Carnegie Mellon University

The Rhetoric of Design: Argument, Story, Picture, and Talk in a Student Design Project

Author: David Fleming
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1996

In planning and building things for other people, designers must do several things. They must establish relationships among themselves and with others; they must invent ideas and artifacts in over-time, practical action; they must advance those ideas and artifacts by appealing to the values of their client; and they must represent their work in words and pictures. This dissertation is a study of how one group of designers met these challenges. In 1992, graphic design students from Carnegie Mellon University developed communications standards for the Jewish Community Center of Pittsburgh. Data collected during the project included observations of the students' meetings and presentations; interviews; an archive of project materials; and close to 200,000 words of recorded and transcribed "design talk."

In the study, I explore, first, the ways participants talked about tasks and artifacts. The designers and their client, I conclude, used different discursive repertoires to account for a seemingly shared project, the designers privileging the knowledge of the expert "outsider," the client privileging the knowledge of the committed "insider." Second, I explore the ways artifacts were constructed in conversations between the students and their professor. Such language served to index, constitute, and elaborate the material world, allowing for the invention of both "object-laden talk" and "language-laden objects." Third, I investigate the arguments used in the project. I identify the following moves: explaining, in which the designer argues for an object by appealing to the rational action that produced it; predicting, in which the designer appeals to the benefits or consequences of using the object; justifying, in which the object has inherent appeal; and warranting, in which the object is good because of a rule or principle that sanctions it. Finally, I analyze the ways the students represented their work; "languaging" and "picturing," I conclude, were functionally distinct but interrelated activities.

Seeing design as a social, practical, argumentative, and representational activity makes the negotiated, emergent, contested, and mediated nature of design more accessible to analysis and reflection. And it suggests a role for increased self-consciousness about discourse in the planning and production of things.