Four years ago I decided to change my life. I had spent the previous eight building a design-build landscape firm, but the new economy eliminated the creative work that once existed. I had spent most of my earlier college years studying business and aspiring to entrepreneurship, desiring a flexible lifestyle and control of my professional path. I found this idealistic view to not exist, as flexibility and control do not necessarily complement each other, and that consumer expectations can challenge the lifestyle of someone with ambition. But this entrepreneurial drive had taken a backseat to a creativity newly discovered, and when the economy changed, the business changed. So I went looking for something new.

Returning to school, I knew that studying design was my path. I saw a future career of designing websites and creating corporate identities, so I immersed myself in everything relating to art and design, as well as computer science and anything relating to the internet. The unexpected came during an English course, a requirement for one of my minors, and some feedback I had received from my instructor. She suggested that I should start considering myself a writer. This vote of confidence prompted my pursuit of a writing studies minor, and my eventual fascination and study of rhetoric, and it’s application to all areas of design.

In 1996 Bill Gates wrote an article entitled, Content Is King, a piece declaring that content in all of its current and new forms will always dominate, just as in broadcasting and circulations. This point is supported by Richard Lanham, who in his book, The Economics of Attention, declares that we now live in an attention economy, and that our content should reflect that human attention is the new scarce resource.

Essentially this speaks of rhetoric, but not the definition of the word you may be thinking. Merriam-Webster defines rhetoric as “A speaker whose words are primarily intended to impress or persuade.” This is perhaps the most shallow definition of a word I have ever read, as rhetoric not only extends beyond speech, but can have social impact beyond casual persuasion. The definition of rhetoric is difficult to construct, but Aristotle’s version has always been my model. He states in Rhetoric: Book 1, “Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” The key to this definition is “faculty of observing,” or having a prepared mind. My studies have shown me that this idea means never closing yourself off, being aware of assumptions, and even challenging perceptions in your field.

Designers universally detest the font Comic Sans, often mocking it for it’s simplicity and overuse. But John Brownlee in his Fast Company article, Why Comic Sans works on the ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Shirts, asks, “Is Comic Sans really an appropriate font to convey something important? Yes. A thousand times yes.”

lebronBreatheHe is referring to Eric Garner, the man choked to death by NYC Police in July of 2014, and the resultant “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts worn by NBA athletes like LeBron James and Derrick Rose on the court soon after, inspired by Garner’s last words. The interesting part is that most of these shirts were printed in Comic Sans, despite its portrayal of a serious message. Brownlee continues to say that, “not only does Comic Sans work to great effect here; there isn’t a better font that could have been used for the message.” Another reference to rhetoric, but specifically in this case, the idea of typeface personas. Brownlee confesses that Comic Sans, “evokes a friendly, everyman vibe. It feels innocent.” He continues to say, “these are the same qualities that cause sophisticates to have such a knee-jerk reaction against Comic Sans; they view anyone who uses it as more than a little bit helpless. They are taking a prejudicial stand against a font that is, I’d argue, better than other fonts at conveying the character of approachability and innocence in a string of text.”

This brings me back to the “faculty of observing.” My studies in both design and rhetoric have encouraged a reevaluation of my prejudices, awareness of all components of design, and an openness to obscure connections that take courage to explore. Like George Lois once said, “the more innovative you are, the more creative you are, the smarter you are…the more courageous you have to be.” This courage may someday emerge in my use of Comic Sans. As Brownlee put it, “by putting ‘I Can’t Breathe’ in Comic Sans, these shirts are channeling a lot of our peripheral feelings about a reviled typeface into Garner’s last words.”

My studies in design, coupled with writing and rhetoric, have forever shaped my interpretation and creation of visual communication. It’s more than just content, or typography, or graphic elements. Great design is not about the stuff, but about the fluff that resides in between. And it is the understanding of this fluff I feel will differentiate my work in the years to come.