Building design says as much about the people using the building as about the society in which it was built.

You craft everything you say or write to suit your audience. That’s not a new concept. You’ve tailored messages to your audience since you were a kid trying to borrow a friend’s toy. You became an expert as a teen trying to borrow the family car. We all learn how to use rhetoric appropriate to our audiences from a very young age. However, that learning often involves only the content of our messages, rather than the formatting of them. This exclusive emphasis on content renders many students blind to the effects of social determinants of knowledge or identity. The common belief that formatting is unimportant (or standardized) renders students ill-equipped to design effective, creative documents for anything but the narrowest of use cases.

When we use social media, the platforms we use define our ability to interact with others. The lengths of our messages, the options for our profiles, and the complexity of our text are all dictated by the system, not our will. Even the look and feel of the platform is out of our control. The fonts and colors we write our posts in are selected by a team of developers, not us.

As J.D. Applen explained, “one of the most common claims for social networking sites is that you can indeed stake your claim on the Internet and let everyone know who you are as an individual, but in many ways these sites are based on cookie-cutter templates.” What may feel to us like personalization is merely an adjustment of predefined settings. Really, other people made the personalizations. In other words, designers selected the rhetorical options available to us before we even chose them. Particularly in digital spaces, platform developers and social groups shape the available rhetoric. Examining these design choices can help us better understand the social pressures facing us when we write online.

Discussing Design

Focusing on design to learn about social influences on rhetoric is neither novel nor unique. I’ve written before about the need for instructional design to focus on people, not tools. In that essay, I asked, “How might we put [students] in control of their own learning processes?” Giving more freedom and control to students in a classroom echoes the new-media characteristic of variability expressed by Lev Manovich (and discussed by Douglas Eyman, p. 53). New media does not exist in the same form at all times, and consumers of new media can make changes to it. However, interface and platform designers often limit the types of changes available to consumers of new media.

Below, I will use design examples from textiles, architecture, and documents to show how our society shapes, limits, and often defines the available rhetorical choices. Along the way I will make the case that, within the limited options available to them, rhetors of digital media have an obligation to create content intentionally designed to be accessibly to as wide an audience as possible. But first, a few non-alphabetic examples of design will help put the broader concepts into a manageable, tangible context.

Social Fashion Design

When hearing talk of “design”, many people think of fashion design. Fashion is a way of communicating values and ideas through textiles. As Derek Guy, contributor to Put This On and author of Die Workwear states, “when people put together an outfit I think of it as in like writing a sentence.” In Articles of Interest, Journalist Avery Trufelman elaborates on Guy’s claim. Trufelman talks about clothing fashions the same way we talk about rhetorical choices and genre norms in a writing class:

An outfit is a sentence that says, “This is what I am doing today, this is what the weather is, this is who I am.” … A lot of fashion references archetypes. The punk. The cowboy. The raver. The blue collar worker. These are frames of reference that already exist. And you can tell, subtly, even if you dont overtly name it—if a jacket is sort of workwear looking or western looking or biker-looking. Implicitly you know if you are dressed up like a businessperson, or a bohemian or an intellectual. … If you were to leave the house wearing, say, a feather boa with a fireman’s jacket—it wouldn’t send a clear message. (p. 9)

In other words, we can read a lot into (or from) an outfit. This idea of ‘reading’ can, as Jondan Jonson-Eilola (quoted by Douglas Eyman, p. 21) points out, be applied to “any object, collection of objects, or contexts.” And this process of reading non-alphabetic texts happens very quickly. As Avery Trufelman noted, we can tell the identity, activity, and environment of a person at a glance from what they wear.

But clothing choice isn’t entirely up to each of us. What we think of as a decision based on our identity, activity, and environment actually tells more about our culture than about us. Anyone who’s seen Miranda Priestly’s epic takedown about about a lumpy blue turquoise lapis cerulean sweater knows this. The leaders of the garment-fashion industry make decisions that limit what we, as consumers of mass fashion, can choose from. Put simply, we cannot decide to wear clothing that the fashion industry has not already provided as a choice. Our self-expression through clothing is socially determined, yet we still use clothing to make rhetorical statements. The relationship between rhetoric and fashion design is social and bidirectional.

Social Building Design

Similarly, the design of buildings is also social and bidirectional. We design buildings for human use, and thus human needs should be of foremost concern. For instance, ceilings in newer buildings (like the 2005 CAS) are taller than those in older buildings. Kean students should consider the height of hallways in CAS (2005) versus those in Hutchinson (1974). The reason why comes directly from psychology—people’s moods improve in more-open interior spaces. Furthermore, marketing professor Joan Meyers-Levy found that “ceiling height affects the way you process information.” Design decisions many of us take for granted might shape the way with think in subtle ways.

There’s a lot behind decisions regarding building designs, and most of those decisions go unnoticed by building occupants. Good design decisions should fade into the background and become virtually invisible to us. It’s rare to hear someone comment on how much they love their office building. But we’ve all heard people complain about how much they hate the building they’re in. (Remind me again why my office was 58º one day, and a classroom was 80º the next week?) Designing a building well is hard work.

Building-Design Consequences

Sometimes even a well-designed building misses the mark because the designer doesn’t share the standards and expectations of the occupants. For instance, in “From Folly to Megastore: Inside the Great American Pyramid of Memphis, Tennessee,” Kurt Kohlstedt explains how a building that’s well-made fell into disuse on multiple occasions. Nobody could figure out what to do with it—literally. And in a reverse example, Roman Mars explores in “Structural Integrity” how a poorly designed building could pose a mortal danger to its occupants if the engineers don’t test it correctly prior to construction. We might hope that the buildings we occupy live up to higher safety standards, but that’s a matter of trust in the social systems intended to protect people in public spaces. Our society works to enforce safe building designs.

A well-designed building also reflects the society that produced it. One easy-to-recognize example of this is the prevalence of Brutalism during the Cold War. Despite being what 99pi calls “an utterly optimistic building material,” concrete buildings have developed a bad reputation. Concrete design is often at odds with the goals of the people who live in those buildings. Wandering through any college campus over 50 years old, it’s fairly simple to place the decade of each building’s design. That’s because construction materials and styles go in and out of fashion just like our clothing does. Society influences building design, expressed through construction rhetorics.

Designing for Accessibility

One commonly understood aspect of modern building design is accessibility. For many buildings, we see big buttons near entrances that activate automatic doors for folks who use wheelchairs. For older buildings, we see ramps stuck onto the side like an afterthought—because they were literally an afterthought. Nothing says “we forgot you exist” quite like a ramp constructed after a building opens for use. When we create things intended for use by others, we have an idea who those “others” are. We may not be consciously aware who we think the audience is, but we always have some idea.

This intentionality is the same concept as when writing teachers tell students to imagine they’re writing for a specific audience. The tone vocabulary, idea complexity, and baseline assumptions are unique to each group of people we address. Oftentimes, addressing one audience successfully means excluding another one. Accessibility, then, becomes a design challenge for rhetors. That challenge becomes more complex—and solutions become more robust—when working in digital spaces.

Physical Accessibility

Like the wheelchair-access ramps mentioned above, a few designs in the built world around us take on legend status. In each case, the design itself is an excellent solution for the problem it addresses. But more importantly, a legendary design changes what we expect from a design solution. A few simple examples will help illustrate the diversity of physical design noteworthiness:

Designers create products intentionally. The degree of knowledge and insight behind those intentions can determine whether a product works as we expect or requires effort to learn. When certain people—say, for instance, those in wheelchairs—are unable to use a product, the designer has fundamentally failed those people.

Digital Accessibility

Similar challenges apply in digital spaces, where rhetors need to build documents, websites, and applications with a variety of users in mind. This effort would allow people with varying abilities consistent access to materials. As Lev Manovich explained, end-users can manipulate digital media. Thus, the user should be able to access digital content in a way that works best for them. Consider how podcast and audiobook players allow users to adjust playback speed. Or think of how e-readers allow users to adjust font size and screen color.

But we rarely discuss such matters in education, tending instead to default to a one-size-fits-all approach to formatting. Academic publishers created that system for print media decades ago. At the recommendation of APA and MLA, many instructors expect work to appear in TNR 12-point with 1-inch margins. Eventually, sheer inertia codified those recommendations into standards. But those standards were appropriate when TNR was the most legible typeface and manuscript feedback arrived via pen and ink. Here in the 21st century, it hardly makes sense.

Document Design in Class

What can we do differently to rethink the presentation of documents created in classes? Several authors provide suggestions, including:

Each of these authors suggests using the design, not just the content, of our documents to make them easier to navigate. In other words, we have long known that social expectations shape the content of our communications. New scholarship, though, asserts that rhetors should likewise rhetorically shape the presentation of our academic texts.

Underneath it All: The Rhetoric of Design

The design of documents and of spaces are taken for granted when they work, appreciated when they work well, and guaranteed to be noticed when they fail. A thoughtfully designed product or situation generates delight in those who engage with it. Poor design leads to frustration or exclusion.

Good document design is especially important because most rhetorical decisions in today’s world affect audiences separated by time and distance. Live engagement is rare. That separation means rhetors must take extra care to imagine the needs of their audiences. Rhetors aren’t there to witness audience responses and correct for problems in the moment. Missed opportunities like those are magnified by the distance between rhetor and audience. Authors have only once chance to make documents work for their intended audiences.

Society and Rhetoric

Many writing and rhetoric courses teach the connection between rhetor and audience. But that connection is usually expressed in a single direction: the effect a rhetor has on an audience. Less common is the discussion of how audiences dictate the bounds of what’s possible for a rhetor to do. Think of a parent who has to speak to a child in simple language the child understands. Or consider a bargain hunter who chooses a cerulean sweater because the fashion industry said it was the right choice. Similarly, a rhetor must make choices based on their audience’s needs.

But it goes even deeper than that. The rhetorical styles and flourishes we use are dictated by the social situations in which we use them. Memes only make sense through shared cultural contexts. Catchy, attention-grabbing phrases and speech patterns originate in the surrounding social fabric. Rhetors’ tools come from their communities. Society shapes what we say and how we say it. Society doesn’t just influence rhetoric; society creates rhetoric.

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