Theories of Design Communication

There are different opinions about how many and what are the basic design communications theories there are. Indeed, the literature and research in visual and communication is enormous. However, this study will examine six basic approaches to design communication theory: Gestalt, semiotics, constructivism, ecological theory, cognitive theory, the Huxley/Lester model, and omniphasism.

GESTALT; Organizing the Parts into Meaningful Wholes

Gestalt (from the German “shape” or “configuration”) philosophy is based upon the analysis of visual stimuli, observation, and response. Central to this philosophy is Max Wertheimer’s notion that “the whole is different from the sum of its parts”.

This theory of perception emphasizes that we “see” or make sense of the world around us through the interaction of sensations from our eyes, brain, and memory. Gestalt speaks to the challenge of how we can assemble completely different parts, pieces, or lines and comprehend the stridently different components to make a seemingly logical new whole. In effect, we collectively organize parts of what we see via shape, line, similarity, association, their order (including sorting out foreground from background), proximity to one another, and their collective direction into a new whole.

Visually, the brain is predisposed to making sense of what we see by reducing to its most intelligible or simplest form. So, when presented with a bicycle tire, for example, Wertheimer might suggest our eyes would focus initially on the circular shapes- tire and axel, then see the lines (spokes) and think “bicycle tire”. Or take the case of spectacles set on a table, the Gestaltists might submit that we see the two circular rims and glass shapes, because of their close proximity – and curved lines of nose bridge and temples- our brain assembles the parts and reads, “glasses”.

The basic tenets of Gestalt have obvious connections to various strategies used in design, layout, photography, and cinematography compositions. For instance, juxtaposition, repetition (that is, employing repetitious shapes, motifs, and patterns), circular form, and framing are commonly used to attract or hold our vision in all our media- particularly in design, photography, and cinematography.

examples of ads based on Gestalt theory

SEMIOTICS; What’s Your Sign?

Semiotics – the science of signs – is an older theory of design communication and for all practical purposes dates back to pictographs, but, like Gestalt, it has many contemporary applications. The word is derived from the Greek words sema (or semeion), meaning “sign”, and semelotikos (observer of signs). From a semiotic point of view, a sign is anything that stands for something else. Most anoint American philosopher Charles Peirce as the modern founder of semiotic theory. He suggested that there are three kinds of signs: iconic, indexical, and symbolic. Icons resemble what they signify. Pictures, illustrations, photographs, and film are iconic. An indexical sign suggests a causal or other connection to something that can be figure out. Ashes, for example, are sign of fire; layers of brilliant colors in the sky suggests sunset.

Symbolic signs have to be learned: a crucifix, Star of David, or crescent and star signify Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, respectively. The three-pointed star and “swoosh” are corporate logotypes and branding device for Mercedes-Benz and Nike. The sheriff’s badge is also symbolic of something beyond a simple star. Because our vision is fluid and user-friendly, few of us think much about how we decipher or interpret what we see, but the science and deciphering of signs is a complex proposition.

The association of symbol star is different in each case. The Star of David is secret for Jewish People as its association with the religion. The symbol of Mercedes-Benz, again three pointed star associated with the status in the society. The start shaped badge stands for law and order. The flag is an icon and symbol of nation. Another proponent of semiotic theory was Ferdinand de Saussure. He suggested that signs were integral in our day-to-day social interactions. Saussure and Roland Barthes posited that a sign has two aspects; the signifier (presentation or expression of an image, sound, or word) and the signified (its meaning: the idea or intrinsic emotion conveyed). Briefly, the signifiers expresses or presents the sign, while the signified is the idea, the meaning itself.

Leo Burnett Advertising agency employed semiotics in their ads for Marlboro cigarettes (also reshoot in Pakistan) in a powerful and memorable way –and –for the most part, it was accomplished without the use of words. The imagery consisted of two main elements, the handsome, rugged cowboy, usually atop a horse, and pictorial backdrop of remote, equally rugged landscape. In these instances, the association is simple, direct, and suggests masculinity, freedom, individualism. Although this ad campaign was a total fiction, the image and romanticism sold not only cigarettes, but suggested that those who smoked them were virile, independent, and free.

Most advertising applies semiotics in very sophisticated ways- from the subtle use of color, content, inferences, headlines, shape, and innuendo to the logo itself, also a sign.

Examples of Ads based on Semiotic concept

CONSTRUCTIVISM: Visual Blueprinting At its core, constructivism is about relating a pattern of shapes, or visually arranging series of planes together. Julian Hochberg, a psychologist and proponent of Gestalt theory, felt that the Gestalt approach was too passive and didn’t take the eye and basic reading patterns into consideration.

Hochberg also noticed something interesting about how we see. The constant fitting of our eyes fascinated him. Specifically, he noticed how the eye had to continually shift its focus and fixation when closely examining anything, because of the physiological nature of the fovea. You’ll recall that the fovea makes up a miniscule area positioned dead center within your visual field. It’s a rodless area of the retina employed for acute detail. Because its responsive region is so microscopic, the fovea has to keep moving to tract and assemble the details of whatever it’s scanning. Hochberg decided to use an eye-tracking system that mapped the more active eye movement to prove his theory.

As a result of his experimentation, Hochberg hypothesized that our jerky eye movements are actually plotting what we are examining- building a structural outline almost like connecting the dots – and by concurrently employing memory, experience, and past associations, we perceive or understand whatever we are seeing. The action of our eyes – a kind of visual blueprinting, led to the term constructivism. When we look at anything, we have to piece it together. This is especially true when we get minute parts of a whole. Eye-tracing systems are still used in research today. Although their motives were somewhat different, Doctors Mario Garcia and Pegie Stark Adam used the Eye-track method to study how readers reacted to color, photographs, type, and other elements when reading and scanning newspaper page layouts. Their research findings are interesting and useful to newspaper designers and others interested in how we visually process artwork, color, and page design.

Examples of Ads based on Constructivism Theory

ECOLOGICAL THEORY: Lights, Environment, Action James Gibson, a professor of Psychology at Cornell University, is the father of ecological theory of visual communication. In a nutshell, he suggested that visual communication theory be examined in the real world rather than research labs. Although he found Gestalt and constructivism useful, he believed that visual communication was more intrinsically connected to spatial properties within the environment; surface layout, composition, lightning, motion, gradation, shape, size, solidity, and scale. “A direct explanation of the perception of properties of the visible environment may be possible if these properties are taken from the concept of ecology instead of from mathematics and physics.”

Among other things, Gibson applied his theories to the various perceptual tests used to help the military screen out prospective aviators who’d likely wash out.” As it turned out, the tests were ineffective and invalid. Scale, because of relative size and spatial cues, and light, specifically its gradient effects on the modeling, shadows, and textures within a field, are the two most important components of Gibson’s theory. Perception of loneliness (action, light, environment)

To Gibson, light and scale helped define space and our perception of it. He felt our perceptions were more a result of how light affects what we see. According to Gibson (“Purple Pearls” musings and The Psychology of Perception), the literal view we have of the world changes as we move through our environment. Subtle shifts in lighting, size, juxtaposition, color, depth, and detail help us make sense of what we see and where we are. The gradient detail helps us assess scale, size, distance, and ultimately our relationship to all that’s around us.