Visual Rhetoric/Mediums and Manifestations of Visual Rhetoric

This page will host information on the mediums and manifestations of visual rhetoric, as seen in printed art, film, television, etc...

Film edit

For any movie to be effective, the director must establish a connection between the characters and the audience. This connection can be created through any number of ways. For example, any junior athlete can feel a connection with the Mighty Ducks because they share common ambitions. Likewise, any audience member can feel a connection to Hannibal Lecter in Silence Of The Lambs, because either they admire his cunning or they detest his lifestyle, or a combination of the two. However, for a movie to truly captivate an audience, it must go beyond the acting and the writing. Each scene must put the audience in a very specific mindset, and this is where the combination of auditory and visual rhetoric comes into play.

It is important to remember that for the most part films are narratives. They depict the story of a character or a set of characters and use our cultural and social norms in order to make us feel a certain way about these characters. These narratives may become arguments such as the case in Oliver Stone’s JFK where the filmmaker argues that the assassination was a conspiracy. However, some film may simply “persuade” the audience to become involved with the characters and be entertained by the film (112). It is important to keep in mind that in most films the objective is to make money, there may not always be a defined argument, but the persuasion to spend money on the film is usually there.

When breaking down the rhetoric of a film or scene is it important to consider the “visual elements – camera movement, placement in the frame, color, spatial relationships among characters and between the viewer and the visual material, special visual effects, visual editing, and so on.” All of these elements make up the composition of the shot (115). This composition is then used by the viewer to make connections between themselves and the character.

In David Blakeseley’s essay "Defining Film Rhetoric", he discusses visual rhetoric in film as “…the study of symbolic inducement,” and using all available methods of sending messages to the audience (113). This is to say that it examines the connection that is (hopefully) created between the film and the audience. The connection is commonly referred to as audience identification.

So how does this all relate to identification with the characters and the movie? One theory is that identification occurs in the subconscious. This identification is prompted by various stimuli (visual or auditory) that occur in the conscious (117). This is to say that as we watch a movie we are consciously aware of dialogue between characters, their physical settings, and the music or sounds that accompany the scene. But then our subconscious takes these stimuli one step further, adding subconscious, emotional reactions to the stimuli. When we see a red rose, we consciously perceive it as just that, but subconsciously we add to it the connotation of love and romance, to give it deeper meaning. If romantic music is added to the visual then our emotional reaction to the scene becomes that much stronger.

In his directing, Alfred Hitchcock wanted to create identification between characters in addition to identification between the film and the audience. The musical elements of a film contribute to this identification as well, as the music sets an overall tone for not just a specific character, but for anyone in the scene. In Lost In Translation, a strong connection is developed between the two main characters, Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) develop a very romantic, but non-sexual relationship during their stay at the same hotel in Tokyo, Japan. The music that is played during their scenes together is not inherently romantic. There is no Marvin Gaye or Frank Sinatra on the soundtrack. Instead, the music is of a genre created just within the past few years. This music, labeled “Trip-Hop”, uses vocals and lyrics more as a supplement to the music, rather than a foregrounded message. The music production is deeply layered and mixes many different sounds in a non-intrusive manner.

The use of music as a supplemental rhetorical device to cinematic visual rhetoric is often times under-recognized, but is clearly an integral in late 20th and 21st century cinematography. Without it, scenes would not be as meaningful to our subconscious, which would decrease our ability to establish a connection with the film and its characters.

Works Cited - Blakesley, David. “Defining Film Rhetoric: The Case of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.” Defining Visual Rhetorics. Ed. Charles A. Hill and Marguerite Helmers. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004. 112-117.

Lost In Translation. Dir. Sofia Coppola. Universal Studios, 2003.

Professional, The. Dir. Luc Besson. Columbia Pictures, 1994.

Advertising edit

Advertisements are more than celebrity endorsements, showing off products, interruptions in television programs, and pages in magazines. Advertisements surround us, whether or not we are aware of it and constantly attempt to persuade a target audience. Advertising is the most common manifestation of visual rhetoric and perhaps the most recognizable. Ever since the first advertisement in 1704, brands and companies have attempted to sell their ideas, products, and services to the public through various rhetorical strategies.

In order for an advertisement to be effective it is important for advertisers to know the needs, motivations, and lifestyles of the target audience prior to the creation of an ad. The purpose of an advertisement is to persuade consumers to buy a particular product or service offered by a brand. When advertisements are well-planned and developed, they are not thought of as advertisements, but yet a form of communication. “At its best, it’s memorable, fresh, entertaining, and epitomizes some of the best visual communication anywhere,” (Ryan and Conover 424).

The society we live in is very visually-inclined, meaning that individuals are drawn to images more than they are drawn to text. A visual message is more memorable than a verbal message because of its power of impact on an audience. Advertisers are aware of this and use it to their advantage by making the graphic element of advertisements the most predominant.

Advertisers use various appeals to convey certain messages, create an image that the target audience can identify with, and build a relationship with the desired consumers. One of the more dominant rhetorical devices in advertising is the appeal to gender roles. (See: Gender and Visual Rhetoric) The first example of gender-directed advertising occurred in 1911 with a Woodbury Soap advertisement in the Ladies' Home Journal. Advertising can also appeal to historical context, as was the case in 1942 when the War Advertising Agency was created to help gain public support for America's involvement in World War II.

In 1958, the National Association of Broadcasters banned the use of subliminal ads, messages which contain hidden messages that the audience would not consciously perceive, but would subconsciously absorb. A concept is central to an advertisement’s success. The advertised brand requests to the hired agency that a certain message and concept be portrayed through the advertisement to an audience. The advertisers manipulate various components to illustrate the underlying concept. Advertisers create and reinforce a brand’s concept through the theme of a brand, the message, the product, the color choices, layout design, and the graphic elements.

All advertisements contain the same elements: artwork, a headline, copy, and a logotype. The advertisers work hard to make sure all the components flow together and speak the same voice. Each element should reinforce and complement the others in order to create an effective advertisement that makes sense. The graphic component is often the dominant part of an advertisement because of its ability to persuade, inform, and entertain an audience. Advertisers use photographs to connect the advertisements to reality and to the audience; they also use graphics, artwork, and illustrations. In addition to the obvious visual components, advertisers also manipulate the headlines, logotypes, and copy to be visually appealing. Advertisers use specific typography, styles, and formats so that they are visually attractive and catch the audiences’ attention. Due to the limited time that advertisers have to capture and captivate the audiences’ attention, they make sure that every element is attractive and distinguishable.

Advertising has become a major part of our culture as we see it in various mediums. Advertisements can be seen on TV and before movies, in magazines and newspapers, outdoors on billboards, posters, and buses, on the internet, and more recently in product placements. A product placement does not follow the standard guidelines for ads because they do not overtly sell a product, however, they promote a product indirectly through making an appearance in media. A product placement can be something as simple as the mentioning of a particular brand or using the actual product and showing the brand’s logo.

Advertisements exemplify visual rhetoric because they encompass the components that make a text both visual and rhetorical through the design process and the purpose of the final product, to make someone think or act.

Ryan, William, and Theodore Conover. Graphic Communications Today. 4th ed. USA: Thomson Delmar Learning, 2004.

Internet edit

"To be deeply literate in the digital world means being skilled at deciphering complex images and sounds as well as the syntactical subtleties of words. Above all, it means being at home in a shifting mix of words, images and sounds."

-Richard Lanham1

The Internet as a medium of visual rhetoric has some unique characteristics. On one hand, some rhetoricians believe it is a powerful tool of creation and publication but on the other hand, some rhetoricians are weary of its use and contend that the Internet and technology in general are not unbiased.

The line between verbal text and image seems to blur sometimes, such as in typography. Type faces, and graphics can easily manipulate the mood of an audience and ultimately have persuasive effects. The existence of visual rhetoric on the Internet is more complex than matters of aesthetics.

Theories of visual rhetoric can be seen as ways to filter information and determine credibility on the Internet. Alignment, position, spatial orientation and size are also elements of visual rhetoric.

Visual Literacy edit

The first graphical web browser, Mosaic, was introduced in 1992. Since then, the Internet has become one of the largest sources of multimodal texts in existence. Multimodal “texts,” or documents, are those that incorporate any combination of graphics, verbal text, animation and sound. This medium naturally lends itself to multimodal communication because, unlike printed material, “white space” is free. Text and image can easily be viewed on a single page.

Most visual rhetoric scholars have come to the conclusion that visual literacy is a matter of being able to read multimodal texts. These texts combine image and verbal text into a coherent whole, such as a news report on TV or a web page.2

The Internet also links thoughts and ideas through hypertext and hypermedia. Not only does this affect the way that an article might look, it has changed the way that people read. The idea behind hypertext, is that things that have already been written in one place need no be repeated. So a link leading to further information is created. 9

Impact on Academia edit

“Electronic technology has prompted so hostile a response from the humanities establishment because it creates a different literacy from our customary print-based one. As we have seen, electronic ‘text’ mixes word, sound and image in new ways. It thus draws on different areas of the brain, and lays down different neural pathways within it. In so doing, it affects ‘the organization of humanistic knowledge’ at the most fundamental organic level.”

-Richard Lanham

Richard Lanham, Barbara Stafford and others believe that this criticism of Internet content stems from an ancient source—authority of the printed word over other means of communication. “Computers are forcing the recognition that texts are not ‘higher,’ durable monuments to civilization compared to ‘lower,’ fleeting images,” says Stafford.3

Impact on Academia There has been a huge impact of academia due to the Internet. Students often times do all their research on-line. While the Internet can be a very helpful tool, the credibility of a site must be taken into account. For instance, if a student were to use a wiki site such as this on as a source the data may be changed later, and his source would be flawed. There is also no way to make sure these sites are completely correct.

Visual Conventions edit

The reality is that we are presently interacting with more information in our daily lives than ever before. “Information overload” can predictably be observed when college pages. In a short amount of time, the page must develop the ethos necessary to obtain more than just surface credibility. Authors must aim for earned credibility, but in order to do so, one must first obtain surface credibility.'4

Studies like the Stanford Web Credibility Studies, are much more far reaching than just developing aesthetically pleasing sites. It’s about making sites understandable and reducing the frustration of non-veteran surfers who just want to get some research done. Making the Internet more professional, useable, and universal can benefit more than just the corporate world. Right now, non-technical Internet use is blocked by issues such as browser compatibility, ridiculous numbers of plug-ins used to view certain file types, confusing navigation and error messages, just to name a few. Users who have been thwarted by these problems have a legitimate argument against Internet use—in many cases, little technological effort has been made to accommodate different audiences. In addition to these barriers, every time a hoax site5 is made or a misleading graphic is used to direct a person to an unwanted sales pitch, Internet credibility as a whole sustains damage in the public view. These are issues that can be addressed rhetorically, since they greatly effect the audience’s reception.

Simply identifying characteristics of information design is interesting, but not ultimately practical to the study of rhetoric, since this method separates the text from context, and the meaning from the making.6 These connections are crucial to a deep understanding of the intentionally persuasive aspects of images.

Visual conventions seem to be a viable solution to increasing the usability of the Internet. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia is an example of a healthy, thriving visual rhetoric community. Every entry in the Wikipedia is made by users by inserting information into a template. The template makes it easy for users and contributors to navigate, with tabs at the top for “Discussion,” “Edit this page” and “History” of the changes made to a particular article. It also aids navigation by making the search box and home page easily accessible from every article.

The site offers a full tutorial on the conventions of the Wikipedia for new contributors. This tutorial and other pages about how to edit the encyclopedia establish important rules which contribute to the credibility and usability of the site. Some examples of their established conventions include the wording of headings within the article, how to cite and link to sources, order of sections within the article, making an index (or the system can automatically make one) and how to include credentials, through use of the “Discussion,” “Edit this page” and “History” tabs. When a site looks professional, audiences are more likely to be receptive.

Every page of the Wikipedia is set up in the same way, making it extremely easy to use. The audience only has to learn one set of visual conventions to navigate any Media Wiki site.7 This kind of template has not hindered content diversity at all, since images, text, hypertext, sound clips and film clips can all be accommodated by the Media Wiki code. These sites also adhere to visual conventions that are already widely accepted such as placing legal and copyright information at the very bottom of the page, login links in the upper right corner, and a vertical bar containing frequently used links on the left side of the page.

One example of how visual conventions can be broken is selling ad space where the navigation bar at the left is expected to be. Sometimes this integration is done intentionally so that surfers will accidentally leave the site they’re trying to view. This creates frustration in the audience and causes the site’s credibility to decrease in the minds of these users. Since ads are the main source of revenue for many sites, leaving them off websites is not an option. Accepted visual conventions provide an easy solution to this problem. It is widely accepted for sites to have ads in a vertical column down the right side of the page, making it easy for audiences to anticipate where certain content should be. This is just one way to maintain the integrity and credibility of Internet content.

Conclusion edit

Some textual elements of a web page can be considered visual rhetoric. For example, just seeing contact information at the bottom of a page can increase surface credibility, without considering what the text actually says. Just its presence is a rhetorical element. According to Chaim Perelman, theories of visual rhetoric and the Internet are reflective of the “turn in rhetoric,” the modern approach encompassing all persuasive texts, not just arguments. He says, “New rhetoric, or dialectic, covers the whole range of discourse that aims at persuasion and conviction, whatever the audience addressed and whatever the subject matter.”8

Works Consulted and Footnotes edit

1 Lanham, Richard, from “Digital Literacy,” found in Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World, ed. Carolyn Handa (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004), 1.

2 Kress and Van Leeuwen, Reading Images: the Grammar of Visual Design, (New York: Routledge, 2003), 181.

3 Stafford, Barbara, “Visual Pragmatism for a Virtual World,” in Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World: A Critical Sourcebook, ed. Carolyn Handa (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004), 210.

4 Fogg, B.J., Persuasive Technology (New York: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 2003), 163-177.

5 A hoax site is an illegal, illegitimate clone of a popular website used to direct surfer traffic to specific commercial sites. One example is the hoax site for the popular search engine, Google, that appeared in 2003. The user enters the URL, but they are unknowingly re-directed to the hoax site.

6 Kostelnick, Charles, Shaping Information: the Rhetoric of Visual Conventions (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003), 2.

7 Media Wiki code is available through the GNU General Public License and is used in many sites such as, and

8 Perelman, Chaim, The Realm of Rhetoric, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), 5.

9 Stroupe, Craig, Visualizing English: Recognizing the Hybrid Literacy of Visual and Verbal Authorship on the Web found in Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World, ed. Carolyn Handa (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004), 1.

Television edit

See: 3D and 2D Visual Persuasion

Architecture/Interior Design edit

At the beginning of the Industrial Age, skyscrapers were bold statements of engineering achievement and power. In the mid-20th century, Frank Lloyd Wright's residential architecture design was a statement of harmony between man and nature. Just like works of traditional art can be rhetorical statements, so too can architecture.

For the purpose of this introduction, I will focus on the rhetoric used in the design of a casino. When designing the floor plan of a casino, it is necessary to examine the location of every room, its purpose, and its connection (physical and otherwise) with other rooms or areas. The location of the gaming rooms, restaurants, restrooms, and other high-traffic areas can serve as a rhetorical device. For example, a much different outcome will be achieved by having bathrooms near every entrance than by having them located near gaming floors. This strategic placement of items can itself serve as a rhetorical device.

Surprisingly, the manipulation of natural light can also serve as a very strong rhetorical device. In casinos, natural light is purposefully blocked from coming into the building. This serves to allow gamblers to lose their sense of time, which will keep them inside the casino for longer periods of time.

Similar practices in rhetoric are used in exterior and interior design, not only in commercial properties, but also in residential and public buildings as well. Frank Lloyd Wright is recognized as the greatest American architect, and used rhetorical devices in designing his revolutionary buildings.

To read more on Frank Lloyd Wright, visit