An Introduction to Visual Communication

From Cave Art to Second Life (2nd edition)

by Susan B. Barnes (Author)
Textbook XII, 288 Pages
Series: Visual Communication, Volume 7


Technological changes have radically altered the ways in which people use visual images. Since the invention of photography, imagery has increasingly been used for entertainment, journalism, information, medical diagnostics, instruction, branding and communication. These functions move the image beyond aesthetic issues associated with art and into the realm of communication studies.
This introductory textbook introduces students to the terminology of visual literacy, methods for analyzing visual media, and theories on the relationship between visual communication and culture. Exploring the meanings associated with visual symbols and the relationship of visual communication to culture, this book provides students with a better understanding of the visually oriented world in which they live. From cave art to virtual reality, all visual media are discussed with methods for evaluation. Student-friendly features such as boxed topics, key terms, web resources, and suggestions for exercises are provided throughout.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Overview of the Book
  • References
  • Chapter 1: Digital Visual Communication Theory
  • Defining Visual Communication
  • Visual Communication Theory
  • Constructivist View
  • Piaget and Learning Mentalities
  • Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • The Cognitive Revolution
  • Visual Intelligence
  • Applying Cognitive Theory to Digital Media
  • Visual Media and Culture
  • Symbolic Experience
  • Computers as Multimodal Media
  • Digitalization of Visual Communication
  • Understanding Visual Messages
  • Summary
  • Websites
  • Exercises
  • Key Terms
  • References
  • Part I: Developing Visual Literacy Skills
  • Chapter 2: Elements of Visual Literacy
  • Basic Elements
  • Dot or Point
  • Line
  • Shapes
  • Direction
  • Volume or Weight
  • Scale or Proportion
  • Tone
  • Gestalt Theory
  • Illusions
  • Context and Perception
  • Balance
  • Horizontal and Vertical Relationships
  • Formal and Informal Balance
  • Visual Dissonance
  • Color
  • Color Basics
  • Harmony
  • Color and the Environment
  • Color and Emotion
  • Color and Culture
  • Looking at Visual Images
  • Visual Perception
  • Context and Perception
  • Summary
  • Websites
  • Exercises
  • Key Terms
  • References
  • Chapter 3: Perspective, Vision, and Culture
  • Perspective
  • Primeval Art and Perspective
  • Perspective in Egyptian Art
  • Greeks
  • Renaissance and Perspective
  • The Technique of Linear Perspective
  • Perspective’s Impact on Culture
  • Vision and Perspective
  • How the Eye Works
  • Dynamic Vision
  • Monocular versus Binocular Vision
  • Understanding Mediated Images
  • Computer Culture
  • Culture and Perspective
  • Non-Western Perspectives
  • Technology and Visual Relationships
  • Changes in Perspective
  • Summary
  • Websites
  • Exercises
  • Key Terms
  • References
  • Chapter 4: Language of Images: Signs, Symbols, and Semiotics
  • What are Symbols?
  • Symbols as Visual Language
  • Signs and Symbols
  • Academic Approach to Signs and Symbols
  • Denotative and Connotative Meaning
  • Semantic Differential
  • Metaphors and Metonymies
  • Fused Metaphor
  • Metaphor and Computers
  • Metonymy and Messages
  • Icons
  • Symbols and the Unconscious
  • Decoding Visual Communication
  • Symbolic Language, Myth and Ideology
  • Semiotics
  • Culture Codes
  • Summary
  • Websites
  • Exercises
  • Key Terms
  • References
  • Chapter 5: Written Symbols and Typography
  • Historical Development of Writing Systems
  • Egyptians
  • Phonetic Alphabet
  • Development of Typography
  • Early Typography
  • Typography and the Bauhaus Movement
  • American Design
  • Typography as a Visual Element
  • Legibility
  • Basic Classifications of Typefaces
  • Typographic Measurements
  • Typographic Syntax
  • Rhythm
  • Type Styles and Connotations
  • Mixing Words and Pictures
  • Relationship between Words and Images
  • Juxtaposition of Type and Image
  • Visual–Verbal Synergy
  • Merging of Images and Letterforms
  • Writing Systems and Culture
  • Transformative Theory
  • Print-Based versus Digital Writing Systems
  • Emoticons
  • Impact of Digital Technology on Typography
  • Word Processing
  • Desktop Publishing
  • Visual Storytelling
  • Summary
  • Websites
  • Exercises
  • Key Terms
  • References
  • Chapter 6: Graphic Design
  • Mass Media and Mass Art
  • Role of the Designer
  • The Designer in Postmodern Culture
  • Creative Thinking
  • Analysis of Graphic Design
  • Graphic Design and New Media
  • Digital Media and Traditional Graphic Design Practices
  • Changing Roles of Graphic Design Professionals
  • Multimedia and Graphic Design
  • Graphic Design and Postmodern Culture
  • Graphic Design and Digital Culture
  • Summary
  • Websites
  • Exercises
  • Key Terms
  • References
  • Part II: Understanding Visual Media
  • Chapter 7: Print Media
  • Early Printing Technology
  • The Printing Press
  • Relief Engraving and Etching
  • Newspapers in America
  • Magazines
  • The Industrial Revolution and Its Impact on Visual Communication
  • Lithography and the Victorian Era
  • Integrating Photography into Printed Media
  • Visual Conventions and Information Design
  • Characteristics of Print Media
  • Caricatures and Cartoons
  • Comics
  • Maps and Information Design
  • Cultural Issues and Digital Media
  • The Digital Revolution and Its Impact on Print Publishing
  • Zines and Desktop Publishing
  • On Demand Printing
  • Newspapers, Magazines, and the World Wide Web
  • Summary
  • Websites
  • Exercises
  • Key Terms
  • References
  • Chapter 8: The Photographic Image
  • The Invention of Photography
  • The Civil War and the Origins of Photojournalism
  • Photography and Visual Literacy
  • Shot, Angle, and Distance
  • Composition
  • Color
  • Lighting
  • The Figure and Ground in Photography
  • Photography Genres
  • Photojournalism
  • Visual Journalism
  • Citizen Journalism
  • Method for Analyzing Photojournalism
  • Advertising Photography
  • Rhetorical Analysis
  • Photography as a Cultural Expression
  • The Photographer
  • The Spectator
  • The Subject
  • Cultural Uses of Photography
  • Photo File Sharing
  • Selfie
  • Photography and Cultural Issues: Objectivity
  • Digital Imaging and the Changing Role of Photography
  • Manipulation
  • Ethics
  • Summary
  • Websites
  • Exercises
  • Key Terms
  • References
  • Chapter 9: Motion Pictures and Film
  • History of Film
  • The Beginnings of the Motion Picture Industries
  • Film as Artistic Expression
  • Film, Cinema, and Movies
  • The Language of Film
  • The Frame
  • Time and Space Relationships in Film
  • Space Relationships—Shots
  • Time Relationships—Film Editing
  • Camera Movement
  • Film and Sound
  • Lighting and Color
  • Black-and-White Film and Color Film
  • Special Effects
  • Animation
  • Film Genres
  • Film and Culture
  • The Film Industry
  • Film and the Spectator
  • Relationships between Film and Culture
  • Digital Media and Its Impact on Film
  • Computer-Generated Imagery
  • Microcinema and YouTube
  • Summary
  • Websites
  • Exercises
  • Key Terms
  • References
  • Chapter 10: Television
  • Development of Television and the Television Industry
  • The Television Industry
  • Cable Television
  • Television Genres
  • The Commercial
  • Broadcast Television Genres
  • Cable Television and Network Genres
  • MTV and Music Videos
  • Applied Media Aesthetics
  • Lighting Techniques
  • Two-Dimensional Space
  • Three-Dimensional Space
  • Time
  • Motion
  • Sound
  • Transitional Effects
  • Television Editing
  • Analyzing Television Programming
  • Television and Cultural Trends
  • Decline of Mass Audiences
  • Television and Digital Media
  • Television Industry and Digital Trends
  • YouTube
  • Summary
  • Websites
  • Exercises
  • Key Terms
  • References
  • Chapter 11: Digital Media
  • Graphical Interfaces and Digital Design
  • Historical Development of Interactive Computing
  • Models for Interface Design
  • Visual Metaphors
  • Hypertext and the World Wide Web
  • Visual Elements and the Browser
  • Developing Visual Critical Skills for Evaluating Websites
  • Developing Websites
  • Content Questions
  • Design Questions
  • The Web and Type
  • Web Animations and Graphics
  • Graphics and Visual Manipulation
  • Functionality Questions
  • Web Content and Design Issues
  • Web Advertising
  • Video Games
  • Social Media
  • New Media Theory
  • Immediacy, Hypermediacy, and Remediation
  • Summary
  • Websites
  • Exercises
  • Key Terms
  • References
  • Part III: Visual Communication in Cultural Contexts
  • Chapter 12: Emerging Visual Contexts: Virtual Reality and Digital Culture
  • Virtual Reality Systems
  • Virtual Reality and Communication
  • Virtual Reality and Entertainment
  • Virtual Reality Systems and Social Concerns
  • Analyzing Virtual Reality
  • Digital Imagery and Culture
  • Digital Imagery—Truth or Falsity
  • Social Uses of Surveillance Cameras
  • Simulated Reality
  • Postman’s Nightmare: A Visual World
  • Visual Communication and Instructional Design
  • Virtual Reality and Education
  • Visual Communication Skills for VR and the Digital Age
  • Summary
  • Websites
  • Exercises
  • Key Terms
  • References
  • Chapter 13: Cultural Codes and Conventions
  • American Cultural Codes
  • Visual and Verbal Media in American Education
  • Commercialization and American Education
  • Text versus Images in American Newspapers
  • Advertising
  • Branding
  • Corporate Identity
  • Corporate Identity Programs
  • Consumerism
  • Advertising Messages and Media Literacy
  • Understanding Advertising Messages
  • Critically Reading Commercial Messages
  • Stereotypes
  • Intertextuality
  • Living in a Visual Culture
  • Summary
  • Websites
  • Exercises
  • Key Terms
  • References
  • Chapter 14: Visual Imagery and Cultural Change
  • New Theories about Visual Cognition
  • The Changing Role of Visual Imagery
  • Proliferation of Images as Mass Art
  • Cultural Approaches to the Study of Images
  • Visual Culture
  • Digital Imagery and Cultural Concerns
  • Photography as Evidence
  • The Photographic Icon
  • Remix
  • Mass Distribution of Imagery and Monoculture
  • Role of the Image in Postmodern Culture
  • Postmodern Graphic Design and Culture
  • Visual Trends in Publishing
  • International Trends
  • Collaboration Trend
  • Summary
  • Websites
  • Exercises
  • Key Terms
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index

| vii →


This book is dedicated to Neil Postman, an amazing scholar, who never completely understood visual communication, although he was able to critique it. No book is ever completed without assistance from others. First, I would like to thank The College of Liberal Arts at the Rochester Institute of Technology for funding my graduate assistant, Bonnie McCracken. I would like to thank her for her work on helping me prepare this manuscript. Second, the reviewer of the text needs my thanks for providing helpful suggestions. Finally, I want to thank Mary Savigar for believing in this project when other editors did not. This book has been a ten-year process. So, I give a special thanks to everyone that helped along the way.

For the revised version of the text, I would like to thank Kathryn Harrison from Peter Lang Publishing for her continued support of visual research.

| ix →


Technological changes have radically altered the ways in which people use visual images and the role they play in contemporary culture. Since the invention of photography, imagery has increasingly been used for the purposes of entertainment, journalism, information, medical diagnostics, instruction, and communication. These functions move the image beyond aesthetic issues associated with art and into the realm of communication studies.

Besides technological change, theories relating to the nature of symbolism, such as Suzanne K. Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key (1957) and Nelson Goodman’s Languages of Art (1968), combined with the cognitive theories of Jean Piaget (1971) and Jerome Bruner (1966), have fostered new ways of thinking about how visual images are used in cognitive development. Of particular importance is the work being done at Harvard’s Project Zero, founded by Nelson Goodman and later directed by Howard Gardner. Gardner’s research on cognitive approaches to creativity has provided an important insight into how the mind works, and his theories challenge the notion that language and logical symbol systems take priority over other types of expressive and communicative ones. For instance, Gardner’s (1983) notion of “multiple intelligences” does not privilege one mode of communication over another. By moving abilities such as spatial and bodily-kinesthetic intelligences out of the domain of artistic talent and into the realm of cognitive experience, an argument can be made for the development of instructional techniques that enhance visual thinking.

A further argument for the study of visual communication can be found in both the historical and contemporary development of interfaces designed for computer-based communication. The original development of graphical user interfaces, such as Windows and the Macintosh, was based on the work of Piaget and Bruner. These interfaces combine visual and verbal symbol systems together to create what J. David Bolter (1991) called a new picture writing: “Reorganizing and activating [iconic] elements is writing, just as putting alphabetic characters in a row is writing” (p. 51).

In addition to developing new symbol systems, interface researchers Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass (1996) discovered that people often respond to media in similar ways in which they react to ← ix | x → people and places. Although this notion may seem strange, consider how many people who live alone watch television while they eat. Or, think about the ways in which people talk about their computers. Similarly, Joshua Meyrowitz’s (1985) research on television and space, Gumpert and Cathcart’s (1986) seminal book Intermedia, and current theories relating to the Internet presented in Strate, Jacobson, and Gibson’s (1996) Communication and Cyberspace described the blurring boundaries between physical space and mediated cyberspace.

Of growing importance in the contemporary media landscape is visual communication. Contemporary culture is dominated by visual imagery, especially images created, distributed, and consumed through digital technologies. This has led many scholars to argue that contemporary culture is a visual one. Nicholas Mirzoeff (1998) defines visual culture as a concern with visual events in which individuals seek information and meaning through interaction with a visual technology, including magazines, television, computer screens, and virtual reality. In contrast to this trend, Western culture has tended to privilege the spoken and written word as the highest form of intellectual practice. Visual representations have tended to be viewed as talents rather than forms of intelligence. But, the widespread usage of visual imagery is currently challenging the hegemony of the word. As a result, the study of visual forms of communication is more important than ever.

Scholars have recognized the changing role of visual imagery in culture. For example, E. H. Gombrich (1999) asserted that there is an overriding demand for images in Western culture. For instance, homes that lack television sets are considered deprived. He argues that the relationship between image and society can be viewed as an ecological system—social situations influence image making and vice versa. According to Gombrich (1999), this interplay can be compared to “the influence of the environment on the various forms of life” (p. 10). Visual society could be considered an ecological niche that favors visual forms of communication over verbal ones. However, this preference does not necessarily mean that visual symbols totally replace verbal ones, but rather, the visual takes center stage and words are used to support the image. For example, the captions associated with photojournalism help to shape the ways in which viewers interpret the photographs.

There is no grand theory about visual communication. Different authors use various theoretical references. For example, in Visual Communication: Images with Messages, Paul Lester (2011) utilized Aldous Huxley as a theoretical framework. In Practices of Looking (2001) Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright draw on theories of cultural studies, and in the book Handbook of Visual Communication (2005) Smith, Moriarty, Barbatsis, and Kenney present a number of different approaches to the study of visual communication, including aesthetics, perception, representation, visual rhetoric, cognition, semiotics, reception theory, narrative, media aesthetics, ethics, visual literacy, and cultural studies. The overall theoretical foundation for this book is based on media ecology, the study of technology and cultural change and the foundations for the development of digital technology. Neil Postman, the founder of the media ecological tradition, considered himself to be a “visual moron.” However, he did teach the works of Suzanne Langer as part of his program. In contrast, Neil’s friend, Alan Kay, the developer of graphical user interfaces, was attempting to create a visual language for computers. What Postman and Kay share in common is a theoretical grounding in works by psychologists, philosophers, and Marshall McLuhan. As a result, the thinking of media ecologists and the developer of graphical interfaces, which made the computer a visual medium, are similar. This book describes the theoretical and historical backgrounds of visual media along with some of the cultural changes occurring with the introduction of digital media into society.

As media become increasingly visual, a challenge facing the study of visual communication is the multiple levels of meanings associated with visual symbols. Goodman (1968) contended that the way in which one understands a symbol depends upon the setting in which it is encountered and the graphic context that surrounds it. Moreover, the particular mind of the viewer plays an important role in symbol interpretation. To date, we have no single theory regarding the interpretation of visual imagery. Instead, we have a variety of theories that have developed from the diverse disciplines of art history, cognitive ← x | xi → theory, communication theory, cultural theory, feminist studies, graphic design, literary theory, semiotics, and psychology. These different approaches have been applied to a variety of forms of visual communication. For example, the semiotic approach has been widely used for the study of photography and film. Zettl’s (1990) approach, grounded in the artistic theories of Kandinsky and the historical Bauhaus movement, can be applied to video imagery. In contrast, graphic designers have established their own set of principles. Additionally, new theories are emerging for the study of digital forms of visual communication (see Bolter & Grusin, 1999). Although certain theories are often associated with particular visual media, many of these ideas can be applied to other media. For example, various visual theories could be applied to the World Wide Web, which supports both personal web pages and the distribution of microcinema. Consequently, this text does not attempt to propose one “grand theory” of visual communication, but rather, it attempts to present an overview of many theoretical approaches and ideas that have guided researchers in the analysis of visual symbols, their meaning, and their relationship to culture. As James Carey (1989) asserts, “Communication is a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed” (p. 23). In contemporary communication environments, visual symbols are becoming a predominant form of cultural expression; as a result, the production, distribution, and reception of visual messages should be studied as an integral part of the communication discipline.

Since the originally writing of this text, visual images have proliferated in modern society. Several changes include the widespread use of personal images called “selfies”, which are transmitted through smart phones and the Internet; the increased mobility of television, films, and YouTube videos displayed on hand-held devices; and the increased availability of virtual reality technology. These developments have further promoted the images as a form of communication over the written word.

Overview of the Book

The first chapter of this book defines visual communication and examines the relationship between visual communication theory and cognitive science. The remainder of the book is divided into three parts: Part I: Developing Visual Literacy Skills, Part II: Understanding Visual Media, and Part III: Visual Communication in Cultural Contexts. Because there are more chapters than weeks in a semester, teachers can pick and choose which chapters to study. For example, Chapters 1–6, 8, 9, and 11 are recommended for a focus on Visual Literacy. Digital media are featured in Chapters 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 11, and 12. For more of a media focus, Chapters 7–11 describe specific types of media. For the cultural perspective, Chapters 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 13, and 14 discuss culture. However, most chapters have a section on digital technology and cultural change.

There are special features in the book. First, a number of “Boxed Topics” are included that enable artists, designers, and scholars to speak about their own works. Terms and websites are noted at the end of each chapter, along with suggestions for student exercises. Finally, during the course of the research for this book, a number of YouTube videos were located that illustrate the designer, developer, or concept being discussed in the book. These video addresses are provided with key terms to help find them at YouTube (http://www.youtube.com). This book introduces students to visual literacy terminology, methods for analyzing visual media, and theories on the relationship between visual communication and culture. By exploring both the meanings associated with visual symbols and the relationship of visual communication to culture, the goal of this book is to provide students with methods to better understand the visually oriented world in which they live.


Bolter, J. D. (1991). Writing space. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Bolter, J. D., & Grusin, R. (1999). Remediation: Understanding new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bruner, J. S. (1966). Towards a theory of instruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Carey, J. W. (1989). Communication as culture. New York, NY: Routledge. ← xi | xii →

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theories of multiple intelligences. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Gombrich, E. H. (1999). The uses of images: Studies in the social function of art and visual communication. London: Phaidon.

Goodman, N. (1968). Languages of art: An approach to a theory of symbols. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.

Gumpert, G., & Cathcart, R. (1986). Intermedia: Interpersonal communication in a media world (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Langer, S. K. (1957). Philosophy in a new key. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lester, P. (2011). Visual communication: Images with messages (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

Meyrowitz, J. (1985). No sense of place. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Mirzoeff, N. (1998). The visual culture reader. New York, NY: Routledge.

Piaget, J. (1971). Biology and knowledge: An essay on the relations between organic regulations and cognitive processes. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Reeves, B., & Nass, C. (1996). The media equation. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, K., Moriarty, S., Barbatsis, G., & Kenney, K. (2005). Handbook of visual communication: Theory, methods, and media. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Strate, L., Jacobson, R., & Gibson, S. (1996). Communication and cyberspace. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Sturken, M., & Cartwright, L. (2001). Practices of looking: An introduction to visual culture. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Zettl, H. (1990). Sight sound motion: Applied media aesthetics (2nd ed.) Belmont, CA: Wadseorth.

| 1 →


Digital Visual Communication Theory

Visual communication is a fundamental human experience. Visual symbolism originates at the dawn of civilization to meet the need for human expression and since has played an integral role in culture and communication. We use imagery for a variety of reasons, including the expression of cosmic anguish, the urge to play, art for art’s sake, the desire to represent the physical world in an imaginary virtual one, and to sell products. In primitive times, humans visualized their relationship to the world through animal drawings and symbols. Their prehistoric cave paintings portray their relationships to their environment that provides insight into primitive attitudes toward the cosmos, humankind, and eternal values. Similarly, the visual images in today’s culture reflect our own current values, beliefs, and attitudes toward our own environment. The persistence and ubiquity of visual symbols clearly shows their importance to cultures throughout history, but these same qualities make the study of visual communication seem daunting. The best place to begin, then, is with the most basic question: What is visual communication?

Defining Visual Communication

Currently, visual communication is so pervasive in our lives that we often take it for granted. In fact, many books on the subject forget to define the term itself. Therefore, we must first look to a general description of human communication to define visual communication. According to Gumpert and Cathcart (1986), “Traditionally human communication has been viewed as a speaker saying something to a listener” (p. 17). This is a simple sender-message-receiver view of communication adapted in many ways, for example, speaker-message-audience or actor-performance-audience. “Even with the development of the printing press, radio, film, and television, we have continued to look upon human communication as basically one human being directing words and gestures at another human being” (Gumpert & Cathcart, 1986, p. 17). However, mass media messages, such as advertising and film, are often created by groups of people or organizations rather than one person. In these instances, the speaker is an organization, such as an advertising agency or network sending a message to a large audience. ← 1 | 2 →

Included in any general description of human communication would be the visual aspect of it. However, visual communication itself focuses on understanding the composition and interpretation of visual messages created through any type of medium: paint, crayons, pencils, cameras, computers, and others. Visual messages can be distributed through individual sheets of paper, clothing, photographs, newspapers, magazines, signs, billboards, television, movies, video games, the World Wide Web, YouTube, social networks, and visual blogs.

Figure 1–1: Drawing from a piece of cave art of three animals moving in a circular composition. Author’s illustration. ← 2 | 3 →

Today’s environment is filled with so many different visual media that it is difficult to list them all. The messages distributed through these media vary a great deal. Some messages are designed to help us navigate our natural environment, such as traffic signs or GPS systems. Others are developed to support our social and economic institutions; for instance, advertising is created to sell products and services. Still other visual messages, like greeting cards and children’s drawings, share personal feelings with the ones we love and when we combine these ideas together, we can define visual communication as the process through which individuals—in relationships, organizations, and cultures—interpret and create visual messages in response to their environment, one another, and social structures.

Figure 1–2: Course party in Second Life (Barnes & Hair Advertising Course).

With this definition in mind, we can now understand how visual communication developed into a subject of study. The widespread use of television, which brought to our attention how individuals communicate visually, became a major topic of discussion in the 1970s. At that time, John L. Debes (1970) coined the term visual literacy and he organized the first national conference:

Visual literacy is a requirement for the understanding of visual communication and its visual messages. Moreover, becoming visually literate makes people more resistant to the manipulation and visual persuasion embedded in TV commercials, political campaigns, and advertisements. By learning about the devices and conventions used by the media industries to develop image-oriented messages, individuals can become aware of how meaning is created and they are less likely to uncritically accept visual messages. Moreover, learning to “read” visual conventions and developing a vocabulary in which to discuss visual information helps individuals to better analyze and critique today’s increasingly mediated visual world.

Visual Communication Theory

During this past century, the work of many American scholars has contributed to our understanding of visual communication, including Nelson Goodman (1978), Suzanne Langer (1953, 1957), Jean Piaget ← 3 | 4 → (1971), Jerome Bruner (1966, 1986, 1990), Howard Gardner (1983, 1993, 1999) and Ann Marie Barry (1997). Goodman’s philosophical work on media and symbol systems has contributed to our understanding of nonlinguistic symbols. He identifies two types of symbol systems: notational and nonnotational. Notational systems have a unique set of separate characters that isolate the object or objects for which they stand. For example, the words in a language represent people, places, and things, and individual words are combined into sentences, paragraphs, and pages of text. Similarly, the notes written on a musical score represent sounds, and the separate notes can be combined in any number of different ways to create a musical composition. Simply stated, notational symbol systems can be broken down into smaller components. In contrast, nonnotational symbol systems cannot be broken down because the image cannot be divided into separate parts. Take, for example, the simple image of a smiley face. If the dots of the eyes were removed from the circle, they would lose their meaning as eyes because it is the relationship between all of the visual elements in a smiley face that communicates the idea of a face.

Philosopher Suzanne Langer makes a distinction between notational and denotational symbol systems. However, she uses the terms discursive and presentational forms instead of notational and nonnotational. Discursive forms, such as language and math, are composed of digital symbols or symbols that have an arbitrary relationships to the objects they represent, which is similar to notational symbols. For example, the words c-a-t- and g-a-t-o are arbitrary letter combinations that represent the same small furry animal. In contrast, presentational forms are not composed of arbitrary symbols because they represent their objects or call them to mind. Presentational forms include drawings, paintings, photographs, and dance. Analog symbols represent in their form important characteristics about the objects for which they stand. In communication theory, symbols that contain characteristics of their referents are called analogic because they are analogous or similar to what they represent. For example, road maps, portraits, and photographs are similar to the objects and people that they portray. Often, analogic symbols represent the structure of relations among parts of an object abstracted by the mind. For instance, the smiley face “brings to mind a human face, not because real human faces are composed of three black dots and a curve, but because the structural relationship among the dots and the curve in the symbol corresponds to the structural relationship among eyes, nose, and mouth that the mind abstracts from the sensory perception of human faces” (Nystrom, 2000, p. 28). In contrast, digital symbols are arbitrary because there is no relationship between the symbol and the object it represents. Language is an example of a digital symbol system because words do not “look” like the objects to which they refer. Moreover, there is no particular reason why the letters f-a-c-e were combined together to denote a particular part of the human body.

Figure 1–3: Analog and digital communication. Author’s illustration. ← 4 | 5 →

Constructivist View


XII, 288
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XII, 288 pp.

Biographical notes

Susan B. Barnes (Author)


Title: An Introduction to Visual Communication
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