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Rhetoric: What designers can learn

In this post we're going to go way back into the mists of time.

For thousands of years speakers, politicians and writers have used patterns of language to persuade people of their idea. It's an art of persuasive communicating. However in modern times this has become a bit of a "lost art". No longer widely taught in schools we do not value or recognise it as much as society used to.

I want to make the case for it and show why it could be useful for designers to use it in their work.

But first lets ask the question:

What is 'rhetoric'?

The following definition comes from the Cambridge Dictionary:

"speech or writing intended to be effective and influence people:"

Right there we have an interesting link to creative design. As designers we are trying to "be effective" creating customer experiences which are simple and easy to use. As designers we are seeking to influence people when we produce creative assets to support marketing initiatives. Therefore, I for one want to get to understand this ancient art of rhetoric more. It will have lots to teach us about the principles we seek to master as designers.

Aristotle's Ethos, Pathos and Logos

The idea of rhetoric goes back a long way right up to the ancient Greeks - beyond whom the mist of unrecorded history obscures exploration. The word 'Rhetoric' itself is from Greek for this reason.

A Roman statute of Aristotle. Source: Wikipedia.

Aristotle (384–322 BC) was an ancient Greek philosopher, considered as one of the "Fathers of Western Philosophy". He explained the principles of rhetoric like this:

"Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker [ethos]; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind [pathos]; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself [logos]." Aristotle, 360 BCE. The Rhetoric, Book I.

I find this fascinating. How would these principles translate over to design? Let's explore.

Ethos - the appeal to ethics

Aristotle goes on to explain more about each principle:

On 'Ethos' he says:

"Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided. This kind of persuasion should be achieved by what the speaker says and by what people think of his character before he begins to speak. It is not true, as some writers assume in their treatises on rhetoric, that the personal goodness revealed by the speaker contributes nothing to his power of persuasion; on the contrary, his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses".

This is all about reputation. What has gone before to shape an opinion in the mind of the hearer.

In modern marketing terms we would call this "brand" - the meaning and value a consumer places on a product, service or company. A good, well respected brand will be listened to. This is why how a brand articulates it's purpose and its behaviours is so important. It underpins how people listen to it and are persuaded by it.

As a designer - do you know what the brand you are designing for stands for? What is the under lining story it is telling and why does anyone care? Being sympathetic to this can help you design effectively within that context. It will help you to leverage this in your work.

Pathos - the appeal to emotion

Good old Aristotle continues:

"Secondly, persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions. Our judgments when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile. It is towards producing these effects, as we maintain, that-present day writers on rhetoric direct the whole of their efforts..."

So designers - do you ever consider your work from this perspective? What emotions do you want someone to feel when they interact with your work? Will it make them excited? Will it make them angry? Will it ease their pains or help them reach their goals?

This is one of the key skills I find hard to coach into people - empathy. It's hard to coach because it is a reflection of the person themselves. If we are empathetic this will come easy? If we are not it's difficult to put ourselves in other peoples shoes. As a designer it is essential we always have the customer in mind in everything we design. If we are not pleasing and delighting the customer there are plenty of other brands who will.

Logos - the appeal to logic

I love how Aristotle puts this last. This is the art of putting words together which communicate facts. Historically Marketeers have put it first. Lets push the logical facts and features of this product. The truth is that this is the least of the three ways in which consumers are persuaded to buy. We buy first with our emotions and try and rationalise it with facts. This is how Aristotle introduces this:

"Thirdly, persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question."

This is an important thing to bear in mind as a designer. How you are presenting the facts can influence what people. We need to present things clearly. We need to pull out the right benefits to appeal. We need to be logical else our communication will not be trusted.


From this brief overview, I hope you'd agree that there is a rich vein of knowledge in rhetoric for designers. Any system or thinking which helps us communicate better is surely worth further exploration.

I for one am going to do some more reading up on this exciting topic. Watch this space.

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