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An Introduction to Visual Communication

From Cave Art to Second Life (2nd edition)


Susan B. Barnes

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.


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Chapter 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...

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