Visual Rhetoric


Visual rhetoric

Visual rhetoric is the recent topical development of an academic framework unfolding how visual pictures communicate, as opposed to auditory, verbal, or other messages. Visual rhetoric falls under a cluster of terms known as rhetoric literature. This group is split under three categories; visual learning, visual thinking and visual communication/rhetoric. To communicate visually, visual learning and thinking must first occur. The following figure illustrates these ideas.

Visual literacy

Visual thinking                     visual learning                         visual rhetoric/communication

Metaphoric   visualization     design of           read pictures           art                   media

Thinking     materials

Source of imagery      research on learning                            aesthetics


Right brain/left brain

Mental nodes

Source: Purdue owl


Looking at different pictures or images, one is able to know what the image is trying to communicate. This is facilitated by factors such as where the picture has been taken from, the style of the picture or the mood of the picture.

Why we study visual rhetoric

Ben Barton and Marthalee Barton in their book “Toward a Rhetoric of Visual for the Computer Era” state that, “as technical communication teachers we adopt a more rhetorical orientation to presenting visuals, that we develop better case studies for visuals, and that we apply principles from Gestalt psychology to improve the visual literacy of students” (Moore and Fitz, 1993). Thus, looking at Barton’s argument, it is clear we study visual rhetoric to develop further understanding of texts, and know how to integrate visuals into text. All in all, knowledge on visual rhetoric helps humans understand at first glance what an image is relaying. For example, looking at the following image helps humans understand the mood is of academic balance.
Source: Stanford University (2015)                   link;

When prospective college students visits websites trying to decide on university of choice, and comes across this image, many students are likely to be captured by the structure. This is because the structure acts as a persuasive visual piece designed to show what Stanford means. Additionally, the goal of the image is to convince you that Stanford is the place you belong.

Visual rhetoric in action

Visual communication can only be effective after visual thinking and learning have occurred. Visual thinking and learning strategies are used by teachers to facilitate discussions of art images to achieve positive outcomes for teachers and students. Researchers have come up with the following argument to show how VTS is important in visual rhetoric. “Visual thinking strategy (VTS) delivers a way to push-start a procedure of learning to think deeply appropriate in most subjects from poetry to math, science and social studies. Art is a crucial discussion topic because it enables students to use existing visual and cognitive skills to develop confidence and experience, learning to use what they already know to figure out what they don’t; and explore other complex subject matters alone and with peers”.

VTS is known widely for increasing students’ growth in education from the native speakers and challenged students to great achievers in education. Because of this reason, teachers enjoy VTS and believe is one among many strategies that can be used to reach all type of students.

On the other hand, visual learning is used mostly by visual learners as it helps students learn from images or graphs rather than memorizing. Integrating visual thinking and learning, students are able to see the big picture of complex and simple systems. In other words, visual learning is much better in some situations than verbal learning (Johnson-Sheehan & Baehr, 2001). For example, in geometry, physics and in computer science because graphics application and visual components are widely applied. After a student is able to use visual learning and thinking strategies, communicating visually becomes easier. Look at the following images; from visual thinking- visual learning to visual rhetoric.

Image 1 (visual thinking)

In this image one is able to think what is going on by using objects to clarify if what he/she is thinking is correct.

Image 2 (visual learning)

In this image, the person is in the process of learning, and after seen a table, she is able to pronounce it correctly.

Image 3 (visual rhetoric/communication)

This image conveys the message itself, looking at it the student or anyone is able to know what the image goal is. Like in this image, the message is clear, in that meat is harmful to your health.

Use of typography

To achieve the rhetorical effect desired in documents, students should consider a variety of textual elements such as font. Mackiewicz (2004) quotes Bartram statement who states that type face or font is “that aspect of typeface that imbues it with the power to evoke in the perceiver certain emotional and cognitive responses”. Thus, fonts convey different moods and feelings, and can evoke anger, agitation, silliness, scariness, strength or friendliness. In this situation, students should always ensure that they select font that conveys rhetorical effect they want to achieve. Some fonts are used unwisely and therefore tend to stimulate emotions which are out of place. Even though students writing is not termed as professional, students must make an effort to ensure their writing is convenient and relevant. This is because increased attention has been applied to typeface since is one element of visual rhetoric. For example, Mackiewicz (2004) quotes a statement from “A Concise Guide to Technical Communications” which states, “The style of type you choose makes a big difference in how audiences read and react to your document. Typefaces have personalities. Some convey seriousness; others convey humor; still others convey a technical quality”

It is therefore important for students to create ethos and establish first impression in their work. This act earns trust and interest of the person reading the work. According to Brumberger (2004), in documents, typography plays the role of verbal and visual element, hence, for any writer to achieve the purpose of their document, the writer should draw their arguments based on visual rhetoric. The more a writer and a reader interacts with the texts, the more their thoughts are shaped, and their thinking is guided by how communication is structured. Brumberger (2004) quotes McLuhan and Fiore (1967) statement which contemplates with this idea. It states, “Hearing was the primary means of sensory and social orientation before the development of the phonetic alphabet; the phonetic alphabet shifted the focus to the eye, and printing extended that shift”.

Theories of visual thinking and visual rhetoric

Visual thinking and visual rhetoric have no exact period in which they can be traced from. Many scholars argue that visual thinking and rhetoric has been practiced as long as there have been images. Since then, theories have emerged which argue and try to explain the phenomena that surrounds visual rhetoric. The same arguments have revolved around typeface with different scholars such as Gill (1983) arguing the importance of matching typeface with documents. Differences in rhetorical visual started emerging when technology increased. The use of computers facilitated most of designers work. Since then, designers have started to assume that a reader relates with the article both verbally and visually to make meaning. In many cases, the text is usually perceived to shape the reader, but in other ways, scholars such as Ede and Lunsford (1984) argue that readers can also bring their expectations and experience to the script (Brumberger, 2004).

Other scholars, such as Rudolph Arnheim (1969) argue that seeing and thinking cannot be separated, and that the line separating the two was drawn incorrectly in works of Plato and ancient Greece. During the time, restraints such as mathematics were highly honored while sensory undertakings such as seeing and art were not valued at all. Today, this trend continues to be experienced and witnessed in education curricula where fields like mathematics are highly treasured. The entire theory of visual rhetoric is supported by Arnheim arguments since it supports the argument that seeing and thinking are interconnected process. In his theory, Arnheim believes verbal and visual thinking, and seeing and thinking are one particular thing which fall under the same hierarchy. Despite visual rhetoric attracting the society as days go on, Brumberger (2004) argues that there is a model that perceives verbal and visual language to contribute to communication even though not equally.

Konstelnick (1989) arguments on the other hand, are almost the same as those of Arnheim but differ in that Konstelnick believes in ‘cognitive interdependence between visual and verbal thinking”. In his theory, Konstelnick believes verbal and visual language work together interactively for effective communication. Brumberger (2004) states that through his arguments, Konstelnick proposed the “12-cell matrix of visual communication” model. In the model, Konstelnick recognizes four stages of visual rhetoric in which according to him he believes the levels communicate with readers at some way. Through his arguments, Konstelnick enables the readers to integrate his work with rhetorical role of topography.

Common tools for discussing the visual rhetoric of an artifact or object

The study of visual rhetoric is not the same as that of visual or graphic design because it puts emphasis on imageries as sensory languages of social importance, as contrasting to morally visual contemplation. Visual rhetoric has been loomed from a range of theoretical fields of learning such as graphic arts antiquity, grammar, semiotics, ethnic studies, commerce and practical communiqué, dialogue communication, and traditional communication. However, the outcome can be challenging to distinguish the precise relations amid diverse portions of the field of visual rhetoric. Visual rhetoricians have analyzed several artifacts such as diagrams, portraits, statue, computer games, charts, netsides, announcements, cinemas, structural design, broadsheets, or snapshots. Despite visual rhetoric been connected with parts such as promotion and marketing, today, it is connected to science. For example, Nathan Stormer, a scientists, uses visual rhetoric in images surrounding reproduction and uses ‘the miracle of life’ as his artifact. Therefore, visual rhetoric of an artifact or object has been discussed by different scholars using different tools.

How images make meanings

Photographs, illustrations and diagrams are widely used by professional writers and designers to communicate. According to Harrison (2003), visuals in text have rapidly increased in both public and private documents especially brochures and reports. Online documents are using widely visual illustrations to communicate, and thus, visuals have dominated the internet. For example, when an organization needs to advertise its products, online platforms serves as the best method to so. This is because designers can design their products to be as captivating as possible and attractive. In other cases, during board meetings in organizations, especially those organizations that deal with art and design, designers have variety of photos which they display around for members to select. According to Harrison (2003), she would struggle to make the right choice and she states, “What I needed was an informed vocabulary that would enable me to articulate my reactions when visuals were being selected, tested and evaluated during designs and layout”.

Advertisers on the other hand use visuals in portraits and billboards to convey their messages. This has seen many advertisers conveying messages without any need to use verbal language. In many cases, organizations find this process easier than advertising through media and newsletters. According to Faigley (n.d), texts have body language, and looking at the text one is able to know exactly the message conveyed. Faigley argues that Sarah, a commoner who had decided to move to Lakewood, was highly interested in deer. However, after sometime when she nearly run over one deer and found ticks on her leg, she started viewing the deer from a different perspective. So, according to Faigley, Sarah wrote a small article about deer in the newsletter. Despite her efforts, Sarah realized very few were interested in the article. Her friend pointed that the article was too detailed for people to consider reading it through. So she tried something new, she decided to make a brochure which needed many decisions and designs. But since computers are available, design was not as hard as it would be if she would have designed the brochure with hand.

Nevertheless, Sarah’s brochure sold out, and many people were interested to see the information that was been communicated. According to Lunsford and Ruszkiewicz (n.d), this is known as the power of visual rhetoric because it leaves a mark in the memories of the viewers and readers. For example, the images of 9/11 were portrayed everywhere including movies, computer screens, t-shirts and even billboards. In argument, one could say the images were trying to take peoples attentions, which in fact was successful. The memory was left intact and continues to be there even today when someone mentions the events. For example, look at the following billboard;

The billboard shows that gambling takes place in the resort, and everything is found under one roof. Looking at the billboard, even after a glance the audience is able to know the kind of information is been conveyed. Despite billboards been expensive as means of advertisements, many business people find them more reliable and convenient to communicate. This is because the message is said out clearly, and no power or cost is endured by the target audience to get the information unlike verbal communication, which target audience have to endure other expenses such as power costs.

How to make concepts more accessible to new audience

Information and theories in this chapter have been made more accessible to new audience by giving credit and using images to portray and convey the information. Students have to ensure their work is referenced and that the concept of their work is clear, informative, and professional and that the tone used is attractive to the reader. This enables new audience to have interest to continue exploring the work further to know more about the content. For example, in the beginning of this chapter, a brief overview of the whole content to be outlined in the chapter was provided. This enables a new audience to have idea of what is been talked about giving them a chance to know which areas to read deeply. Use of contents, figures and executive summary before the start of a chapter helps new audience to know what they are really looking for. In other cases, for example, information in this chapter can be accessible through the internet, where everyone nowadays has access to.


Knowing different theories and concepts can help students analyze visual dimensions of their documents and designs. Arguments such as those of Arnheim and Konstelnick should be put into considerations by writers and students because the theories stresses of the relationship between visual and verbal language. Therefore, to integrate the two theories successfully in visual rhetoric, learners should know how to visual think and learn. If new in the area of writing using visual rhetoric especially students, it is always advisable to use the simple visuals, use interpersonal metafunction, and one or two elements of the metafunction. Throughout the work ensure you develop confidence and that what you write is stress free, thus, you will be able to engage fully the readers. Hence, professional communicators are likely to find the value of your work.


















Brumberger, E (2004). The Rhetoric of Typography: Effects on Reading Time, Reading Comprehensions, and Perception of Ethos. Technical Communication 51(1), 13-24.

Faigley (n.d). Designing Texts. 434-447

Harrison, C (2003). Visual Social Semiotics: Understanding how Still Images make Meaning. Technical Communication (50)1, 46-60.

Johnson-Sheehan, R & Baehr, C (2001). Visual-Spatial Thinking in Hypertexts. Technical Communication 48(1), 22- 30.

Lunsford &Ruszkiewicz (n.d). Visual Arguments. Technical Communication 410-441.

Mackiewicz, J (2004). What Technical Writing Students Should Know About Typeface Personality.J. Technical Writing and Communication, 34(1 & 2), 113-13.

Moore, P & Fitz, C (1993). Using Gestalt Theory to Teach Document Design and Graphics. Technical Communication Quarterly 2(4), 389- 407.





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