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The 3 R’s of Visual Design: Rhetoric, Readability, Responsibility

The “3 Rs” (reading, [w]riting, and [a]rithmetic) have long been a shorthand way of identifying elements that seem fundamental to education. Coincidentally, there are 3 Rs that are fundamental to the development and use of any visual design: rhetoric, readability, and responsibility. These 3 Rs can serve an important analytical purpose in understanding and developing designs in eLearning (or any other communication environment).

It is probably a little foolish to use those three terms in a blog, given that just the definitions (let alone application) of two of them (rhetoric and responsibility) have been debated for more than two thousand years. For the purposes of this short discussion, I hope that these shorthand definitions will provide enough common ground to show how the terms can function to improve discussion and development of visual design.

Rhetoric – the design’s effect in the social realm

Readability – the design’s effect in the physical and mental realms

Responsibility – the design’s effect in the moral and legal realms.

All three of these elements are present in every design. Sometimes they are balanced, sometimes one outweighs the others, and sometimes they compete with one another. But all three are always in the design in some capacity.

Take a brief analysis of this online course screen as an example.

The frame and navigation buttons and overall layout clearly position this as an “online course”, which sets up a relationship between the learner, the course, and the provider of the course. The course’s colors match the product (a sunscreen/skincare product line) but also are supposed to trigger connections to the outdoors (sun, sky, surf) for the learner in hopes of invoking positive feelings about the product. And the image of the mentor is there to foster a more “personal” connection between the learner and the course.

The entire design of the frame, while rhetorically invoking “online course”, also serves readability—the familiar icons and their placement, the course title at the top of the screen, the standard placement of heading and subheadings, all help the learner make easy sense of what’s what on the page. Headings, subheadings, and bullets allow the learner to structure the information on the page.

The designer has a responsibility to the client to place their content and product in a credible, attractive position relative to the learner. At the same time, the designer has a legal obligation to provide a disclaimer explaining the basis of certain claims made in the text. The placement and sizing of the disclaimer, however, show that this responsibility has been placed below the rhetorical need to maintain a positive image and above the need to keep text completely readable for all learners. The designer also has a responsibility to make the course as easy as possible for the learner to navigate and understand.

There is certainly much more that could be analyzed in each of these areas even within this one screen capture, but this should be enough to show the overlapping/competing/collaborating concerns of rhetoric, readability, and responsibility. This terminology can help designers take a more holistic approach to their designs, understanding more fully the issues each design confronts. From the example, we can see how applying the 3 Rs allows us to identify competing needs in the design (the positive connection to the product, the legal qualifier about the claim, and the readability of that qualifier) and evaluate whether the designer has made the best choice for the learners and their context (should the qualifier be made more readable to fulfill the spirit of the legal requirement, for instance). Applying the 3 Rs of visual design can move the discussion away from merely “what we/they usually do” or “what we/they like” to a more substantive discussion.