The study of visual communication theory is a multi-disciplinary, multi-dimensional effort. People who write on this topic come from mass communication, film and cinema studies, education, art, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, linguistics, semiotics, and architecture and archaeology among other fields.

Although this brings a rich melange of viewpoints, which is an asset because of the insights that come from cross-fertilization, it causes some problems academically for those who teach visual communication because of the lack of any sense of common theory and the difficulties of interaction. This is not to suggest that there is or should be a central, core theory that organizes the field, however, it would be easier to order a curriculum, as well as a graduate program of study, if there were some notion of at least the important areas and theories that need to be covered in a study of visual communication.

In a recent project undertaken by this author to identify the theoretical roots of visual communication, (Moriarty, 1995) one of the respondents observed that, "There are no key theories in visual communication." The study concluded, however, that from both a review Fof the literature and the responses to the survey about theoretical roots, that there is an evolving and well-recognized body of visual communication theory and literature that crosses a variety of disciplines that could provide some sense of a coherent conceptual base. Such work clusters in the areas of visual literacy, visual thinking, visual perception, imagery, and representation. With more attention to this evolving body of literature, visual communication would have more visibility and recognition as an academic field of its own.

Furthermore, that study found that most scholars responding to the survey were frustrated by the verbal language metaphor which drives much of the work in visual communication. While a central theory may be too much to hope for, there is still a need for the development of a more widely accepted model that better addresses the unique characteristics of visual communication. It is the purpose of this paper to address that issue and attempt to develop a map of the field that more clearly identifies the central theories and areas of study of visual communication.


As an introduction to the problem of defining the field of visual communication, let's begin with a review of the evolving literature of visual communication theory. Probably the most important book specifically focused on visual communication theory is Sol Worth's (1981) series of essays which appeared in his landmark book, Studying Visual Communication. Worth approaches visual communication from a sociological/anthropological position with insights from semiotics. Other work by Worth and his students at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School is reported in the now defunct journal, Studies in Visual Communication. Two journals that carry a lot of the material that previously aplpeared in Studies in Visual Communication include Visual Anthropology and Visual Sociology.

From the mass communication area comes Paul Lester's book Visual Communication: Images with Messages. Publications in the mass communication area include the Visual Communication Quarterly, a joint publicaton of the Visual Communication Division of the Association for Education Journalism and Mass Communication and the National Press Photographers Association. It appears as an insert in the News Photographer magazine. Other mass communication oriented work can be found in Journalism Quarterly, Journal of Communication Inquiry, Critical Studies in Mass Communication, Communication, and Journal of Communication, among many others.

Another important work from the visual literacy area is a book of readings called Visual Literacy edited by Moore and Dwyer (1994), which comes from the educational media discipline but includes a number of essays that relate to basic visual communication theory. Rune Pettersson's (1993) Visual Information is another useful book of readings that focuses more on the nature of visual information processing and comprehension.

Paul Messaris's (1994) book Visual "Literacy:" Image, Mind and Reality looks at visual literacy from the viewpoint of psychology and natural perceptual processes and questions how nuch of visual perception is really "learned." Another important work is a taxonomy of pictorial theory and imaginal process that has been developed by Levie (1984).

Other important investigations in the visual literacy field includes Braden and Hortin's (1982) "Identifying the Theoretical Foundations of Visual Literacy" which traces the history of theoretical development in the area of visual literacy along with John Hortin's review, "The Theoretical Foundations of Visual Learning" in Moore and Dwyer's (1994) book of readings. A work by Braden and Baca (1991), "Toward a Conceptual Map for Visual Literacy Constructs" attempts to map the field of visual literacy in terms of basic concepts, as this report hopes to do for the broader area of visual communication. The visual literacy approach outlined by Hortin begins with verbal language as a fundamental model and focuses on the transactional processes by which we receive and transmit visual meaning.

Visual literacy work is best found in this journal, The Journal of Visual Literacy (formerly titled The Journal of Visual Verbal Languaging) and in other education publications such as Educational Comunication and Technology, and the International Visual Literacy (IVLA) conference proceedings.

Three bibliographies of the visual literacy area have been constructed both accompanied by a taxonomy of key areas of study. The first is the previously mentioned work by W. Howard Levie (1984), which is broader than just visual literacy and has a thorough review of the psychology of pictorial recognition. The other two are by Alice Walker. Walker which includes a seven-year IVLA Bibliography published in 1990 and a second bibliography which includes a schematic model of the field of visual literacy published in 1992.

Key Elements In order to build a model of a field, which is the intention of this paper, one must first identify the key elements and then develop the structure that depicts their relationships. In order to isolate these elements, let's first look at other models that are relevant to an analysis of the dimensions of visual communication. As Braden and Clark (1991) have observed, "In spite of this growing body of literature, there has been no strong statement of agreement as to what the components of visual literacy actually are." That sentiment applies even more so to the area of visual communication whose scope is even broader.

Domains The notion of language as a metaphor for how visual communication operates is an important premise in much of the visual literacy work. In an early classic work, Ruesch and Kees (1956) developed a model of nonverbal languages that isolated three types of nonverbal languages or domains--pictorial, action, object.

Mass communication scholar Patsy Watkins (1995) in her response to the theory survey mentioned earlier identified six key domains of visual communication theory: aesthetic, functional, historical, symbolic, perceptual, and cultural.

John Bell (1995), who approaches visual communication from an English/creative writing perspective, structured his analysis of basic theories into four categories in his response to the previously mentioned theory survey: 1.) the mechanical-biological eye-"the eye that sees," 2.) the cultural/pictorial eye-the eye that frames," 3.) the inner eye-"the eye that creates and imagines," and 4.) the cinema/TV eye-"the moving eye."

Griffin and Whiteside, working from a communication theory approach, proposed three interdependent categories: a theoretical perspective, a visual language perspective, and a presentational perspective. A similar effort in the visual literacy area was undertaken by Roberts Braden (1987) who has identified three domains as: visualization, theory-research-practice, and technology.

In a landmark Delphi study involving 52 visual literacy scholars, Judy Clark-Baca (1990) arrived at 167 statements which were identified as constructs that define, describe, or elaborate upon visual literacy. From this study, a map of visual literacy constructs was developed by Clark-Baca and Braden (1991). That cluster map has at its center the notion of "purposes," which suggests that at the heart of visual literacy is the notion of goals or objectives. Surrounding that driving concept are the six areas of communication, learning, thinking, constructing meaning, creative expression, and aesthetic enjoyment. Each of the six areas generate its own cluster of categories and activities.

Levie's (1984) visual literacy taxonomy begins with psychology including perception, construction of meaning, memory and learning. Then he moves to mental imagery, and concludes with what he calls miscellaneous topics.

Alice Walker (1992) developed a schematic model of visual literacy based on the titles given to the annual IVLA conferences. Using "Enhancing Human Potential Through Visual Literacy" as the focal point, she arranged Research, Theory, Examining, Extending, and Experiencing around that topic. That cluster leads to "Seeing and Understanding" which is manifested in three ways: Computers and Technology, Arts, and Schools and Curriculum.

Relationships A number of these scholars have also attempted to diagram or map the relationships between and among these components.

Braden and Hortin (1982) mapped the domains of visual literacy from a language perspective. In their basic venn diagram of visual literacy constructs, visual literacy overlaps with vision and linguistics. Subsumed within the visual literacy category is the topic of visual language. The relationship with vision and linguistics is an interactive one; in other words, the concerns of visual literacy overlap and interact with those of linguists and perceptual psychologists who study vision.

In a second diagram Braden and Hortin (1982) focus more closely on the components of visual literacy. Working with an unstated continuum, they identify message and communication areas on the left (visual literacy and graphic arts); creativity and expressions elements (fine art and aesthetics) are on the right contribute. Fine art touches but does not overlap with visual literacy; graphic arts overlaps visual literacy. Aesthetics overlaps with fine art and graphic arts, but not visual literacy.

Another important work is one by Barbara Seels (1994) that attempts to define the field of visual literacy in terms of three major domains: visual thinking, learning, and communication. In Seels's approach, which reflects her education orientation, visual literacy is the focus and visual communication is a subordinate area. However, In her "Visual Literacy Cube" (Fig. 5), visual communication is at the top of a three-part construction with visual thinking and visual learning as sides of the structure. Seels' elaborated model identifies related areas that are subsumed under her three categories.

The analysis of this paper focuses on visual communication as an umbrella area, and would turn Seels' relationships around with visual communication as the central orienting concept and visual literacy as one aspect under that umbrella.

Process Johns' model (1994) developed from a communication theory approach is anchored in an intentional, one-way transfer of the iconic representation of some stimulus which is encoded for transfer through a medium to a receiver. His contribution to a basic mass communication model is the notion of life experience which filters or focuses the perception and interpretation of the message as a necessary condition of visual communication.

A Conceptual Map of Visual Communication

This paper will attempt to build on this work and map the field of visual communication using communication as the conceptual platform on which to build a model. One place to start mapping the field of visual communication is with the visual communication theory survey mentioned earlier. In that study a total of 16 theoretical areas was mentioned as providing grounding for visual communication study. This illustrates the difference between visual communication and visual literacy which is more contained. This list is important because it provides a view of the breadth of the field, as well as the areas deemed to be of more importance by these scholars.

The following chart summarizes and groups the areas in terms of their most frequent mentions. The list below begins with the area followed by the related theories that were mentioned by the respondents. The most important theoretical foundation based on the frequency of mentions by these scholars was psychology. Next came meaning theories such as semiotics. Tied for third were the areas of aesthetics, mass communication theories, and cultural/critical studies. The last four major areas were cinema/film studies, communication theories, literary studies, and education. An outline of these categories ordered in terms of frequency of response would be:

Visual Communication Theoretical Foundations
1. Psychology:

perception: gestalt perception

cognitive and information processing: schema theories

2. Meaning theories:

semiotics/semiology: signs, symbolism

3. Visual Communication/Philosophy:



pictorial perception

4. Aesthetics:

graphic design

fine arts: visual arts

Mass Communication:




journalism/news: uses and gratifications

Cultural/Critical Studies:

ethics/social responsibility


stereotyping: gender (feminist studies), racial

5. Cinema/Film/Video Studies:



6. Communication Theories:





Literary Studies:


reader response


7. Education:

visual literacy: learning theory

media literacy

critical viewing


8. Other theoretical approaches:





chaos/complex systems

Domains A second source for ideas to use in mapping the visual communication field is the previous review of domains. Notice that the list of foundation disciplines contains several different types of theoretical sources including intellectual domains (psychology, learning theory, communication, aesthetics, philosophy) and areas of professional practice (education, mass communication, film and cinema, art and graphic design).

A useful model might then organize the intellectual areas around the notion of practice, similar to how Braden and Clark-Baca centered their model on the functional dimension of purpose. The concept of practice in visual communication necessarily includes the media by which a message is communicated. Education technology, mass communication, film/cinema, and art/graphic design, are areas where visual skills are taught and questions of effectiveness arise and purposes are examined.

Surrounding the area of media practice are the theoretical frameworks of communication theory within which media and professional practice operate. The transactional nature of communication suggests the two basic categories of message production and message reception which are identified in one way or another in most communication models, Schramm's (1954) basic communication model identifies source and receiver, concepts which are easily reinterpreted as production and reception. These terms are also more in keeping with the notion of practice, as well as many approaches to visual literacy which are organized around these same two topics. The social and cultural context within which communication occurs is another important framework, one which is left out of most communication models.

These three categories or frames-production, reception, and context-include almost all of the domains and components identified in the previous review of models and maps. For example if we elaborate on the production category, we find a cluster of topics such as ideation (creative expression), visualization (visual thinking), and meaning construction which includes an understanding of signs and symbols, a sense of aesthetics, professional skills, and visual literacy. All of these functions cluster around the idea and function of producing a message.

The reception area can be categorized in terms of visual perception, the most basic category of research and theory building, which also includes the optical and physiological reception systems, cognition, which is an aspect of visual thinking that includes the ability to interpret and understand signs and symbols, aesthetic appreciation which permits receivers to appreciate the beauty and skill of the message whether formally trained or not, and visual learning (literacy), which includes critical viewing as well as education directed at aesthetic appreciation, and semiotics which is based on the notion of a system of shared signs and symbols, many of which at least from a Peircian perspective, are visual rather than language based.

Cultural context serves as a frame in which meaning is conveyed and interpreted. Anthropologists, sociologists and ethnographers study the social uses of visuals as well as the role of visuals in signifying social meaning. Critical studies such as ethics and ideology are the focus of cultural studies as well as the concern of most professional areas of practice. Critical viewing is an important aspect of cultural analysis and the point where cultural context overlaps with visual literacy. The various areas of meaning studies, such as semiotics, help identify the nature of the culturallyshared sign and symbol systems used in visual communication.

Intersections It is important to note that these areas are not independent but intersecting, a notion that Braden and Hortin identified in their models. For example, there are a number of points of intersection between production and reception. Visual thinking-the ability to visualize-is important in both creating (encoding) and interpreting (decoding) a visual. Likewise meaning construction is paralleled by meaning interpretation. And the social uses analyzed by anthropology are similar to the concept of audience uses which are the focus of communication studies. The three areas of intersection noted in the previous paragraph involve intersections from one column to another and they are identified with solid lines.

However, there are other points of intersection that extend across all three of the domains. For example, the concept of shared signs and symbols intersects with all three of the key elements: production, reception, and context. Signs and symbols have to be shared or the transactional nature of communication is violated and the only way they can be shared is socially through a commonly agreed upon code. A sense of aesthetics is important for producing visuals, and also for appreciating them. However, aesthetic appreciation only occurs within a cultural environment. In other words, production and reception overlap with context at these critical points of intersection.


People who teach visual communication are housed in different academic departments and that makes it difficult to bring together scholars and researchers who are working on similar questions relating to visual communication. It's probably wishful thinking for most of us who are affiliated with entrenched academic disciplines, but an enlightened approach to this area would be through a cross-discipline program that brings all these viewpoints together.

As mentioned earlier, a number of respondents to the visual theory survey called for a new model of visual communication, something that moves away from the limitations of the verbal language metaphor. Envision a department or college of visual communication that includes people with backgrounds in psychology, philosophy, communication, anthropology and sociology, and education, among others--all working together as members of cross-disciplinary teams that could investigate the central research questions in visual communication and develop a new theory of how visual communication works. This map identifies the various areas and foundation theories on which such a program might be built.

- Journal of Visual Literacy, 17:2 (1997)9-24.

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