Visual Rhetoric in New Product Design

Jeffrey F. Durgee, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
ABSTRACT - Visual rhetoric and visual communication have long histories in other fields yet are relatively new to consumer research. Scott (1994) has written about visual rhetoric in advertising and Floch (l988) wrote about the visual semiotics of retail design. The present paper builds on work which applies visual rhetoric to a new area, new product design. The relevance of visual rhetoric to product design is illustrated in an analysis of the design of the new Chevrolet SSR sport truck.
[ to cite ]:
Jeffrey F. Durgee (2003) ,"Visual Rhetoric in New Product Design", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 367-372.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, 2003     Pages 367-372


Jeffrey F. Durgee, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute


Visual rhetoric and visual communication have long histories in other fields yet are relatively new to consumer research. Scott (1994) has written about visual rhetoric in advertising and Floch (l988) wrote about the visual semiotics of retail design. The present paper builds on work which applies visual rhetoric to a new area, new product design. The relevance of visual rhetoric to product design is illustrated in an analysis of the design of the new Chevrolet SSR sport truck.


This paper reiterates the possibility that we can conceptualize and understand consumer perception and evaluation of new product designs Bspecifically, design formBby applying theories from a new field in consumer research, visual rhetoric.

Visual rhetoric is a type of non-discursive rhetoric which deals with the capability of a visual image to communicate a compelling message. There has been a large amount of visual communication research in other fields including architecture (see "The Portland Building" by Kanengieter-Wildeson in Foss 1989), photographs (Schroeder 1998), memorials (see Viet Nam memorial in Hat l996), paintings (Reid 1990), and sculpture (e.g., " The Dinner Party" in Foss 1989). Some examples of analyses of visual rhetoric and visual communication in consumer- related subjects include work dealing with advertising (Scott 1994), retail spaces (Penaloza 1998, Floch 1988) and product design (Schmitt and Simonson 1997, Solomon 1988, ). Among the latter works, however, the Floch paper is restricted to looking at design communication in terms of the semiotic square, and the Schmitt and Simonson book touches design communication only briefly (e.g., that straight shapes communicate masculinity, curved ones, femininity). While the Solomon paper, like the present paper, indicates how a product design can be broken into interrelated units and how these units and interrelationships have special communicative capabilities, it doesn=t go very far in describing the content of what is communicated. It stays on a very abstract level and provides limited illustrations. An interesting article which describes communicative properties of the Jeep Cherokee design was written by Meister (1977). While this article indicates how the design communicates "sustained passenger comport and protection from natural elements" and that protection of the natural environment is a (distant) secondary goal of the company, the bulk of the article is about environmental conservation rather than design communication.

Visuals have a great deal of rhetorical power. As Hart (1996) suggests, a picture of a shack in the Appalachians says a lot about poverty in the US, and the sharp rift the Viet Nam Memorial makes in the ground in the park in Washington D.C. is a stern reminder of how a nation can be split over a war in a foreign country. The powers of visuals in thinking, communication and memory are nicely discussed in Zaltman and Coulter’s article on the Zaltman technique (1995).

The purpose of this paper is to review some of the basic concepts and theories from visual rhetoric and extend them to understand a new category of visual stimuli, new product designs. Designs of products can implicitly make certain statements and set symbolic tones. For example, the small, compact size, small wheels, aerodynamic wheel covers, and thin, fragile look of the body panels in the Toyota Prius and Honda’s Insight hybrid (gas/electric) cars are implicit rhetorical statements about the importance of conserving energy.

This paper reviews some basic tenets of rhetoric, shows how they apply in visual rhetoric, and highlights examples of visual rhetoric in different product designs. It focuses on one particular design, the new Chevrolet SSR sport truck to show how one design might be interpreted in visual rhetoric terms.

Before we consider visual rhetoric, let us first consider rhetoric.


Hart (1996 ) calls rhetoric "The art of using language to help people narrow their choices among specifiable, if not specified, policy options" ( p.2). Scott calls it "an interpretive theory that frames a message as an interested party’s attempt to influence and audience" (p. 252). And Foss calls it "the action humans perform when they use symbols for the purpose of communicating with one another" (p 4). Effective rhetoric is based on artistic considerations as well as logical ones. As Hart (1996 ) says, "Both the artist and the persuader use their imaginations to engage their audiences’ imaginations.." (p. 10). As Campbell (1982) wrote, "Rhetoric is the study of what is persuasive...The issues it examines are social truths, addressed to others, justified by reasons that reflect cultural values." (p. 6) In all types of rhetoric, there are senders who select formal elements (arguments) and arrange them in terms of their expectations about how their listeners or viewers will perceive and interpret these elements (Burke 1969, Corbett 1965).

A common thread here is the intent to influence an audience. Historically, the message has always been verbal, although there is growing interest in visual persuasion and visual messages.

Visual rhetoric simply refers to "conveying information through visual aspects..rather than through verbal aspects. " (Brumberger 2002). For many years, it was assumed that while people expend considerable mental effort processing and interpreting verbal messages (written or oral), they are basically passive with regard to visual information, that they do very little with it other than receiving it into memory modes. In other words, it was felt that a whole visual image is simply dumped into the passive minds of viewers. Scott (1994) argues, however, that people often expend a great deal of effort interpreting messages in visual images and that the researchers’ job is to understand how they interpret these messages.

In processing an image, for example, of a new house design, what do peoples’ eyes focus on first? What next? If a person is seeing the separate elements of a house design in a certain sequence, what do the separate elements say symbolically? How do people interpret the combinations of elements? If a house is built very low into the yard or ground, would people interpret that the design is saying it is important to conserve energy? To be ready for bomb attacks? To be organic with the surroundings?

The popular artist Thomas Kinkade is presently assisting the design of a group of houses in a new subdivision in California. The houses will look like the sentimentalized cottages and English country settings in his highly successful paintings. Will people get it? Will they feel the same sentiments and emotionality they feel from his paintings?

Rhetorical criticism "is the process of systematically investigating and explaining symbolic acts and artifacts for the purpose of understanding rhetorical processes." (Foss p 6.) The purpose in this paper is to seek not only to understand visual design as a rhetorical process but also how to improve design effectiveness. I want to go beyond simple market research metrics such as design likeability and uniqueness to get at some new aspects of design in the experience of the beholder or audience which might improve design effectiveness.



I argue that in order to interpret meanings consumers might take away from a product design (or ad, brand name, retail design, etc.), an interesting source is to consider elements of the work and the rhetorical roles they might play as suggested by rhetoricians (or critics as in Ahuvia 1998). In other words, in order to develop hypotheses about meanings in Cells C and F in Figure 1 above, a valuable place to start is Cell B which represents overt meanings and meaning systems used by rhetoricians and critics.

Cell B represents all the day to day working theories and terms used by rhetorical experts and critics. These often deal with meanings in Cells A and D as well as C and F insofar as these experts examine artist intentionalities and backgrounds or life contexts (Ahuvia 1998) . In consumer research, there are few studies of A and D although Kover (1995) wrote a very interesting paper on how advertising copywriters sense meanings as interpreted by their targetsBand Durgee and O’Connor (1996) did research on product design messages as communicated from designer to end consumer.


All rhetoric involves a rhetor (message creator), message, an audience, a context, and, as indicated above, desired effects. There are many other issues to consider. The first of these is ideology or the world view, values, and norms that are argued for.

In order to illustrate these issues and the role they play in product design, we will review them inlight of the design of a new vehicle to be introduced shortly by General Motors, the Chevrolet SSR sport truck (see Figure 2.)

1. Ideology

In examining examples of visual rhetoric, Hart (1996) asks of each example, "Does the visual image carry ideological force? Does it grow out of a systematically articulated belief system" ?(p. 189) The Viet Nam memorial in Washington reflects our feelings about the war noted earlier, and Chicago’s large sculpture "The Dinner Party" is a statement about advances made by women throughout history.

Foss (1989) describes an ideology as "a patter or set of ideas, assumptions, beliefs, values, or interpretations of the world by which a culture or group operates". (p. 291) The SSR truck represents quintessential American values: consumption for its own sake, pleasure, fun, freedom, and indulgence. It has very limited practical value as the truck bed is only 5 feet long and 3 feet between the wheel wells. It is an open car which only seats two people. Hart (l996) describes the recent trend in the US toward "Radical Individualism", and this truck supports this trend insofar as it will probably be driven mostly by single individuals. This is interesting insofar as many US car manufacturers are attempting to reflect foreign values and imagery in their new cars, in particular, in luxury cars. Ads for these cars proclaim "European Handling" and "German workmanship". An old theme in Chevrolet advertising, in contrast, is the USA and core American values. In that regard, the SSR is a return to a core American values.

2. SettingBContextBPresentation

Questions here concern where, when and under what circumstances the message takes place. Rhetorical critics suggest that in political speeches, it matters a great deal whether a politician gives a speech from his office or a homeless shelter. The message would come across very differently in the different contexts. Similarly, an advertisement sends a different message if it appears in one magazine versus another. Within the visual in an advertisement, it matters if the product is shown in a brightly lit setting versus a dark, mysterious one (Scott 1994). Consider the designs of ice cream products and how they favor different presentations. The design of an ice cream sandwich makes it hard to eat and requires that it be held at a low angle. In contrast, an ice cream cone is designed so it can only be held upright. By it’s shape and how it is held, the cone represents excitement and specialness, like the torch in the hand of the Statue of Liberty.

In the case of the Chevy SSR, given the strong trend in the US toward off-road vehicles, the SSR by definition seems like an on-road car, a car that is all about the road. Unlike the majority of new cars today, it doesn=t have a massive body and four-wheel drive to get it through tough conditions of dirt, woods, snow and ice. Rather, it seems suited only to sunny dry days and black, dry pavement.

Kinetic sculpture moves, but a car can move from place to place. A car either sits or moves. In which context is the SSR’s "message" the clearest? Sitting, the car would have a Sphinx-like quality, as attention would probably be drawn to its unusual body with its broad fender flares and unusual grille. Underway, the spinning, flashing large shiny wheels would call attention to themselves, like kinetic sculpture, like a working piece of machinery.

Obviously, during its lifetime, the SSR will be indoors and outdoors. Cars are big and need a large space to be properly displayed indoors. Car designs "speak" best to us outdoors. If we drove around in "tunnel cars", the car designs would say very different things to us. They would be shaped like pods or cocoons. In contrast, the SSR design says that it is for full, open-air enjoyment.



3. Elements

In formulating a speech, advertisement, editorial or some other piece of rhetoric, the rhetor carefully selects and organizes the separate elements or arguments. The selection, emphasis, combining, and sequencing of the arguments are critical to the success of the effort. Of special importance will be the use of special tropes or exaggerations or metaphors to bring artistry to the piece and get the viewer involved emotionally.

The remainder of this paper examines these issues, particularly as they relate to rhetorical capabilities of new product design issues in the SSR.


Our expectations are shaped by personal and culturally shared categories and meaning systems. We expect, for example, that a public lecture will have a beginning, middle, and an end. An academic presentation will involve a theoretical background, support in the form of research findings, and then a set of implications and recommendations.

All rhetors work with peoples’ expectations of these types to select and combine separate parts which go into their texts.

So too with designers. When a designer designs something, he or she works with shared cultural expectations about elements we expect to see in that design. In the case of a car, we might expect a prototypical car such as the Chevrolet Malibu in Figure 3.

The Malibu has 4 doors, tires, wheels, a body, seats, an engine and windows, everything in our typical expectation of a "car." In fact, the Malibu is typical of what is called the "universal" automobile design. It is a front-engine car, mid-sized, four-door, four-seat sedan, the most common, least expensive, widely- manufactured car design in the world.

The designer of the SSR, however, diverges from this design. He or she takes away the roof (it is retractable), takes away two doors, two seats, most of the grille and ornamentation and adds a truck bed in the back. Rhetorical experts call this "detractio", that is, improving an argument by taking elements out (Ehses and Lupton l988). He or she is saying "this is all you need to have fun." In fact, the SSR reflects old 1950’s hot rod themes insofar as young people then stripped down regular street cars to make custom hot rods and drive them for fun.

The SSR also has no bumpers, and a minimal lighting system just like a race car. Although this is a prototype car, these attributes might be interpreted by some as a lower concern for safety and a heightened "live for today" attitude or what Hart (l996) calls "Radical Presentism". Again, the stress is on fun and excitement.


Rhetors have many different ways they can use to influence how their audience will sequentially process the points they want to make. To engage an audience’s interest, a rhetor might order events in a chronological sequence or story form. For example, in an appeal for money for a nonprofit organization, a speech writer might include a story about events which over time took the organization deeper and deeper in debt. A speech might also order events in cause-effect sequence, or what Hart (1996) calls "ascending" sequence. Here, the most impactful arguments are placed first and last, insofar as the primacy-recency effect from psychology suggests that items coming first and last are most remembered. Also, a basic device all speakers know is repetition. If they repeat the same point or element over and over, it will have a much stronger impact on the audience.

All of these devices might also be true in visual rhetoric in design. To date, there are no known studies of eye movements pertaining to designs (other than graphics for websites, see, so we cannot be confidant that we know how typical viewers see the separate parts of a design in sequence.



Certainly, an important sequence by which drivers process car experiences is 1. see the car, 2. get in, sit, then 3. drive. Years ago, Harley Earl (in Georgano 1995), the lead designer at General Motors argued that people first look at the grille (or "face" ) or a car, then along the lines, then finish up at the back. Certainly the dominant metaphor for automobile design in the 1950s was the rocket ship, and the rocket ship message was told at the front of the car with rocket-like grilles, along the side with long horizontal lines, then finished at the back with large tail fins. Designers of the new VW Beetle knew that the circle motif was a subtle theme in the first Beetle inasmuch as the car, from the side, looks like three half-circles (body and fenders) nested together. The circle motif, with its connotations of continuity, inclusiveness ("Peoples Car", Knights of the Round Table, etc.) therefore was repeated again and again in the new Beetle. It is seen not only in the shape of the car and the wheels but also the speedometer, other gauges, head and tail lights, the key, and various interior pieces.

Looking at the SSR, the body reflects the overall wedge-shape which became popular in the l960s. Therefore, a viewer’s eyes would probably move, as Earl suggested, from front to back. In contrast, the new SUVs divert from the universal style mainly in terms of cab height, so viewers’ eyes probably start at the high roof lines of these vehicles and then move down. In old 1950s hotrods, the engine was a very important part of the car, so it makes sense that attention in the SSR car goes from front to back. The front of the SSR has little ornamentation and looks very low and fast. There are no bumpers which reflects the basic fun message. Like a race car, the headlights are partially covered over.

The sides of the car are relatively high. Occupants sit low inside, so the door top is probably over their shoulders, just like a car in an amusement park rideBagain, a fun image. As with the high slab sides of older era Rolls Royce sedans, the sides signal a type of exclusivity, as in "we are inside enjoying this and you are outside."

The back of the truck has a sharp upward look, including not only the upward-sweeping truck bed cover but also the sweep in the rear fenders. In race cars, this adds aerodynamic downforce to the rear wheels which are usually the drive wheels. Along with the large head rest/ roll bars, the high back end provides a backdrop which accentuates the riders, like two thrones.


A lot of rhetoric deals with tropes. Tropes are "artful deviations," types of rhetorical figures people use to bring emphasis and drama to their arguments. These deviations include such things as metaphors, metonyms, and antitheses. These figurative expressions add what is called a "pleasure of the text" (Barthes 1985) as readers derive pleasure from interpreting what they mean. In arguing that upstate New York is a cold place, one can simply say it is cold or one can say that it is "so cold that the polar bears in the zoos went on strike." As McQuarrie and Mick (l996) suggest, "a rhetorical figure provides a means for making the familiar strange". ( p. 426)

Designers use many such devices in new product design. To refer to an earlier example, the new VW Beetle includes an actual flower vase in the interior. This might make the interior seem a little strangeBuntil one gets the metonymic connection between flowers and the 60’s "Flower Children" culture of rock and roll, tie dye clothes, youth, long hair, and old VWs.

The SSR deviates from the prototypic carBthe Chevrolet MalibuBin many ways.

A dominant metaphor would seem to be its toy-like image. The car has very large wheels and tires, and both are emphasized by the fenders which are apart from the body and highlight the wheels, much like a toy car. In fact, the proportions of the wheels to the body are almost those of a roller skate, again, a fun image, and an image which says, "this can really roll". The wide stance of the wheels and fat tires suggests that the car has turtle-like stability. This broad stance is reflected again in the Chevrolet logo in the front which is low and goes across the entire front of the grille. The stability of the car is further highlighted in the ratio of the wheelbase to the cab. (see Figure 4). The small cab, and wheels mounted far in front and far in back highlight overall length, much like an old royal horse drawn carriage. The stress on the wheels reflects an old term which young people have used for years to represent their cars: "my wheels".



Oddly, the ratio of the hood length to the total car length violates an old design message in cars. This message was that the longer the hood, the more powerful the car. In the case of the SSR, the hood is relatively short. It has a low forehead, however, which is somewhat dolphin-like in shape. This might give the car a more intelligent look although research would be necessary here as in all of these issues to see how consumers would really feel.


McQuarrie and Mick (l996) refer to conflict between opposing elements in a rhetorical argument as "antithesis". This happens, they say, when a message structure includes both members of a binary opposite, for example, the shampoo slogan for Pert: "Easy on eyesBTough on tangles".

The SSR embodies several such oppositions. First, is it a sports car or a truck? Is it for fun or work? Of the two images, the sports car image probably benefits from the truck image much more strongly than vice versa. Just as a big football player would look more rugged among a group of ballet dancers than on the field, the SSR comes across as much more fun given the truck image than without it.

Similarly, the conflict between and old-looking pickup truck body and ultra new, big (17 inch) wheels. While the body largely reflects a Chevy truck body from the 1950s, the wheels look very new, even down to the atomic energy design in the spokes. This, of course, highlights the wheels and tires, which were mentioned earlier. At the same time, to the extent that it represents new wheels propelling an old shape, it suggests new energy and excitement given to something old and loved, like I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid inside the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Third, there is sharp dissonance experienced as one goes along the smooth lines of the body and fendersBand then suddenly ends at the abrupt, chopped-off tail of the car.

The tail reflects the abrupt Kamm- styled tail made popular in race cars in the l960s as this tail was thought to make the cars more aerodynamic. Also, as indicated throughout this paper, the car is also a truck. At the same time, without being too interpretive, the phenomenon as experienced by viewers as they look down the smooth sides of the car then come to an abrupt end might not be unlike the sensation of hearing an organ piece suddenly end in a large church. In some churches, as the organ stops, the sound continues for a brief moment. This brief moment of sound is called "cipher" among organists. Looking from the front of the car to the back, the feeling of smooth motion continues at the abrupt end, just as the sound of an organ continues after the organ abruptly stops.


Designs influence how we experience the world. As this paper suggests, they have might have important visual rhetorical properties. They exhibit many of the rhetorical figuresBincluding tropes, sequencing of ideas, antithesisBfound in discursive rhetoric.

They should be studied as pieces of text, just as speeches, advertisements and newspaper editorials are studied.

Visual rhetoric and rhetorical approaches in general appear promising insofar as they incorporate many other approaches such as semiotic theories as well as other theories and concepts from the social sciences (Campbell 1982).

Future research might investigate the roll of eye movement in sequencing thoughts or ideas in individual designs. It might also investigate alternate interpretations of visual design messages by people in different cultures.

Of course, a very important question concerns the extent to which consumersBon a conscious or unconscious levelB receive and retain these types of messages. Ahuvia (1998) is correct in stressing the need for a many-sided approach to social criticism which includes not only critics but also authors and audiences.


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