Towards a Visual Methodology

I've now written about 17 books as part of my research into cook books, the results can be found here. I've been thinking about my methodology for my analysis of the books - I've been trying to articulate what the design of the books are transmitting and exactly how that meaning is generated through design. It has been an interesting exercise to sit down and analyse, in a methodical manner, the language of the design of each book. I've been reading Gillian Rose's Visual Methodologies as a way of trying to consolidate my methodology as I feel I need to be able to justify the approach I've been taking. As Rose says:

"Interpreting images is just that, interpretation. As Hall suggests, it is therefore important to justify your interpretation. To do that you will need to have an explicit methodology, and this book will help you develop one. It provides a basic introduction to a range of methods that can be used to interpret visual images, and it provides enough references for you to develop more detailed methods if you need to." (1)

In the introduction Rose quotes Stuart Hall:

"It is worth remembering that there is no single or 'correct' answer to the question, 'What does this image mean?' or 'What is this ad saying?' since there is no law which can guarantee things will have 'one, true meaning', or that meanings won't change over time, work in this area is bound to be interpretative - a debate between , not who is 'right' and who is 'wrong', but between equally plausible, though sometimes competing and contesting meanings and interpretations. The best way to 'settle' such contested readings is to look again at the concrete example and try to justify one's 'reading' in detail in relation to the actual practices and forms of signification used, and what meanings they seem to be producing." (2)

What's been interesting is, that as the project has grown and I've written about more books then not only does the method that I'm using become more structured (that is, I approach each book in the same way, using the same terms, in more or less the same order) but it also becomes more self-referential. Any image is never seen in isolation but always in relation to others; unlike the first books that I wrote about, the analysis of the more recent books is, inevitably, informed by what I've learned before.

Having said that, I do feel that I've been choosing the order of the books that I'm analysing to occasionally 'throw a spanner in the works' to curb a formulaic response - for example, I wrote about Something for the Weekend, a book from a television series that I'd been given as a present, and about which I had no pre-conceived ideas, having not seen the programme. In fact, by looking closely at this book, I learned an awful lot and it was a useful and rewarding exercise. The books I have chosen are largely books that I own so, inevitably, a selection process has already happened. I am not in a position to look at every single cook book that exists and the depth at which I am analysing the titles means that, even if I did have access to all the titles, there simply would not be enough time.

I have to remind myself of the aims of this project which was to discover more about how design, and in particular, typography, creates meaning in books using cook books as a case study. At this point it is useful to think about where this research has taken me: I have looked at how brands (in the forms of authors such as Jamie Oliver) are established through the design of cook books; how the design of cook books changes as an author becomes established; how successful design formulas are used and repeated by publishers; and how cook books are now big business, their success reflected in the high production values given to them. I have been particularly interested in the paradox of massive sales of both cook books and of ready meals which I think shows how cook books are now about aspiration - they are designed for looking not cooking.

I recently went to 'Books for Cooks', a bookshop in Portobello that specialises in cook books. The shop is crammed full of cook books, arranged by types of cooking; types of food; countries etc. Seeing so many books because made me realise the limitations of my project - and, perhaps, my methodology. My decision to buy a cook books is usually based on functionality (Will I use this book?) but also on visual appeal (Is it well designed?) - as I said before, my selection has already been edited, based on my taste. I am not sure this is such a bad thing? It may not be scientific but it does mean that I am enthusiastic about what I read about - and know the subject well, having used them for reading and cooking.

Gillian Rose talks about the limitations of methodologies:

"This book offers some guidelines for investigating the meanings and effects of visual images. But the most exciting, startling and perceptive critics of visual images don't in the end depend entirely on their visual methodology, I think. They also depend on the pleasure, thrills, fascination, wonder, fear or revulsion of the person looking at the images and then writing about them. Successful interpretation depends on a passionate engagement with what you see. Use your methodology to discipline your passion, not deaden it." (1)

Rose suggests that a critical approach to visual culture:
  • Takes images seriously
  • Thinks about the social conditions and effects of visual objects
  • Considers your own way of looking at images
"... if watching your favourite movie on a DVD for the umpteenth time at home with a group of mates is not the same as studying it for a research project; then, as Mieke Bal for one has consistently argued, it is necessary to reflect on how you as a critic of visual images are looking. As Haraway says, by thinking carefully about where we see from, 'we might become answerable for what we learn how to see'." (1)

(1) Rose, Gillian (2007) Visual Methodologies, London, Sage Publications
(2) Hall, Stuart (1997) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, London, Routledge

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