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.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/691/01/). 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.

By Randy Fox
Published January 9, 2013
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