By Randy Fox | January 9, 2013
Visual Rhetoric: An Introduction for Students of Visual Communication

“Visual rhetoric is per­va­sive, in part, because it is pow­er­ful. Visual mes­sages are volatile, elic­it­ing pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive responses simul­ta­ne­ously. The famil­iar expres­sions ‘see­ing is believ­ing’ and ‘a pic­ture is worth a thou­sand words’ cap­ture their high ethos appeal.”
Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, Suszn Schultz Huxman
The Rhetorical Act

Every day, visual mes­sages inun­date our lives. We see them con­stantly — in tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials, on bill­boards, dri­ving to school or work, read­ing mag­a­zines, and surf­ing the Internet. Visual com­mu­ni­ca­tors design arti­facts such as posters, adver­tise­ments, annu­als reports, dia­grams, and web­sites, all referred to as “visual text.” Communicators are also chal­lenged by rapid advance­ments in tech­nol­ogy, par­tic­u­larly smart­phones and tablet com­put­ers such as the iPad, allow­ing every­one to access visual infor­ma­tion at the touch of a fin­ger. As visual com­mu­ni­ca­tors, we are respon­si­ble for obtain­ing the nec­es­sary resources and skills to com­pose and ana­lyze effec­tive visual mes­sages. This arti­cle explores the rhetor­i­cal use of visu­als, visual argu­ments, and tools for visual analy­sis such as gestalt prin­ci­ples and visual cognates.

A Rhetorical View of Visuals

Everywhere we look we see visual mes­sages. How do we know what they really mean? When you see an ad in a mag­a­zine about home­less ani­mals, does it make you want to go to your local shel­ter and adopt one? Does a poster adver­tis­ing a movie inspire you to go see it? When you are surf­ing the Internet, do you won­der what entices you to stop at a par­tic­u­lar web­site? Creating visual argu­ments through the use of visual lan­guage (typog­ra­phy, color, lay­out and images) is referred to as visual rhetoric. Before we begin to under­stand visual rhetoric, it is impor­tant to also under­stand visual lit­er­acy. But first, let’s review the def­i­n­i­tion of literacy.


Literacy gen­er­ally means the abil­ity to read, write, ana­lyze, and eval­u­ate text. Through the process of becom­ing lit­er­ate, we learn a set of skills to develop effec­tive ver­bal and writ­ten skills. Kress and Van Leeuwen, authors of Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, explain that gram­mar can be viewed as a set of rules that one needs to abide by to “speak or write” effec­tively in order to be accepted socially (2006, p. 2). Therefore, it is nec­es­sary for visual com­mu­ni­ca­tors to hone in on these skills to effec­tively com­mu­ni­cate ideas to their peers as well as their clients.

The proper use of gram­mar — nouns, verbs, and sen­tence struc­ture — can define or express mean­ing, but it is the viewer’s per­cep­tion based on their own intu­ition and expe­ri­ence that enables them to inter­pret the mes­sage and form their own meaning.

What is visual literacy?

Visual lit­er­acy is the abil­ity to read, ana­lyze, and evoke mean­ing from visual text through the means of visual gram­mar. The def­i­n­i­tion of visual gram­mar is the cre­ation of mean­ing through visual lan­guage. Elements of visual lan­guage include type­faces, color, page struc­ture, pho­tographs, illus­tra­tions, graphs, and charts (Kress et al., 2006, p.2). Today, we are dri­ven by rapid advances in tech­nol­ogy, which add to the bar­rage of visual mes­sages we encounter every day. The Internet alone puts forth a plethora of visual mes­sages via Facebook, YouTube, blogs, and Flickr, just to name a few.

Visual lit­er­acy — as well as com­pos­ing effec­tive visual mes­sages — is a required skill needed to com­pre­hend what we con­stantly see in the media. Additionally, visual com­mu­ni­ca­tors need to be armed with a vocab­u­lary of prin­ci­ples and ana­lyt­i­cal tools (dis­cussed later) to allow for effec­tive dis­course of the design process and its appli­ca­tions. Therefore, being visu­ally lit­er­ate empow­ers the visual com­mu­ni­ca­tor to think crit­i­cally when solv­ing com­plex visual com­mu­ni­ca­tion problems.

Visual Rhetoric

Rhetoric is typ­i­cally known as the “art of per­sua­sion;” it informs, moti­vates or enter­tains an audi­ence through the means of writ­ten or ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It can present an argu­ment to a spe­cific audi­ence, entice or con­vince them to think or act dif­fer­ently. Visual rhetoric, on the other hand, as described by OWL, Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab, “has been used to mean any­thing from the use of images as argu­ment, to the arrange­ment of ele­ments on a page for rhetor­i­cal effect, to the use of typog­ra­phy (fonts), and more (http://​owl​.eng​lish​.pur​due​.edu/​o​w​l​/​r​e​s​o​u​r​c​e​/​6​9​1​/​01/). The struc­ture of a doc­u­ment and the use of graph­ics or type­faces can cre­ate a rhetor­i­cal effect. One exam­ple of visual rhetoric might be in the form of a brochure pro­mot­ing auto insur­ance to young dri­vers. The pur­pose may be to entice the young audi­ence to buy their insur­ance by estab­lish­ing cred­i­bil­ity through the use of typog­ra­phy. The use of visual lan­guage can make it seem like their insur­ance cov­er­age is bet­ter than others.

What makes a visual argument?

Our lives are sat­u­rated with visual mes­sages, but why do they affect us in cer­tain ways? According to Barnet and Bedau (1999), authors of Critical Thinking: Reading & Writing a Brief Guide to Argument, visual argu­ments appeal to our emo­tions by using flat­tery, humor, threats, and pity (p. 137). Visual text as argu­ments can advo­cate or state a posi­tion, artic­u­late con­cepts, and explain dif­fi­cult pro­ce­dures. They can also entice view­ers to respond to mes­sages, act­ing or think­ing in a par­tic­u­lar way.

Rhetorical sit­u­a­tion — audi­ence, pur­pose, and context

Visual com­mu­ni­ca­tors con­sider many vari­ables when solv­ing design prob­lems, but where do they begin? Before decid­ing who the audi­ence of the mes­sage is, the out­comes and goals of the project should be deter­mined, as well as the rhetor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. Kostelnick and Roberts (1998), authors of Designing Visual Language: Strategies for Professional Communicators, sug­gest a few ques­tions to consider:

  • Is the mes­sage intended to inform or per­suade, or is it a call to action?
  • Who is the mes­sage directed to?
  • What is the pur­pose of the doc­u­ment and where will it be viewed?

Three com­po­nents of a rhetor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion are audi­ence, pur­pose and con­text. These con­sid­er­a­tions will directly affect the over­all design of the project from the choice of type­face, the lay­out of a page, as well as the use of color and visu­als (p. 4, 5).

The audi­ence is the viewer in which the visual mes­sage is directed. The end result of the mes­sage depends on who will be most affected, which is referred to as the tar­get audi­ence. Investing time iden­ti­fy­ing the tar­get audi­ence is key and will ensure the mes­sage is com­mu­ni­cated cor­rectly. Consider a poster announc­ing an upcom­ing show at the local the­ater. The con­tent would most likely be directed toward peo­ple who are inter­ested in the­ater and who live in and around the com­mu­nity. Another exam­ple would be a brochure for a local ani­mal shel­ter urg­ing read­ers to adopt a home­less pet. When con­sid­er­ing the audi­ence, some ques­tions to think about might be:

  • Is the mes­sage directed to men or women, young or old? Does eth­nic­ity and reli­gion matter?
  • What are their hob­bies and interests?

The more a visual com­mu­ni­ca­tor knows about the audi­ence, the more effec­tive the mes­sage will be. Another com­po­nent of a rhetor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion is the pur­pose of the mes­sage. What do you want your mes­sage to accom­plish? Is it to artic­u­late an idea? Should it inspire or inform the viewer of a new con­cept or per­suade them to act, feel or think in a par­tic­u­lar way (Kostelnick et al., 1998, p. 5)? The intent of a brochure announc­ing a store open­ing, for exam­ple, might be to con­vince the audi­ence that they must attend or they will miss out on the give­away prizes.

When pro­duc­ing a visual design, the use of typog­ra­phy, images and color play an inte­gral part in express­ing pur­pose. Images can be used to inspire or moti­vate, while color can set a desired mood or feel­ing. The arrange­ment of text can add to the over­all appeal and flow, entic­ing the viewer to read the doc­u­ment. Defining the pur­pose for a visual design will ensure that the cor­rect mes­sage is artic­u­lated and results in an effec­tive response.

Visual mes­sages can be in many forms and viewed in a vari­ety of cir­cum­stances. However, to ensure that the mes­sage is directed at the tar­get audi­ence depends on the con­text in which the mes­sage is read. Kostelnick et al., (1998) sug­gests that con­text is the place or sit­u­a­tion where an arti­fact is viewed or inter­acted with (p. 5). For exam­ple, a brochure pro­mot­ing lawn equip­ment at the new hard­ware store might go unno­ticed at a cos­metic con­fer­ence. However, the same brochure might be very effec­tive at a home and gar­den exposition.

Visual com­mu­ni­ca­tors gen­er­ally solve com­plex design prob­lems through appli­ca­tions of visual lan­guage. Visual text can be viewed every­where and by every­one, but for your mes­sage to be most the effec­tive, rhetor­i­cal sit­u­a­tions must be con­sid­ered. If the loca­tion of the arti­fact is not con­sid­ered, the mes­sage may be inef­fec­tive and lost com­pletely. Visual text as argu­ments is estab­lished through the use of typog­ra­phy, color, lay­out and images. Many design deci­sions may be instinc­tual and stem from prior expe­ri­ence; how­ever, along with cre­at­ing and defend­ing design appli­ca­tions, visual com­mu­ni­ca­tors are also expected to ana­lyze and eval­u­ate visual mes­sages. But, how do we eval­u­ate effec­tive design? Our next arti­cle will dis­cuss things to con­sider when answer­ing this ques­tion. It will also explore tools to use to help eval­u­ate visual struc­ture through­out the design process.

AIGA encourages thoughtful, responsible discourse. Please add comments judiciously, and refrain from maligning any individual, institution or body of work. Read our policy on commenting.
Whoops! The oldest version of IE this site supports is IE8. Please upgrade your browser and come visit again!