A Response to An Elemental Approach to Web Site Visuals

[This is a response to Valerie V. Peterson’s essay titled An Elemental Approach to Web Visuals found in Visualizing the Web, Evaluating Online Design From a Visual Communication Perspective, edited by Sheree Josephson, Mark Lipton, and Susan B. Barnes. This response was written for News Web Design with Professor Loubere at Middle Tennessee State University.]

The author makes a strong case for what they call an “elemental approach” to visually analyzing web sites. Through a discussion of the shortcomings of other approaches to visual analysis, the author gradually builds up to the point that an elemental approach would be superior for a multitude of reasons. One main point I feel the author was trying to make was that traditional rhetorical approaches to visual analysis often attempt to translate visual language into the verbal, written, textual language of every day. I wonder though if this is actually a problem; more likely, it is simply a factor which we should cognize. Our primary language of inter-personal communication is often textual. It seems to me from my experience thus far with visual communications that many people think in textual language, making it easier for the majority of us to understand.

This translation between the visual and the textual language is often the core of a problem involving visual design. While visual language is “natural” and learned from our environment naturally, we are trained to think textually (probably by our writing professors). However, my point is simply that the issue of translating between textual and visual languages and the confusion between the two is a problem that I find inherent to any discussion of visual communications and is thus somewhat of a moot point.

All that said, the essay has one element that feel is very relative to the subject at hand. The elemental approach outlined in the last section of the essay would be invaluable to web designers, as well as to designers in many other fields of interface design. By breaking down visual experiences into their basic elements, we can see (and thus analyze) the process of how users make sense of visuals.

The author explains the elemental process as, “‘seeing series of small, intricate shapes in a line’ instead ‘of seeing a toolbar.’” In this example, the more complex object (perhaps a compound object?) of a toolbar has been deconstructed into its basic elements – small, intricate shapes, arranged into a specific configuration. There is no assumed meaning attached to objects at this stage, but as the analysis builds and meanings begin to be implied by various elements and configurations, we call out that meaning we have inferred. With this method, we can understand how users see and begin to assume meaning in a design and identify any elements that are distracting, confusing, or simply illogical in their reliance on assumed meanings.

Personally, I feel that this would be an excellent approach for many fields that rely on visual communication: product design, architecture, system design, and especially web design. Many users do not necessarily know that a configuration of complex shapes in a line is a toolbar, they may not even know in any definite way that those objects relate to one another. By eliminating assumptions, we can increase clarity, usability, and efficiency.

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