Are you trying to “read” a picture or “write” a website? Have you been asked to evaluate or reflect on a symbol or visual image? Hopefully, this handout and the others in this series will give you a place to think about how the elements of communication and persuasion are embedded in texts you don’t just read but see. Images, not just words, provide us with information and change the ways we think, reason, and act. They can speak to us in powerful ways.

The simplest definition for visual rhetoric is the use of visual images to communicate meaning. It is also important to note that visual rhetoric is not just about superior design and aesthetics. It is also about how culture and meaning are reflected, communicated, and altered by images. Visual literacy involves all the processes of knowing and responding to a visual image as well as all the thought that might go into constructing or manipulating an image. In other words, visual literacy is the ability to “read” and “write” images and the meanings those images communicate.

Identifying Fundamental Elements

According to The OnLine Visual Literacy Project at Pomona College, some of the fundamental elements of visual composition include shape, direction, texture, color (hue and saturation), value (presence and absence of light), scale, dimension and motion.

Donis Dondis identifies these visual elements as the building blocks from which a visual space is created, organized syntactically, and expressed metaphorically. These are the components, then, of visual rhetoric—a rhetoric tied in to being visually literate.

Using Principles of Perception

Principles of perception and visual interpretation are at work in media and film studies, cultural studies, art, literature, photography, electronic media, and in public events such as concerts, sports events and other venues.

According to Caryn Talty in her Kairos article Teaching a Visual Rhetoric:

Theorists of hypertext such as George Landow and Jay David Bolter tend to emphasize the associational character of (hypertextual) writing. ‘Connectivity’ of texts and ideas takes precedence over the linear assumptions of print forms." Simply put, the author of a Web site understands that he or she has no control over the depth, breadth, or route a reader will take when viewing his or her site. The control is not in the writer’s words, but with the reader’s choices. This altered attitude about the roles we must play in order to communicate, the considerations we must have about the written and visual word, and the importance of disseminating information in a reader friendly manner makes us better writers.

In addition to producing traditional texts, it’s important to pay attention to electronic spaces, their form and function, in the academy. “By privileging composing as the main site of instruction,” says John Trimbur, “the teaching of writing has taken up what Karl Marx calls a ‘onesided’ view of production and thereby has largely erased the cycle that links the production, distribution, exchange, and consumption of writing.” In other words, Trimbur wants us to pay attention not only to the process of writing, but to how writing is consumed. Learning more about visual rhetoric can help us produce documents that speak more readily to their intended audience. It can also help us to evaluate visual images we encounter in any variety of settings, whether on TV, in magazines, on billboards, or in the classroom.

- Duke University Writing Studio

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