Sunday, March 18, 2012

Visual Metaphor

I've written about visual metaphor and the use of rhetoric in pictures before. In particular, an unpublished column in the aftermath of the Danish Cartoons disaster of 2006, and a brief set of examples of last year for a student project. It's a demanding craft, practiced by illustrators for many years, but especially refined from the 1970s on.

Above, Seymour Chwast fuses two culturally embedded images. Chrysler Building + fountain pen = writing in New York. But the process actually requires two steps. There are two pairs, each of which makes use of metonymy, or a substitution of terms. First, the Chrysler Building represents New York. Second, a writing implement stands in for the practice of writing itself. The combination of the two gives the concept form, via the use of a visual pun, based on the similarity of form between the two objects, albeit at vastly different scales.

Keep in mind, of course, that Mr. Chwast did not make a logical diagram as a recipe. He did cast about for ideas, by looking for associative material. He would have scribbled Chrysler Building among symbols or images which we associate with New York, and he might well have found the form of the pen in the building itself. Alternatively, he doodled a pen and discovered an opportunity to suggest the iconic skyscraper, perhaps by superimposing semicircular bands and radiating lines on the neck of the pen. That is, he combined associative reasoning and visual form-making to discover an opportunity, which he subsequently refined.

As a practical matter, these practices are (and have been, since the American Civil War era, at least) connected to publishing and mass communication broadly speaking. That is, people don't generally make freestanding rhetorical images; typically they are tied to another piece of content with a message. Even more practically, they serve to make the page or screen on which they appear more hospitable to the eye. These images have been characterized, along with visually appealing display type, as self-advertising, or extra-textual information. But I am skeptical of such interpretations, which privilege prose text over other forms of elucidation.

For those interested in a systematic discussion of visual rhetoric in design processes, I recommend Hanno Ehses' "Representing Macbeth: A Case Study in Visual Rhetoric" in Design Issues, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1984. pp. 53-63. MIT Press, Cambridge. I met Mr. Ehses many years ago when I was a visiting scholar at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, in Halifax. He led the Design Division at the school for many years until his retirement in 2009.

Images: Seymour Chwast, cover illustration, The Writer's New York City Source Book, date unavailable; Allan Sanders, Electronic Bureaucrat cover illustration, The Economist, February 16th, 20o8; my colleague John Hendrix, Supernova, editorial illustration New York Times, data unavailable.

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