Visual Rhetoric: An Introduction for Students of Visual Communication

Written by
Randy Fox
January 9, 2013

“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.

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