule, images serve. Consequently, when there is need for a thorough investigation into the role of images in today’s multimedia information society, the results of such studies will typically be published as lengthy texts – the more serious, the more sparsely illustrated. Professor Stafford’s book, in spite of its value as an intellectual reappraisal of visuality, is an example of the same text-based hierarchy that she questions: lots of nicely spaced, plain text with the odd captioned illustration.

On the other hand, when design group Fuel published Pure Fuel (1996), a book that consists principally of images (with an accompanying text that illustrates them), there were critics who wrote this and similar books off as self-indulgent displays by designers fooling around with pictures. So although to some it seems obvious that images are challenging the privileged status of words as the prime carriers of meaning, there is still considerable confusion about the ways in which this challenge can be met most effectively.

In this issue, the relationships and hierarchies of content, wording and visualisation are – as always – addressed in many forms, but I want to point to two specific aspects that mark a transition in Eye. First, of course, is the fact that Stephen Coates, Eye’s founding art director, has concluded his work for the magazine with the previous issue and Nick Bell is taking over, honouring Stephen’s outstanding work by continuing with the grid and typefaces that he introduced in his redesign for Eye 21.

Editorial consistency aside, there is another reason why not changing Eye’s look and feel at root level is more interesting than a radical redesign. Graphic design is concerned as much with interpretation as it is with structure and visualisation. So our decision to continue working with many of the existing formal elements is a way to research the room for interpretation within the given format. This interpretation will affect the structure of the magazine as well as its formal expression, so the range of visual representations of content and organisation will continue to evolve with the journal’s need for new forms. One of these new forms is a consequence of the importance we attribute to imaging as a means of conveying ideas: a challenge to the primacy of verbal reflection. For a magazine such as Eye, this challenge is more than just something to write about. If we take this idea of “images-as-ideas” at face value, we should do more than simply verbalise the idea, or visualise the words. What is the rhetoric of images? Can we “play” with images in the same meaningful way we juggle with words?

A rhetoric of images can be formulated in many ways, including drawing up a list of text-based rhetoric concepts in order to investigate their potentialities for visual languages, as Tomás Maldonado did in Ulm in 1964. But apart from reporting on the practical consequences of these ideas in the work of designers elsewhere, we also want to experiment with these ideas in the medium at our disposal. The new feature of the “Visual Essay” is an attempt to create a rhetoric of images. As editorial graphic design it will endeavour to argue an opinionated view on relationships that govern the way we communicate and experience information in contemporary media. At the same time it represents Eye’s intention to research the different ways in which images work when their aim, rather than illustration, is to interact, make statements or engage in debate in the way we expect words and phrases to work in a written essay.

What this means for the hierarchies of text and image – and for the differences in the mechanisms and strategies of rhetoric between these two categories of expression – remains to be seen.

max bruinsma