The major premise of message design logics is that individuals have different ways of reasoning (“design logics”) about communication. These individual differences affect how messages are structured to achieve goals. As such, message design logic provides a “rational goal analysis” of a speaker’s understanding of means–end relations in communication, which results in a range of variations evidenced in messages across a spectrum of complex situations (O’Keefe 1988). Typically, rational goal analyses, such as Brown and Levinson’s (1978) work on politeness or O’Keefe and Shepherd’s (1987) work on arguments, see message variation in terms of “strategies.” The theory of message design logic extends rational goal analyses by arguing that strategy choice in the pursuit of goals can reflect underlying differences in fundamental premises individuals hold about communication.
O’Keefe (1988) argues that there are at least three different design logics that can explain message variation. These design logics, in order of functional and developmental sophistication, are labeled expressive, conventional, and rhetorical. An expressive design logic is the simplest logic and reflects the premise that language is primarily a vehicle for expressing thoughts and feelings. Expressive communicators generate messages that are often blunt and more or less straightforward articulations of their current mental state. They speak very literally and interpret incoming messages by the same logic. Because communication is presumed to be the vehicle for thought, messages generated by this logic often contain irrelevant or pragmatically useless content, unnecessary redundancies, and stylistically inappropriate forms of expression. The expressive communicator, therefore, is guided by an internal mandate to “say what you think.”
In contrast, a conventional design logic sees communication as a “game played cooperatively, according to social conventions and procedures” (O’Keefe 1990, 91). In other words, messages are seen as actions in the service of achieving goals in acceptable ways as defined by the situation in which they occur and according to common social norms and rules for behaving in that situation.
Finally, a rhetorical design logic, the most sophisticated, involves a conception of communication that goes well beyond viewing messages as expressions of thought or rule-governed responses to social situations. Rather, it views communication as the creation of social selves and situations. Social situations are not predefined entities to which one responds. They are, instead, entities that are defined through messages that articulate a view of what could be. Messages are structured by rhetorical design logics in ways that can facilitate defining situations to be consistent with desired goals.
Not all communicative situations permit discernible manifestation of these logics. However, they do become evident in complex communication environments where multiple goals are relevant and, often, at odds. Message design logic has also been associated with other individual differences and message effects. For instance, individuals with more sophisticated design logics are more cognitively complex (O’Keefe 1988). Also, messages produced by more sophisticated logics are considered more effective and the message producers are perceived as more socially attractive than those with less sophisticated design logics (Lambert & Gillespie 1994; O’Keefe & McCornack 1987).
The theory of message design logic provides an alternative perspective on message variation that extends traditional notions of message production as “strategy selection.” It provides a framework for linking messages to the goals they seek to achieve, and it provides a methodology for identifying the operative design logic that is at work within a message producer and accounts for the structure and effectiveness of those messages.
- Brown, P., & Levinson, S. (1978). Universals in language usage: Politeness phenomena. In E. Goody (ed.), Questions and politeness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 56 –311.
- Lambert, B. L., & Gillespie, J. L. (1994). Patient conceptions of pharmacy students’ hypertension compliance-gaining messages: Effects of message design logic and content themes. Health Communication, 6, 341–325.
- O’Keefe, B. J. (1988). The logic of message design: Individual differences in reasoning about communication. Communication Monographs, 55, 80 –103.
- O’Keefe, B. J. (1990). The logic of regulative communication: Understanding the rationality of message designs. In J. Dillard (ed.), Seeking compliance: The production of interpersonal influence messages. Scottsdale, AZ: Gorusuch-Scarisbrick, pp. 87–106.
- O’Keefe, B. L. (1991). Message design logic and the management of multiple goals. In K. Tracy (ed.), Understanding face to face interaction: Issues linking goals and discourse. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 131–150.
- O’Keefe, B. J. (1992). Developing and testing rational models of message design. Human Communication Research, 18, 637– 649.
- O’Keefe, B. J., & Lambert, B. L. (1995). Managing the flow of ideas: A local management approach to message design. In B. Burleson (ed.), Communication yearbook 18. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 54 – 82.
- O’Keefe, B. J., & McCornack, S. A. (1987). Message design logic and message goal structure: Effects on perceptions of message quality in regulative communication situations. Human Communication Research, 14, 68 – 92.
- O’Keefe, B. J., & Shepherd, G. J. (1987). The pursuit of multiple objectives in face-to-face persuasive interactions: Effects of construct differentiation on message production. Communication Monographs, 54, 396 – 419.