Expanding the Terministic Screen: A Burkean Critique of Information Visualization in the Context of Design Education

Anneli Bowie, University of Pretoria
Duncan Reyburn, University of Pretoria


In the face of what information design theorist Richard Wurman has dubbed "information anxiety," it is well documented that information visualization has become a widely accepted tool to assist with the navigation of the symbolic world. Information visualisations, or infographics, are essentially external cognitive aids such as graphs, diagrams, maps and other interactive and innovative graphic applications. It is often argued by design theorists that information visualisations are rhetorical texts in that they have the ability to persuade. Thus, it is not a leap to assert that information visualization may be understood as one expression of Kenneth Burke’s notion of the ‘terministic screen.’

Bearing the above in mind, this paper seeks to interrogate the rhetoric of information visualization within the domain of design education in South Africa by analyzing two student visualization projects. Moreover, it explores the selective and deflective nature of visualization alongside issues regarding the interplay between ideology and Robin Kinross’s idea of a visual "rhetoric of neutrality." Burke’s explanation of ‘synecdoche’ is shown as a useful approach to understanding how visualizations function rhetorically. Furthermore, Burke’s concept of ‘perspective by incongruity,’ which is echoed in the notion of ‘Critical Design’ is shown as an alternative method with the potential to ameliorate the problems with traditional infographics. Ultimately, this paper presents Burke’s rhetorical theory as a critical tool for developing more ethical communication design education and praxis.


IN THIS ARTICLE, WE SET OUT TO PROVIDE A BURKEAN CRITIQUE OF THE RHETORIC OF INFORMATION VISUALIZATION within the context of design education in South Africa. In recent years, information visualization has become an increasingly popular means to explore and present both scientific and cultural phenomena, through the use of graphs, diagrams, maps and other graphic formats. Owing to the amount of data people interact with increasing exponentially in the last few years, through the internet and specifically the rise of web 2.0 and social media, new ways to mine, process and visually represent data have been developed. Advances in technology, along with the increasing availability of data, have furthermore led to a democratization of visualization practice, and a proliferation of visualization projects displayed on the internet, in popular science magazines and in the news media.

In the face of what information design theorist Richard Wurman has dubbed ‘information anxiety,’ it is well understood that although we are accustomed to thinking about an ‘information economy,’ information is not the commodity that is in short supply. Indeed, as Richard Lanham observes, “we’re drowning in it” (xi). Lanham, who echoes Wurman’s perspective by referring to an “attention economy,” points out that “what we lack is the human attention needed to make sense of it all” (xi). Under such circumstances it is understandable that information visualization has become a widely accepted tool to assist with the navigation of the symbolic, hyper-informational world. This is to say that information visualization acts as an example of Kenneth Burke’s notion of a “terministic screen” in that it “explicitly and implicitly turns our attention in one direction rather than in other directions” (LASA 57). Following Burke’s logic, it may even be deemed a form of “magic” in that it establishes a kind of visual-linguistic coercion—a prioritization of a particular set of scopic regimes—albeit in a subtle way. It is a medium that reflects the human capacity for negotiating both visual and verbal symbolic vocabularies in order to reflect and thus also control reality. Nevertheless, as with all such orienting vocabularies, every reflection of reality automatically “functions as a deflection of reality” and is also inherently a reduction or “selection” of reality (LASA 59). Visualization is certainly a genre that has developed its own symbolic hierarchies, each allowing for the privileging of specific terminologies and meanings, as well as the marginalization of others, but this is not our main concern. Our main concern is the way in which this ideological construct becomes institutionalized and solidified in a way that such symbolic hierarchies go unchallenged. While it is true that contemporary discourse on information visualisations has started to include a challenge to the supposed scientific biases of the medium, our contribution in this paper is to present the first critique of the medium from a Burkean perspective.

When we speak of ideological constructs above, we are aware that Burke spent most of his career avoiding the term ideology when referring to systems of ideas. However, his uses of terms like “‘orientation,’ ‘rationalization,’ ‘perspective,’ ‘critical perspective,’ ‘way of life,’ ‘critical mind-frame,’ ‘Weltanschauung,’ and ‘gestalt’” point to the same basic idea as what is captured by the word ideology (Beach 1). Slavoj Žižek considers ideology to be a “generative matrix that regulates the relationship between visible and non-visible, between imaginable and non-imaginable, as well as changes in this relationship” (Žižek 1), but Burke’s definition of ideology is more succinct: it is simply “the study of ideas and of their relation to one another” (RM 53), but it can also refer to “a structure of interrelated ideas” (A rhetoric of motives 88). Thus, while ideology may be considered in terms of the performative relationship between the linguistic and the practical, Burke’s view of ideology tends to stress the linguistic even while the performative is called into question. This fits well with a critique of ideology in design, since design is fundamentally concerned with visual language. Accordingly, it makes sense to stress the paradoxical or analogical structure built into the very nature of language: it both accepts and rejects, leads and misleads; informs and misinforms; by drawing attention to itself, it points away from itself.

A similar paradoxical structure is reflected in our roles as information design educators. One of our many tasks involves equipping our students with the necessary skills to be able to create their own information visualizations or information graphics (infographics). Infographics are a subset of information visualizations often used in popular media. They are usually static, manually crafted graphics created by designers, as opposed to being generated or updated automatically by software applications (Kosara). Infographics in their current popular format usually combine an array of data visualization elements into a single layout in order to communicate a statistical overview of a topic or issue.

Thus, on the one hand, we must promote the extension of a particular kind of designerly orthodoxy, in alignment with the linguistic idealism of the Bauhaus (1919–1933), New Typographic movement of the 1920s and 1930s, and Ulm School (Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm) (1953–1968). However, on the other hand, as academics involved in critical discourse, we are also tasked with imparting the importance of self-reflective critique to our students. This approach, while taking the legacy of older design schools seriously, is closely aligned with the international design movement towards what is known as ‘Critical Design’ practice. Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby explain how most design activities fall into two broad categories, namely ‘affirmative design’ and ‘critical design.’ They explain how typical design practice is mostly affirmative, as it “reinforces how things are now, it conforms to cultural, social, technical and economic expectation.” However, critical design can be seen as an alternative form of design practice that challenges the status quo and critiques “the prevailing situation through designs that embody alternative social, cultural, technical or economic values” (Dunne and Raby 58).

The above distinction is thus played out in the current scenario where we need to both promote information visualization as a useful tool for graphic communication and demote it for its sometimes less-than-obvious limitations. To put it more bluntly, we need to tell our students that even this orthodoxy is a kind of heresy, which means that even in their sincerest attempts to create truthful communication, it is almost certain that they will also mislead, albeit unintentionally. This reminds us that Burke’s notion of “trained incapacity” is not just something found in human beings with regard to occupational specialization, but is something inherent to the way that language itself works as a mediator of the world. By stating one thing, language automatically overstates it and therefore understates or neglects other things; by emphasizing one thing, it overemphasizes it and therefore underemphasizes other things. This is referred to by the French philosopher Alain Badiou as a problem of “nominal occlusions” whereby one term or name in a truth procedure occludes and thereby possibly even obliterates another: thus, “[t]he name ‘culture’ comes to obliterate ‘art.’ The word ‘technology’ obliterates the word ‘science.’ The word ‘management’ obliterates ‘politics.’ The word ‘sexuality’ obliterates love” (Badiou 12). This is noted not to claim that language is entirely bound to fail in its aims, but to simply point out that, like any medium, language has both a positive and a negative charge. Foregrounding one thing automatically causes another to recede, leading every statement to require a corrective counter-statement. To navigate the somewhat disconcerting or destabilising paradoxical/analogical nature of language, Burke’s ideas are applied in what follows as a means of interrogating the rhetoric of information visualization.

Although Burke paved the way for the study of ‘visual rhetoric’ (Foss 141), remarkably little has been written about Burke from within or for design discourse. Although some authors, such as Foss and Brummet, consider Burke’s theories from a visual rhetorical perspective, this is usually from a broader visual culture perspective, and not specifically as it relates to communication design practice. In communication design discourse, Burke is sometimes mentioned in passing or as a footnote, but to date there is no in-depth application of Burke’s rhetoric in this domain. This paper attempts to address this gap, albeit on an introductory level.

Burke’s dialectical approach to rhetoric, also explained as both “a dialectic of ideological demands and the critique of ideology” (Bygrave 9), makes his theories particularly useful in a design education context. Not only does his theory of rhetoric shed light on how to use rhetorical strategies in information visualization, but it also simultaneously presents a method for ideological critique. This approach resonates with our teaching approach, in that we need to equip our students to communicate as effectively as possible (through the strategic use of visual rhetoric), while also encouraging them to think more critically about the ethics and politics of their rhetorical practice.

This paper thus aims to illustrate how Burke’s theories can be used to disseminate the rhetoric of information visualizations and how his theories can be applied within the domain of design education. While our focus is specifically on visualization practice in an educational context, the way that we are applying Burke’s thinking below could certainly have a bearing on a wider view of design and design discourse, although it is not our aim to explore such implications here. Examples of student visualization projects are employed to support the following argument.

Visualizations and Infographics

Information visualizations are typically seen as external cognitive aids that serve two main functions (Card, Mackinley and Schneiderman 1). Firstly, they assist in the discovery of concepts, by making data visual. Researchers and scientists, for instance, make use of visual processing and mapping in order to identify patterns and relationships hidden in data sets. Through such processes, factors previously unknown or only hypothesized are confirmed through visualization techniques. Secondly, after such discoveries have been made, the other main function of visualization is to communicate these findings to others. Infographics take this a step further in that they are particularly focused on communicating to a wider audience and for a very specific purpose. Max Gadney explains that information visualizations “require more work and sifting by a user, in order to find patterns and insight” whereas infographics are “a quick and popular way of communicating that insight.” This apparent strength of infographics may, however, turn out to also be its fundamental weakness since it paves the way for creating a kind of nominal occlusion regarding its very own character.

Visualizations are considered particularly powerful communicative and persuasive tools. Peter Hall posits that some visualizations can “have a profound effect on society, changing the course of government policy, scientific research, funding and public opinion” (“Critical Visualization” 123). We grant that this is a fairly bold claim, but it does at least stress the seriousness with which visualizations are generally accepted. Throughout history, visualization has been used to present ‘evidence’ in a tangible form. As a consequence, visualization has become persuasive not only of the validity of the collected data and information that it presents, but has also become persuasive regarding its own status as a viable and even valuable form of visual communication.

Today we can visualize much larger data sets with the use of computers (as well as animate them or have them unfold interactively over time), but the basic principles of visualization have remained largely the same since the nineteenth century (Manovich). The rise of social statistics in the mid-eighteenth century had a direct impact on the development of visualization practice (Manovich), with scholars such as William Playfair, John Snow, Florence Nightingale and Charles Joseph Minard collecting numbers, calculating averages and representing statistical data visually. During this time the development of visual conventions for maps, graphs and charts has enabled people to communicate complexity in more eloquent and believable ways.

Today, the rise of social statistics through online and social media has once again fuelled the development and popularization of information visualization practice. This, in combination with the accessibility of visualization software tools such as Gapminder, Visual.ly and Processing, has led to the democratization of visualization practice. The visual communication design skills needed to convert crude data visualizations into eloquent infographics has also been democratized through the myriad infographic templates readily available online. Infographics obviously aim to draw attention by using powerful visual aesthetics, but the irony of course is that the more infographics we see, the less likely we are to pay attention to them. Along with this democratization of visualization practice one thus finds an increasing amount of criticism regarding the poorly-used (and perhaps even overused) medium. However, the fact that visualizations and infographics remain hugely popular in mass media indicates that they are still effective at creating favorable impressions about the nature of the information presented.

As can be observed from the history of visualization, as well as the current use of infographics, the emphasis remains on statistics, facts and scientific plausibility. But to take this emphasis too seriously is to miss the importance of the aesthetic and rhetorical dimensions of these visual artifacts. It is also to overlook the fact that even empirical data requires the context of a particular theory, and that the scientific is never neutral, as has been argued by Thomas Kuhn. In order to investigate this general acceptance of infographics as objective, scientific representations of statistical realities, we now look towards the rhetorical theories of Burke and illustrate these theories by analyzing two student case studies.

Visualizations as Terministic Screens

It is often argued that information visualizations are rhetorical texts in that they have the ability to “direct attention, persuade, and shape attitudes” (Kostelnick). Furthermore, design theorists such as Gui Bonsiepe, Richard Buchanan, Robin Kinross, Ellen Lupton, Hanno Ehses and Katherine McCoy have all pointed to the potential value of studying information design from a visual rhetorical perspective. Thus, what we are doing here is, in some respects, nothing new. Nevertheless, bearing in mind the above-mentioned paradoxes, we would like to focus on the often-overlooked ideological biases that inform the way in which information visualizations are both created and interpreted. Notably, we want to call into question the fact that these visualizations tend to display a seeming scientific authority and are thus perceived as having a kind of informational integrity. Kinross calls this particular kind of rhetoric the “rhetoric of neutrality” (18). By indicating the rhetorical, Kinross is emphasizing the fact that motive and bias are never eradicated. The human author remains a subjective interpreter who adopts and adapts facts and also designs in accordance with personal choices and established conventions.

Although their ideas are very closely aligned, Kinross never directly mentions Burke. Burke’s ideas are however particularly useful in understanding Kinross’ ‘rhetoric of neutrality.’ Burke was particularly skeptical of seemingly objective language and understood that all terminologies are value-laden and ideologically loaded. He specifically investigated the manner in which scientific language makes use of “a neutral vocabulary in the interests of more effective action” (Burke in Hildebrand 635) and in a similar manner one can investigate the visual vocabularies / terminologies (aesthetic design elements) of infographics in order to understand their rhetorical power. Therefore, any information visualization can be understood, in Burkean terms, as a subjective terministic screen even while it seeks to, or perhaps pretends to, ward off the shortcomings of human subjectivity.

The first visual example, titled “There’s no place like home” by one of our third year students from 2011, shows a fairly typical infographic (figure 1). During this two week Information Design project, students were tasked with gathering information on a pressing issue in South African society and to create an infographic poster thereof, utilizing a variety of visualization elements such as graphs, charts, etc. This specific infographic poster deals with the effects of “brain drain”—that is, human capital flight involving the large scale emigration of highly trained and knowledgeable people—on South African society, and consists of pie charts, bar graphs, icons and other communicative elements typical of infographics. This brain drain is a very complex issue, especially since it exposes some of the ongoing and seemingly irresolvable racial problems of South African society that have resulted, in part, from its Black Economic Empowerment policies. The subject of the poster is highly topical in post-apartheid South Africa, and an infographic that seeks to counter the dominant ideology—the normalization of the brain drain—would thus seem appropriate.

At a glance, the poster, with its bold lines, strong contrast, structured layout and clear labeling in a neutral sans-serif font is quite conventional. The poster, with its clear message, seems to be a fairly confident expression of the so-called ‘truth’ about emigration. This is somewhat illustrative of Kostelnick’s observation that visualization as we know it developed in a modernist style, “which fostered universal forms and aimed to objectify representations of cultural diversity by making them appear economical and perceptually transparent” (216). The visualization methods that have developed over time have become familiar genres leading to these forms being interpreted as “natural, direct representations of fact, [supposedly] unmediated by the lens of design” (Kostelnick 225). The ideological stance of this modernist style can be found in its stress on only one aspect of the analogical structure of language, namely is ability to convey a truth. It seems to neglect the other side of this binary, namely the inability of language to fully capture the truth that it is indicated towards.

As a consequence, on closer inspection of this poster, some problematic assumptions can be noticed. The most obvious of these is that the apparent “facts” are never sourced. This is not an error of the student’s inexperience, but a result of the student’s ability to follow the representational norms of infographics, the vast majority of which do not make any reference to sources. Furthermore, while the poster aims to create an overview of the current situation regarding brain drain, many of the statistics are fairly outdated, and also from vastly different time periods—some from 1995, others from 2001, and so on. A ‘cherry-picking’ of statistics thus takes place in the construction of this graphic, which is only visible after closer scrutiny. The need for closer scrutiny may be understood as somewhat defeating of the purpose of infographics, which are typically geared towards aiding the navigation of the symbolic world rather than making such navigation more time-consuming. An infographic that seeks to clear up a complex issue but ends up only making it more opaque is surely, albeit unintentionally, highlighting the potential failings of the medium.

Similarly, when one looks at the bar graph in the lower right corner (figure 2), one sees a comparison in prices on consumer goods in South Africa and Australia. These comparisons appear reliable until one realizes that no indication has been given of the vastly different economic contexts of the two countries. This is to say that a logical fallacy of false analogy is at work here: oranges are compared with apples, so to speak. In an attempt to strengthen the visual argument, the student has in fact weakened it. Nevertheless, the certainty with which this information is presented appears to make this false analogy quite plausible.

In another section of the poster (figure 3), one reads that of all the South Africans who emigrated, only a relatively small number of those were in fact professionals (only 205 of the 10 057 in 2001). In comparison, 4835 skilled professionals entered the country. However, it is unclear whether these were returning South Africans or foreign nationals. The difficulty in reading this specific graph, which uses suitcase pictographs as a statistical indicator, will quite likely cause the viewer to abandon any attempt at interpretation. The most prominent feature here is obviously the enormous suitcase, reaching out of the ‘frame,’ indicating unskilled immigrants entering the country. The infographic legend shows that these unskilled immigrants include illegal immigrants and asylum seekers, indicating a severely reductionist approach in presenting the data leading one to wonder whether this entire category of immigrants should be seen as a threat, as the designer suggests.

Without going through every detail of this poster, it is safe to say that the ideological orientations that have driven its creation and that also implicitly guide its interpretation have been left unchecked. To be clear, there is a hint of authorial self-awareness in the use of whimsical examples from the “land down under” (figure 4). Yes, dangerous wildlife and skin cancer are problems in Australia, but these are not problems unique to Australia. Furthermore, such problems are certainly not escaped by living in the outdoors culture of sunny South Africa. Furthermore, the negative aspects of living in South Africa are not given nearly as much real estate on the poster (only a small block naming some reasons why South African medical professionals choose to emigrate).

The student in question, of course, only did what was asked of him, and the strategic selecting (and therefore deflecting) of information is part and parcel of any infographic design process. The student was briefed to create an infographic that addresses a particular issue in a South African context, and in his final layout this is exactly what he delivers. In general, there would seem to be nothing clearly misleading in the poster, because it follows the trend of infographics, which is concerned with simplifying the complex. But the rhetoric of infographic aesthetics serves as a shield against critical scrutiny and readers may accept such information without questioning it. The designer wants to justify his own point of view, and by rendering it in supposedly neutral terms ends up concealing his real motivation. Consequently, the rhetoric of neutrality is ultimately reinforced rather than challenged.

The fundamental rhetorical device of the rhetoric of neutrality is uncovered in its “representative” symbolic nature. Synecdoche, “the figure of speech wherein the part is used for the whole, the whole for the part, the container for the thing contained, the cause for the effect, the effect for the cause, etc.,” is the foundation of this rhetoric of neutrality (Burke, The philosophy of literary form 25–26). On synecdoche, Burke notes: “The more I examine both the structure of poetry and the structure of human relations outside of poetry, the more I become convinced that this is the ‘basic’ figure of speech, and that it occurs in many modes besides that of the formal trope” (The philosophy of literary form 26). The positive aspects of synecdoche should not be overlooked, since it certainly enables the specifics of communication to become more universally applicable and more easily accessible. Nevertheless, this is also precisely the limitation of synecdoche: by presenting itself as self-evidently true, it conceals its own ideological location.

This synecdoche may be an example of Tyler’s (26) suggestion that factual information appears to be communicated in an “omniscient voice”; thus, the part not only stands for the whole, but is actually confused with the whole. This “omniscient voice of science” seems to eliminate emotional qualities and present information as truth (Tyler 26). If an artifact appears too subjectively constructed, people will perceive it as biased and therefore unreliable. Nevertheless, our argument is that it is precisely this unreliability that needs to be communicated in order to foster a more honest rhetorical ethos. The rhetoric of neutrality needs to be exposed and demystified. Edward Tufte outlines a variety of ways in which data can be presented in more neutral and unbiased ways. He contends, for example, that visualizations “become more credible if constructed independently of a favored result” (Tufte, Beautiful evidence 29). However, the fact that Tufte, one of the leading authorities on visualization, suggests the possibility of unbiased communication should raise the alarm. All communication design is “infiltrated rhetorically” (Ehses 5). All data is collected, processed and presented for specific purposes, under specific circumstances and ordered in according to subjective preferences (Hall, “Critical visualization” 130). To neglect to notice this is to fall back into the modernist biases out of which visualization practice arose.

Expanding the terministic screen

Bearing all of this in mind, and in accordance with an observation of this problematic perpetuation of the rhetoric of neutrality in the infographic project of 2011, the brief to the students was changed in 2012. Prior to the commencement of the project students also participated in an additional four day workshop on visualization, in which they gained a more in-depth understanding of the medium and its persuasive character. Furthermore, instead of simply asking for a basic information visualization, the project leader encouraged the combination of a more playful, self-reflective process. This is to say that from the outset students were made more aware of their own subjective presence and rhetorical choices. As could be expected, some students fell back on the myth of neutrality, but others found a way to embed their new awareness of the limitations of this genre into their work.

Take, for example, this poster entitled “I cried making this poster” (figure 5). The self-deprecating tone and the self-referential title are already enough to spark a slightly different reading of the communication, even while it seems at first to contain fairly commonplace infographic devices. On closer inspection, the content of the poster presents a kind of auto-critique that draws further attention to the subjective nature of the information on the poster. It is, in Burkean terms, an example of “perspective by incongruity” in that it tries to not simply present something “as it is,” but rather to throw the entire visual artifact into question (Beach 39). It presents the image as a drama that invites participation, rather than as a static picture to be believed or rejected.

Hill explains how ‘perspective by incongruity’ can be seen as a “corrective symbolism derive[d] from an impious appropriation of the problematic symbolism.” The tongue-in-cheek statement about infographics as a medium is thus achieved through the appropriation of the typical visual infographic aesthetic. The power of the piece is found precisely in the fact that we do not immediately recognize the poster as a ‘rip-off’ and only after closer inspection do we notice that we have been tricked. Such is the power of ‘perspective by incongruity’ to jolt one into a more critical frame of mind. It is a poignant response to the objectivist fallacy.

The poster, on the left-hand side, represents a blank canvas, and then tracks the “treachery” and “randomness” involved in arriving at a final concept for the poster design, which reveals the final poster within the very same poster. The design process outlined here is treated as somewhat typical of the experience of the average designer, but the meta-referential content and personal rhetorical choices evident in the visualization seem to undermine this universalization of the particular. The treatment of time here makes for a unique interpretive experience, especially since it implicitly argues that there is a lot about the design process that is invisible to the audience. Its use of chronology is more of a sketch than an exact record; thus, it is more representative of how time is perceived than of how it is measured.

When we read that it takes 50 licks to finish an ice-cream or that the student yawned four times while researching yawning or even that the “power of white space” is precisely nothing (in one example of a subversion of the pie-chart metaphor), we are confronted by a certain ‘dysfunction’ of the infographic. The made-up-ness of the statistics is a glaring reaction against the traditional ‘factual’ data display. Through its symbolic action, this poster could potentially be seen as a manifestation of Burke’s claim that “the aesthetic must serve as anti-mechanization, the corrective of the practical” (Burke in Hill). The impracticality of the infographic, being less objective and ‘useful’ in teaching us something about the world, could thus perhaps be seen as a deliberate ‘corrective’ in a world where objectivity and functionality is valued above all else.

The power of anti (or at least alternatively)-functional design can be linked to Burke’s concept of “anti-instrumental instrumentalism” (Hill). Instrumentalism, a prevailing ethos primarily focused on functionality and efficiency, can be subverted through a type of deliberate anti-functionality. In other words, the way in which this infographic does not function as an infographic should, allows it to become an aesthetic and critical statement about the prevailing and problematic rhetoric of information visualization in general. The above example could thus be framed within a critical design framework. Critical design, as mentioned previously, is an alternative design practice that “evaluates the status quo and relies on design experts to make things that provoke our understanding of the current values people hold. Critical design ‘makes us think’” (Sanders 15). Paula Antonelli’s articulation of critical design furthers an understanding of this intentionality:

The Critical Design process does not immediately lead to useful objects, but rather to food for thought whose usefulness is revealed by its ability to help others prevent and direct future outcomes. The job of critical designers is to be thorns in the side of politicians and industrialists, as well as partners for scientists or consumer advocates, while stimulating discussion and debate about the social, cultural and ethical future implications of decisions about technology made today (Antonelli).

The power of this infographic may arguably be discovered in how we are not compelled to believe the information as being unbiased or somehow flawless. Nevertheless, there is a kind of raw honesty in the image. It resonates with any designer who has battled through the design process, but it does not presume to encapsulate every designer’s experience. To put it differently, it manages to embody the power of synecdoche, but without supplanting the various complexities of context. It represents the universal in the particular without universalizing the particular. This poster, too, is not without its problems, but it represents, in our view, a positive step towards educating our students about the possibility of playing with and thus expanding the terministic screens that guide information design praxis.

We are aware, however, that this example of a counter-statement may simply be another kind of overemphasis that utterly trivializes the medium of the infographic. It may be helpful to counter the modernist biases that govern infographic design praxis, or to at least call such biases into question, but it is certainly problematic to argue that this should be done in the same way as what our second student example demonstrates. Our intention, however, is not to set up another ideological extreme. Instead, it is, as aligned with critical design practice, to present the possibility of calling into question the way that the primary function of infographics and other visualizations are seen. To date, they have been fundamentally understood, as the name so obviously implies, as a means for conveying information. But conveying information is not the same thing as communicating. Relaying data is not synonymous with creating meaning. Thus, while the poster “I cried making this poster” may fail in a number of respects, it gets one thing absolutely right: it implicitly argues that facts are given meaning through a better understanding and appropriation of context.


It is clear, as DiSalvo argues, that “the obscene proliferation of information in our daily lives” leads to a “crisis of meaning” (76). It is for this reasons that we regard information visualization as an area of design practice that could be highly influential in creating greater understanding of complex phenomena and thus something that can also contribute to a better grasp of meaning. However, many contemporary visualizations are too reductionistic to add real value. Indeed, the danger is that such visualizations add to the clutter and thus also to this crisis of meaning. According to Gadney, infographics are useful when simplicity and accessibility is required, but designers often produce “glib infographics when depth is desired.” He further raises his concerns about infographics, becoming a “fashionable stylistic motif in graphic design” instead of being a genuine “tool for communication.” This problem of popular and superficial visualization has led us as educators to reconsider our teaching strategy. Students should not simply go through the motions of placing graphs and charts on a page, but need think more critically about their actions and the medium itself. In Burkean terms, students need to overcome their ‘occupational psychosis’ and ‘trained incapacity,’ the blindness towards the effects of that which they are proficient in, in order to see not only the limited value of information visualization, but also the misleading and harmful potential of the medium.

Our pedagogic approach has thus been shown as aligned with important developments in critical design practice. Although we acknowledge that designers primarily operate within commercial contexts, where they do not always have the freedom to express critical concerns, we believe it is important to include critical design approaches in our curriculum. Dunne and Raby argue that “Critical design, or design that asks carefully crafted questions and makes us think, is just as difficult and just as important as design that solves problems or finds answers” (58). They therefore challenge designers to “move beyond designing for the way things are now and begin to design for how things could be, imagining alternative possibilities and different ways of being, and giving tangible form to new values and priorities” (Dunne and Raby in Antonelli).

A problem remains that we have highlighted only briefly here, namely the fact that visualizations are often assumed to reflect reality without properly acknowledging the fact that they have a selective and deflective function as well. Hall believes that the most valuable effect of considering a design object as a rhetorical argument is that it “allows us to look under the hood and consider it not as an inevitable or neutral invention but as something that embodies a point of view” (Hall, “A good argument”). However, it is our contention that ethical design itself could contain clues that draw attention to its own rhetorical nature. By representing the illusion of objectivity that is known as the rhetoric of neutrality, visualization often carries with it a highly problematic ethos in that it discourages other ways of interrogating this terministic screen. Thus, we have attempted to argue briefly for introducing a kind of auto-critique into the visual text, as an instance of Burke’s ‘perspective by incongruity.’ Such auto-critique may not necessary appear in the final visual text, but its presence should be somewhat implicit in the process that leads to the creation of that text. Auto-critique must, of course, be preceded by a particular kind of attitude. The attitude of the designer is an “incipient act” that informs the possibilities of what any designed communication can achieve (Burke in Beach 66). It allows for an opening up of meaning, rather than a closing down; and, most importantly for our purposes here, it offers a challenge to and the expansion of a particular kind of terministic screen. Critical design, as a current approach used in design pedagogy, deliberately attempts to create ‘perspective by incongruity’ and can ultimately be seen as aligned with Burke’s goal to “keep us reasoning as equitably and democratically as possible so that when we judge, we have done our utmost to avoid personal and cultural dogmatisms” (Hildebrand 643).

* The authors wish to thank Nick Hlozek for leading the information visualization projects analyzed in this paper, as well as the University of Pretoria’s third year Information Design students of 2011 and 2012 for their hard work and creativity.

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