Rally of the Rhetoricians

By Chelsey Delaney

Amidst a crowd of (I swear) over 300,000 people at the Rally to Restore Sanity Saturday I did the opposite of what was being advocated: I panicked. Somewhere in the mess I had lost my friends and my purse, and though I still had my cell phone, the density of the flock caused the AT&T network to basically implode.

My viewpoint from Mount Hopeless did allow time to ponder how humor was functioning in the design of people’s experience, however. The overall energy seemed to contend that rally-goers were doing more than just holding funny signs.

I thought about how, weeks before the rally, some journalists speculated Jon Stewart was ruining his career by hosting it. He was publicly shifting his stance from observer to observed. This shift, they predicted, would render the rally a failure. Initially I, too, feared a dent in his and Stephen Colbert’s influence, but as I began to sense the full impact of the event (i.e. when I was wedged between a large man and a tree), I realized the comedians’ were not even the real heart of the affair.

Consider the average stand up comedian. This is a person who has built a career around being a desirable center of attention; his or her ultimate goal is to be entertaining and individually recognizable. The content he or she communicates is a tool to boost reputation; it doesn’t necessarily encourage the audience to do anything more than choose the comedian as a recurring source of entertainment.

If the tool of humor is not applied through user-centered design (if the audience is not the grand priority) a designer is comparable with a stand up comedian. If the tool of humor is applied through user-centered design, then, the designer is comparable with a humorous rhetorician.

So who was the priority here? Was it Stewart and Colbert, a couple of comedians, striving to advance their careers? Or, was the priority the attendees and their desired outcome? Who held the power?

We did. “Users” were empowered to communicate at a unifying level because we were given an environment and a platform—a prompt about “sanity.” We confidently took this environment and co-designed an experience in regards to the prompt, thereby forming our own audiences. I’ll add that my take on the rally is not everyone’s take on the rally because each person had complete control over his or her own experience.

Given this, I couldn’t expect Stewart’s presence to alleviate my bad luck. I ventured to find cell phone reception and finally got a hold of my friends, who miraculously had my purse. Sanity: restored.

The Rally to Restore Sanity is a beautiful case study of how humor effectively functions within user-centered design. Stewart and Colbert stood aside as comedians and acted as rhetoricians by letting the users shape meaning. As designers we must remind ourselves that when using humor as a tool we should always be rhetoricians, never comedians.

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