Visual Rhetoric/3D and 2D Visual Persuasion

While the sphere of visual rhetoric is still being explored, an aspect of it is often neglected. Much of the field’s focus is on the two-dimensional image. It is still a new area of study that is being analyzed. See Definitions of Visual Rhetoric for more. Whether it be a painting, a film, or a picture, all three are limited to the dimensions of height and length. Even though the third dimension is often neglected, it is still very important to understand its functions in visual rhetoric and the differences that arise when compared to two-dimensional objects. Perspective, modality, and composition or spatiality are three factors that need to be analyzed when discussing the two. Perspective deals with the angles that the audience can view the work. Modality relates to the realness of an image of an object and how much truth it portrays. For example, a picture has high modality when saturation, depth, brightness, etc., are at a level that gives the picture the highest level of realism (Kress and van Leeuwen 160-161). Composition and spatiality are how the artist uses the frame or space, respectively, to build persuasion.

As an observer, for the most part, a two-dimensional image is viewed from one perspective, straightforward. With no depth to the image, seeing it at an angle will not change the perspective of the composition. What can affect the persuasiveness of the image is the distance at which it is viewed. A prime example is Monet’s impressionistic paintings. Up close, the brush strokes seem blotchy; however, at a distance, the paintings appear to be a wonderful image of nature.

Unlike two-dimensional images, three-dimensional objects can be seen from multiple perspectives. We can walk around it and interact with its setting. The angle that we look at an object also has an effect on its persuasiveness. When something is placed at eye level, we see it with a sense of equality or welcoming. However, when it is placed above eye level and overlooks the audience, there is a sense of dominance and importance. For example, bronze and iron statues of significant individuals are always elevated to appear almost godlike.

Modality is another aspect that must be investigated when analyzing the two. Much praise is bestowed upon an artist when an image has high modality. Recreating an image that appears almost lifelike takes such skill and technique that few possess. Artists like Rembrandt are incredible and admired for that reason. The same goes for photography. While photography in itself is the replication of nature, it still is a task to make that image appear more vivid. Adjustments must be made to shutter speed, lenses, and the like. Saturating a picture can overly enhance its colors and make it too vivid. There is a fine balance to expressing the truth of an image.

The modality of three-dimensional objects is something that needs to be addressed with concern. Making an object with depth more vivid is unsettling. When something takes up space, it has an automatic sense of realness to it. Sculptures of humans for example, almost need an abstract quality to be seen with comfort. Wax museums are a great example. These are recreations of human beings to look as lifelike as possible. While it is amazing to see something fake look so real, having the facial features be so vivid, the audience gets a sense of being watched and anxiety when being around many of them. For this reason, they lose part of their persuasiveness of engaging the viewer by the created anxiety (Kress and van Leeuwen 243).

The added dimension of depth separates the two in the sense of composition and spatiality. The composition is the arrangement of the elements of an image within the frame. They direct the eye as to where to look and give the image meaning. More can be read about this in Rhetorical Vectors. I argue that three-dimensional objects do not have composition, as much as they do spatiality. How an image takes up space directs our eyes and gives it meaning. A great deal of the artist’s ability to persuade the audience with images is how to arrange the frame. Figure 2.21, ("Claire’s Knee," left), from Reading Images is a particular example. The photographer arranged the three individuals within the composition to give it more fluidity and more meaning.

Figure 8.13 ("Family Romance," right) from Reading Images illustrates the concept of spatiality in three-dimensional objects. It is an example of how an artist can utilize space has an added aspect to give meaning. The artist is not just arranging the images within a frame, but analyzing how to represent space as well. The family’s persuasiveness is the manipulation of the audience’s preconceptions of a family. Having each member be the same size gives the sculpture more meaning.

Other examples of spatiality exist in more practical settings. Much thought is put into the planning of interior design for buildings. In their article “Placing Visual Rhetoric: Finding Material Comfort in Wild Oats Market," Greg Dickinson and Casey Malone Maugh discuss the rhetoric in the design of Wild Oats Market organic food stores. The stores are designed and arrange to make the customers feel more at home and not aware of the feeling of impending globalization that is projected at other big chain groceries. The spatial arrangement of specific objects gives the store more or persuasive nature. With images, the composition is seen all at once. However, in this sense, one has to interact with the “display” to perceive its persuasiveness.

There is still much to be explored in the realm of visual rhetoric. Books are written specifically about two-dimensional images; so the third dimension has much time before it is extensively analyzed. While some aspects like materials are similar between two-dimensional images and three-dimensional objects, several differences in regards to persuasiveness exist. The perspective, modality, and composition or spatiality are all used differently among the two. Images have the capability to be seen at once without having to move to different angles and are praised for their realism. Objects need to be interacted with from multiple perspectives and usually create apprehension with the viewer when it appears too real. The third dimension is something that needs to be explored because it is highly persuasive, and as observed with the Wild Oats Market example, we sometimes are not even aware of such rhetorical displays.


  • Hill, Charles, Marguerite Helmers. Defining Visual Rhetoric. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004.
  • Dickinson, Greg and Casey Malone Maugh “Placing Visual Rhetoric:
  • Finding Material Comfort in Wild Oats Market” Hill 259-275.
  • Kress, Gunther and Theo van Leeuwen. Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual
  • Design. London: Routledge, 2001.