Book Review: Shaping Information by Kostelnick & Hassett

Posted: February 15, 2012 in Uncategorized
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One of the classes I’m taking is Reading Theory and Document Design, and the first book I’ve finished reading for that class is Shaping Information: The Rhetoric of Visual Conventions by Charles Kostelnick and Michael Hassett.

The title can be taken quite literally: the book really is about conventions in visual communication. Traditions, habits, our “default settings,” and how they change, evolve, get stuck, and get unstuck.

Despite its black and white status–an odd choice for a book about design, especially one that costs $50–this is a beautiful book, with fascinating diagrams from throughout the ages splashed on nearly every page. If I took nothing else away from this book, it sparked my enthrallment with information design as a creative visual art. There are representations of information in here that are so far from anything I’d imagined, it’s like finding out for the first time that there are other religions, or other languages, in the world.

If you see my Mind Map about this book that I shared in a previous post, you’ll get an idea of the way Kostelnick and Hassett categorize these conventions: by discourse community, by currency, and by longevity, to name a few. One idea that was enlightening to me was the idea of “currency” as it applies to a convention–that is, how widespread it is. Some symbols are understood across cultures, such as a triangle for a warning sign (38). Others, such as company logos, might only be recognized by a few. (Then again if the logo in question is Coca-Cola or McDonald’s, I’d bet those have the highest currency of all.)

One important theme of this book is how much flexibility we have when working with design conventions. When do we have to toe the line? When can we rock the boat? What are the consequences of flouting tradition, and how can the world change if we don’t? These are all topics that deserve much discussion among the technical writing and information design community, and Kostelnick and Hassett do a fabulous job of getting the ball rolling, with solid examples and relatable hypotheticals. Although, as a small complaint, some of their categories needed fresh examples by the later chapters in the book. If I heard about the extinction of handwriting cultures or the reemergence of oversized initial letters one more time, I was going to scream.

I enjoyed this book for its thorough examination of visual conventions, its discussion of their place in rhetorical communication, and its pretty pictures. I will never look at an exploded diagram the same way again.

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