mediating messages: a paratextual approach to design

Patricia Childers

Mediating Messages: A Paratextual Approach to Design examines the mechanisms behind paratextual operations in everyday representation and its implications on discourse. It provides insight on the effect of the designer on context and provides an alternate way to view the designer’s role in shaping representation. Literary theorist Gerard Genette’s “Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation,” defines paratext, anything other than the text, as a support structure for text. Using the term “text” broadly, I provide evidence of the paratext as not simply support, but essential to the production of meaning.

Text, as anything that has meaning—represents discourse. Its counterpoint, paratext—presents the discourse. Through discourse, we both exchange and generate meaning. It is specifically the paratext, the intermediary between text and reader, that enables this exchange. The resulting interface, part and parcel of communication predicated on the union of text and paratext, provides a social object, a form of material culture—media.

Based on this relationship, discourse extends beyond text to context, the circumstances that form the relationship of the paratext to its perception and environment. Its significance, the result of complex inter-relationships, resides in a fluctuating space between the individual, the object, and culture. As context is based upon individual interpretation of the paratext, text is contingent upon and possibly subordinate to the paratext. 

Understanding graphic design as rhetoric, a means of communication, and deciphering it through semiotics consider the relationships between signs and meaning. When graphic designers use form to structure communication, their individual discourse, biases reflected through their interconnection of theory and practice, shapes their textual interpretation. This discourse manifests in the codes used to create paratexts. A close reading of a social object’s paratext, the materialization of a text, reveals influence and gives insight into the role of the paratextual developer on representation. Thus, even a brief consideration of the interplay of social, cultural, economic, and political traces inherent in the attempt to apply context provides a glimpse to the multi-faceted nature of representation.