Community Mapping & Visual Partnerships

At the beginning of the semester we were asked to do a mapping project. Since it was the beginning of the course, I thought I’d map my understanding of visual rhetoric in the context of our campus and surrounding community. I noticed that Purdue’s pedestrian bridge (which spans the Wabash and divides Lafayette and West Lafayette) divided two parts of my life in regards to the visual.key

On the campus side, what I term “gown,” I tagged our Visual Rhetoric classroom, where I was taking a highly theoretical approach to the visual. On the other side of the bridge, I tagged a bar (meeting place) and warehouse (art gallery and workspace), places where I conversed with artists my age, artists that were part of the vibrant (and somewhat) underground art scene. Large-scale sculptures and punk bands filled their warehouses. They worked with their hands, they worked as a community. If someone had an idea, everyone helped. Their space differed than that of my classroom. Instead of rows of computers, artists rented out space in a once mattress warehouse to play music, make movies, paint, etc.

mapThese two groups I conversed with rarely make contact, yet there is so much we can learn about where creativity happens and can happen. By mapping my life, I saw that mapping the community with your research interests lens gives you a more diverse and complex picture of where art and research happens. We know we can learn outside the classroom, but how often do we?

I say you map your community now, thus mapping your opportunities for expanding your field of knowledge-making. We shouldn’t go out into the community to simply do field research or “service,” but to expand our own notions of visual rhetoric. To get our hands dirty. To see art in practice.

Also: I got my hands dirty with scissors, markers, and crayons. 


Zooming Visual Rhetoric and Composition

Here’s a screencast of my 2012 CCCC Presentation, “Gateways of Perception: Zooming Visual Rhetoric and Composition.” This screencast is about four minutes longer than my live talk because I spend more time here viewing the embedded videos. I also have added in some pop-ups with links to my references. Scroll down for a transcript of the talk and Works Cited.

Continue reading

Ugly Fonts, Accessible Fonts

This past week at ATTW, I presented a poster on the typography considerations technical writers should make when working with multilingual documents. This post outlines the accessibility issues technical writers face when choosing multilingual typefaces. 

When IKEA and and GAP changed their typeface, typophiles everywhere lost their serifs. IKEA and GAP’s change to Verdana and Helvetica angered many for the same reasons: their overuse. Having argued for well-designed typefaces my entire life, I have come to the realization that good design sometimes has to take a backseat to good accessibility. With that said, I think IKEA’s choice to choose a typeface that can be read in many languages, even if ugly, is honorable.

Oftentimes the only way to protect a brand’s identity in a global context is to  create what Linotype typographer, Nadine Chahine calls “Frankensteins.”  Chanine noticed this method in use when traveling in Dubai. To follow  the bilingual policy of the United Arab Emirates, companies made adjustments so that their brand looked the same when in Arabic. So in order to keep their branded image, the companies create Arabic logos by chopping up Latin characters and splicing together parts to create Arabic logos. Chahine noticed the Frankesteins failed to acknowledge the design conventions of Arabic calligraphy. Frankly, they chose design over cultural respect.

So what are writers to do? Choose the best typeface? Well I originally began this poster project with the intent to show what typefaces are best for multilingual documents. Well, I realized our access to typefaces that are both well-designed and multilingual is limited. The major reason is that these typefaces take a long time to develop. Our alphabet has 26 letters and the Chinese language, for example, has over 8,000 characters. Thus the typefaces are limited (and saved for the most overused universal typefaces) and expensive. Only software developers can purchase the fancy-schmancy typefaces, not the end-users.

For now, writers don’t have many options but there is hope. Multilingual typography is a growing field. And better multilingual typefaces are popping up everywhere. Chanine’s 2009 addition to the Helvetica suite, Neue Helvetica Arabic, is informed by her Lebanese background. So while fonts such as Verdana and Helvetica may be everywhere they acknowledge that people are everywhere. These typefaces seem more complex and unique when we think of it from a multilingual perspective.

-Ashley Watson

Meme: “What Has Been Seen Cannot Be Unseen”

Family: Meme
Genus: What Has Been Cannot be Unseen
Origin: Unknown
Host: Shock Websites, blogs, forums
Geography: Worldwide Web
Associated Diseases: Visual Trauma
Transmission: Through the act of seeing and telling
Vaccine: Not seeing
Antiviral drugs: N/A
Best-known Cases: The arrow in the FedEx Logo


Malcolm Gladwell describes a meme as “an idea that behaves like a virus—that moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects.” If this is truly the case, the meme “what has been seen cannot be unseen” shall be a deadly virus that is highly contagious and resisting to any cure. It is often associated with visual trauma: after visually experiencing displeasing photos or videos, one literally cannot forget or get rid of its memories. The film The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes makes a much-quoted example, which depicts the process of forensic pathologists performing autopsies. The ostensibly detailed measurement and examination challenges the viewers’ ability to look. Personally, the experience of watching it has been one of the most uncomfortable and unforgettable one.

Though “what has been seen cannot be unseen” is mostly associated with such shock pictures and videos created with disturbing intent, the phrase is later extended to images with hidden designs. Once the hidden design is pointed out to a person, one continues to notice it. Well-known examples include the FedEx logo and the LG logo.

What is the fun of seeing what was unseen and cannot be unseen once it is pointed out?


As much as people complain about continuously seeing what was unseen, they seem to share a passion for sharing such visual discoveries. Part of the fun comes from being able to see things differently. Take the FedEx logo for example. The negative space may be easily ignored if one is used to interpret the letter logos as they spell out. The discovery occurs when one take a different perceptual pattern and look actively into the negative space. By finding the arrow between the letter E and X, the design becomes a mixture of both letters and symbol, more stylish and visually dynamic. The arrow will then be instantly recognizable when one perceives the logo with both positive and negative spaces.

The fun of participating in this “Cannot be unseen” meme is to mock the meaning of the original design—to be able to see what was not there and to find more than what is intended for. Rotating the LG logo for 45 degree and slightly moving the letter L, the icon changes from a solemn looking face into a cheerful pacman, an alternation that the LG Company has never expected. By rearrange the visual symbols and finding small details that bring out a bit of light laugh, the newly acquired visual understanding transforms and subverts the meaning of the original image.

It seems that most of the examples in “what cannot be unseen” meme consist of idiosyncratic details and by sharing “what has been seen” one derives an immense part of the amusement. In a sense, to participate in this meme, either to look at an image from a new way or to share the visual discovery, is an active act to remap and recreate the visual pattern.

Is it true that what has been seen cannot be unseen?

I reckon Arnheim would disagree with this meme. If seeing is truly an active behavior, one can learn to see and unsee in the way that we play with the optical illusions and visual phenomenon: when one look at two jumping dots in the “Stroboscopic alternative motion”, one can forces one’s perception of the movement by adding vertical and horizontal bar to the image. The “real perception” of motion is impossible, and it can be trained and forced. What happens when one participates in this meme—trying to single out idiosyncratic details and making fun of an existing visual convention is similar to the process of training and tuning up one’s visual perception. It is thus theoretically possible that one can forget what has been seen and return to the original perception pattern. However, in practice, one does become more visually alert to the new visual pattern and cannot return to the original state of visual unconscious—one will never see the image the same way as it is before. In the Book Beautiful Evidence, Tufte uses Erle Loran’s explanatory reconstruction of the multiple perspectives in Cezanne’s paintings to show the mapping of pictures. Loran illustrates with four pairs of eyes floating round the perimeter of a map, pointing out the cubist table, the skewed top of which is covered by a tactfully placed clothes. Tufte comments on the reconstruction diagram, “readers of Loran’s book will never see Cezanne quite the same way again, which is largely for the good.” Straying away from Tufte’s argument, I am trying to figure out whether to be irrevocably transformed in perception pattern is truly a good thing or not. It seems that “cannot be unseen” is not only an innocuous invention that bring about a light laugh, so what’s the rhetoric?

What is the rhetoric for “what cannot be unseen”?

The meme “what has been seen cannot be unseen” is later expanded into wider realms, such as “what has been heard cannot be unheard”, “what is known cannot be unknown”.  Now, it is not only the recreation of visual patterns, but also the thinking patterns—how do we understand and process certain information. A marvelous example would be the Chinese “Grass Mud Horse” and “River Crab” that thrive from the Internet and find popularity in both verbal and visual forms. It is a meme against the Internet censorship in China. The Chinese government advocates for a “harmonious society” and forbids demonic, pornographic and politically antagonistic language in the cyberspace. The unhappy netizens appropriate this expression by make “harmony” (He Xie) a verb, indicating to the action of deleting and filtering certain sensitive vocabulary on the Internet. Later, to avoid being harmonized, homophones are adopted in online posts. Curse words and sensitive phrases are transformed into a series of homophonic words, and with uncertain intention the alternative vocabulary has evolved into a list of imaginative animal names. The netizens further develop these new animals by giving them visual forms based on some unrelated species in real life. For example, The “Grass Mud Horse” (pronounced as “Cao Ni Ma”) is created to replace one of the most common swearing in Chinese. This Kuso interpretation is accompanied by images and videos of Alpaca, which is a kind of animal that lives on high lands. The “River Crab” (pronounced as “he xie”) is adopted to replace “harmonization”. The political struggle between the netizens against the internet censorship is translated into a grand fight between the “Grass Mud Horse” and the “River Crab”. It is exactly that Alpaca is obviously unrelated to the political struggle makes the meme more compelling. The subversive representation of the Internet Censorship changes the contemporary language irrevocably. Contemporary Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei acts this meme out with his outrageous self-portrait. In the picture, he is completely naked except for the stuffed animal he holds in front of his crotch. The gesture gains a double meaning: it can be understood literally as the stuffed “grass mud horse” is hiding the center of the body; or it can be read with the obviously rebellious message that he tries to convey, “Fuck your mother, the Communist party central committee” (“草泥马挡中央“). In this way, he makes use of homophony once more to refer back to the central government. Like a virus, the meme works against an organism by penetrating into its cells and subverts them against its original system. The meme in itself is a form of recreation and subversion to the mainstream culture.


Processing fits and starts

Composition studies gets out its “writing isn’t just for English majors” soapbox quite often; this is largely a positive thing. Likewise, one of my favorite soapboxes is labeled “computers aren’t only for nerdy white guys.” Processing, a language developed specifically with visual artists in mind, therefore greatly appeals to me. And its developers Casey Reas and Ben Fry, keep worming their way further into my affections the more I read, because they say things like this:

“A common misconception holds that computer programming is applicable only to technical fields. While there is a strong connection between programming and technology, it’s not the only realm in which computers can make for interesting collaborators. Programming can be approached with an emphasis on language, making computers potentially interesting to a far broader audience” (Processing : A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists)


While Processing is geared toward a non-traditional audience, I wouldn’t really call it programming for dummies. It’s a Java-based language, and the Reas and Fry books about Processing I’ve read so far do a nice job of introducing a solid programming foundation without being overly arcane.

That said, I’ve been messing around with Processing in preparation for the creation of my information visualization. Reas and Fry advocate the modification of existing code to learn a language: find some code, change some lines, see what happens. Here is a string of sketches I made that embody that principle. I started with some code from the book referenced above, which I thought would look a lot cooler with the addition of color and movement.

I modified it to make it bigger, and to continually add patterns as the mouse moved. As you can see below, I had to first simplify the sketch to figure out what was going on and if my method for randomizing color would work.

Seizure Circles

(Click on link to see a moveable version and the source code.)

As you can see if you click on my first attempt, the effect is mildly seizure inducing. Because Processing runs at 60 frames per second, and the draw circle function draws once a frame, we’re seeing that many different colors zoom past, even if the mouse hasn’t moved. In the next sketch, I fixed that behavior by checking to see if the mouse position has changed, only changing the color if the mouse position has changed.

Non Seizure Circles

The final sketch shows the same principle but with multiple randomized circles; I realized that this would have worked sooner without my having to first simplify if I had just removed the noLoop() function in setup.

Many Circles

These are just some simple sketches I’ve made to start. As I learn more, I’d like to learn how to do things like make the circles drawn fade over time, or appear over time for a “firework” effect.

The Rhetoric of Abandonment

Recently, my mother and I took a train ride to Chicago. I had never been on a train or to downtown Chicago, so I was fascinated by the passing scenery as we rode from Lafayette to Chicago. The scenery included an interesting combination of snowy corn fields, quaint farmhouses, and big city neighborhoods and buildings. Most interesting to me was the site of deteriorating but still obviously occupied buildings of Chicago’s south side. Moving through Chicago’s south side and into downtown Chicago, I saw a progression of buildings from poorly maintained to brand new. This trip got me to thinking about the many things different neighborhoods and housing can tell us visually about the various occupants, economies, and crimes in different neighborhoods.

For this reason, I was intrigued by the photo titled “Abandoned House as Metaphor” This house is located in Detroit, and the author refers to it as a metaphor for the “collapsing American empire.” The photograph doesn’t include a credit because the author cannot remember where he found it originally. Like the author, I am often struck by the decay of  and sadness implied by abandoned houses.

While I agree with the author’s assessment of this photograph being a good example of a metaphor, I also feel it could be a good example of antithesis. I am often saddened when I see homes that once must have been beautiful reduced to barely standing shadows of their former shelves. Antithesis, as defined by Lupton, “juxtaposes two unlike ideas” (10).

This particular image demonstrates antithesis in several ways. First, as I mentioned above, the once beautiful house that is now unsightly. The cracking foundation and tilt of the building contrast with its brick building, which would have been solid. In addition, it was likely once a very attractive building, but now is looks uninviting and unsafe.

Ultimately, though, I decided the abandoned Six Flags in New Orleans best fit with my chosen Charles Dickens quote, “It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” This photo of an the abandoned amusement park illustrates the juxtaposition between the intended “fun” of a Six Flags with its current abandoned, never-to-be-repaired state. This abandoned site is also still standing; the pictures were taken in 2011 (

Abandoned buildings and sites give us effective examples of antithesis. The juxtaposition of hope/despair can be seen in many of these different visuals.

Arguing Without Text


In trying to imagine a post-alphabetic visual rhetoric it becomes strikingly clear how well trained our minds have become at reading textual arguments. So much that imagining non-textual arguments; that is, arguments that don’t require text to clarify meaning becomes perplexingly difficult. Perhaps there’s an argument to be made that alphabetic text is unique in argumentation—that text can make arguments that non-text cannot. Or perhaps we are all squarely positioned in a noetic construction that creates a mental barrier to imagining non-textual arguments. To push beyond a rhetoric that is strictly interested in alphabetic arguments or visual arguments that require alphabetic support we must challenge ourselves to think beyond these mental barriers. There are many obstacles to this challenge: visual images are often considered more ambiguous, less precise, and more open for interpretation; visual images can’t provide the same amount of information about context as verbal arguments which can be compared to previous sentences and meanings (Birdsell and Groarke, Argumentation and Advocacy, Summer 1996). Many of these same arguments can be made about text, also. How often is text ambiguous? How often is context misinterpreted? As Birdsell and Groarke later address, these arguments draw more similarities between verbal and visual arguments than differences. Keith Kenney points out an additional barrier to conceptualizing purely visual arguments: “When rhetorical critics use the word argument they mean the presentation of premises followed by a conclusion, and they mean a debate in which disagreement is expressed” (Journal of Visual Literacy, Spring 2002). Can purely visual arguments have a premise and conclusion? This seems to be an important sticking point. Behind this mental barrier seems to be a misunderstanding about visual perception. Anyone who has spent even a small amount of time studying visual design understands that visual arrangements are perceived sequentially. That is—there is an order, and thus a potential for a premise and conclusion. The purpose of this post is to point out some of the barriers in moving toward an understanding of purely visual arguments, and to present some examples of non-textual arguments. As you view the images below (which I won’t describe for the fear of textual intervention), what do you think about the issues of ambiguity, context, premise, conclusion, and sequence? What are the arguments being made by these images? Is the field of rhetoric and communication theory ready to acknowledge these arguments as compositions with equivalent complextiy to textual arguments?

Cell Installation Uses Kinects to Visualize the “Digital Aura”

Warning: Illegal string offset 'js' in /home/campus/salvo/www/dataviz/wp-content/plugins/vimeo-simplegallery/vimeo_simplegallery.php on line 214

Warning: Illegal string offset 'js' in /home/campus/salvo/www/dataviz/wp-content/plugins/vimeo-simplegallery/vimeo_simplegallery.php on line 215

Warning: Illegal string offset 'js' in /home/campus/salvo/www/dataviz/wp-content/plugins/vimeo-simplegallery/vimeo_simplegallery.php on line 216

Warning: Illegal string offset 'showtitles' in /home/campus/salvo/www/dataviz/wp-content/plugins/vimeo-simplegallery/vimeo_simplegallery.php on line 217

Warning: Illegal string offset 'showtitles' in /home/campus/salvo/www/dataviz/wp-content/plugins/vimeo-simplegallery/vimeo_simplegallery.php on line 218

Warning: Illegal string offset 'title' in /home/campus/salvo/www/dataviz/wp-content/plugins/vimeo-simplegallery/vimeo_simplegallery.php on line 219

Warning: Illegal string offset 'title' in /home/campus/salvo/www/dataviz/wp-content/plugins/vimeo-simplegallery/vimeo_simplegallery.php on line 220

A few weeks ago I came across an article on the Fast Company design blog about an installation called Cell. Using three Xbox Kinects, this fascinating installation allows users to interact with a “digital aura” composed of information posted on social networking sites.

The idea of the digital aura is nothing new, but visualizing it and making it interactive transforms this information we all know is out there into something real and tangible. Though the interactivity in this visualization is limited to words or phrases that track an individual’s movement, it’s still interesting to see a connection established between the physical self and the digital self.

The designers of Cell intended to create an interactive, engaging, and stimulating experience that forces people to think more about their real and digital identities. I think this idea has a lot of potential to do more than that, however. In its current form, Cell uses fictional identities rather than actual personal information of participants. Obviously there are concerns about information sharing and privacy that probably informed this decision; but for Cell to become a tool that allows us to learn more about our digital selves it would need to feature actual users.

I envision using Cell or a similar set-up as a way to show connections between users—for example, if both users have “liked” the same page on Facebook or used the same hash-tag on Twitter, a connection would develop between them. If users selected that connection (a line or whatever it might be) they could see the connection and possibly even use Twitter or Facebook within Cell itself. By expanding the potential of Cell in this way the barrier between the digital world and the real world becomes more flexible: digital space recognizes physical bodies, and the body itself is attached digital significance.

I’m curious to see what other people think about these videos. What other potential rhetorical applications or questions can Cell lead us to? Make sure you check out the original article from FastCo.Design and visit the official website for Cell.

Manufacturing borders

First some context: one of my main interests is in centers of manufacturing along US borders, specifically along the border of Texas and Mexico. Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, I experienced what I believe was a shift in economy. Up until the early to mid nineties, the Valley’s economy was largely based on agriculture–when Florida’s citrus is out of season, South Texas is responsible for almost all of the US’s citrus (especially grapefruit). The enactment of NAFTA largely changed this: the lower Rio Grande Valley began to work with Mexico and their maquilas–manufacturing centers that provide cheap labor for major companies. At the same time, industrial centers and exporting/importing centers began to pop up along the border.

So here’s the idea I have: creating a visualization that shows the growth/decline of industrial centers along both the US-Mexico border, US-Canada border, and in the midwest. My theory is that you’ll find an inverse relationship in growth between the US-Mexico border and the midwest specifically.

I’m looking to you all for suggestions. This would largely be displayed using some sort of graphic–maybe dots that grow or shrink depending on the year you select.

What do you think?