Visual Rhetoric/Semiotics and Visual Rhetoric

Basics of Semiotics



A general definition of semiotics is the study of signs and sign systems. The basic unit of meaning is the 'sign': anything which can represent a thing or an idea. Human beings create meanings for the things they perceive by incorporating ideas into their interpretations of objects which can be triggered by visual cues. The word sign itself can have multiple meanings. A sign can be anything from a literal sign such as a stop/yield road sign, to knowing that the word 'dog' is representative of an animal with four legs and a tail.

There are three basic kinds of signs: icons, indexes and symbols. An icon is a sign that resembles its object.

An Index is a sign that is physically connected to its object.

A Symbol is an arbitrary representation of an object.

Analogy: How a Sign 'works'

As part of an introduction to semiotics, it may be helpful to discuss analogy: the relationship between established meaning (experience) and new stimuli through symbols (verbal or visual). Douglas R. Hofstadter, a noted author, cognitive scientist from Indiana University delivered a speech on the subject to an audience at Stanford University as part of the Standford Presidential Lecture series. [[1]] Hofstadter starts by explaining how, throughout our lives, we build our "mental lexicon" through what he calls chunking: (par. 18) "taking 'small' concepts and putting them together into bigger and bigger ones, thus recursively building up a giant repertoire of concepts in the mind." (par. 7) To demonstrate first how lexicon building influences our ability to understand symbols and signs through analogy, I'll share a personal story: I have a friend who has a little girl who is just learning to speak. The other day we were on a walk in a local park together enjoying the first signs of spring. During this walk, her daughter started to fuss and I asked her mom what might be the matter. Her mom said that she wanted an "s-n-a-c-k". This was a real-life demonstration of how a lexicon (in this case, of language) is gradually built. Her daughter knew the word 'snack', when vocalized, so she couldn't say it because she was out of snacks and hearing the word would make her fuss more. To communicate that to me, she spelled it; a function that her daughter had not yet developed because her lexicon was based in sounds, not strings of letters to make the word associated with that sound. Subtle examples of analogy are found in words and images we see and hear every day. Dr. Hofstadter illustrates this as a progressive process starting with single words, then compound words, then phrases, etc. (par. 19) Through what Hofstadter refers to chunking, and also, pattern matching, isomorphism and other functions associated with analogy, we achieve increasingly complex meaning with increasing abstraction from the root of that meaning. Understanding that we interpret 'signs' based on our earliest experiences—even rudimentary shapes, colors, and concepts—helps us know how to approach semiotics in a practical way.

Semiotic Theory

Semiotic theory explains the process by which meaning is found through perception and interpretation of signs. The semiotic triangle shows a good representation of how exactly one begins to perceive signs and process the rhetoric.


This model explains the way we process a perception of something that exists in the physical world, the concept or idea that object is said to refer to, and a thought or image that is representative in the mind.

Semiology and its Relationship to Verbal Text

Within semiotics there is a debate between the amount to which the meaning of visual images can be shared and understood in themselves, or if their meaning is instead based on some prior verbal knowledge. In Roland Barthes essay Rhetoric of the Image, he argues that images, and their symbolic meanings, are always contingent upon verbal text. Barthes claims that in order to reach the shared meaning, verbal text must enforce the visual with evidence. While Barthes says that the image or the text can come first, without the text, the visual alone is too ambiguous.

Kress and van Leeuwen oppose Barthes opinion of semiotics in their book Reading Images. They do not believe that text is unimportant but simply that visual images can accomplish the same message and meaning that text can, but perhaps in a different way.

Kress and van Leeuwen oppose Barthes opinion of semiotics in their book Reading Images. They do not believe that text is unimportant but simply that visual images can accomplish the same message and meaning that text can, but perhaps in a different way

Uncoded Naturalistic Representations v. Stylized Conceptual Images

The way that an image is either simplified or generalized can make that image more applicable to standard ideas and culturally shared notions. A graphic picture of a house which is made standard, rather than a detailed photograph, becomes more of an analogy of our understanding of a house rather than a specific house. On the other hand a photograph or a fairly detailed painting is easily interpreted as a representation of something from reality and therefore this is a message without a code. Images are depicted in specific ways, and with accompanying codes, in order to draw out certain meaning. If an advertising campaign wants to reach the most people they may try and use a coded picture of a child, making it very standardized and lacking detail, perhaps even in black and white. This makes the object more of a sign and a representation of a child than having the object seem like a particular person whom they don't actually know and won't be able to relate to as well.

Semiotic Modes

Semiotic modes vary by the qualities of the medium and backgrounds of each specific type of visual object.

Social Semiotics


Social Semiotics is defined by Kress and van Leeuwen as 'the use of signs, symbols, and icons whose meanings are socially agreed upon and culturally-bound.' Understanding the way semiotics operates starts with understanding the nature in which visual communication is coded. It is coded by the way that we establish social and cultural codes manifested within images. We do not realize how explicitly coded visual images are because they become so ingrained in our understanding and behaviors as easily as walking, talking, waving hello, or driving on the correct side of the road. These are all things that we learn through a constant process of socialization just as we learn what visual images mean.

Cultural visual rhetoric relies heavily on signs because of how important signs are to every individual. Culture has a great impact on one's use and interpretation of signs. All societies in their nature use signs symbols and other shared ideas and objects in order to create and establish community through commonalties. Visual signs are just another way that societies come to develop and follow a shared culture.

Signs are intentional and motivated, but their motivations are not universal. Culture has a huge impact on these motivations, and every culture has differences in this regard. Simply put, a visual must be interpreted either by someone from the same culture as the person who created it or by someone who understands the rules and systems that typify that person’s culture. Taken out of a cultural context images and signs can mean very different things.

Although semiotics and signs can be analyzed and unified by culturally accepted signs, the mediums and manifestations, the type of visual rhetoric be it narrative or conceptual, will all determine the individual interpretations. A picture of a tree will be seen as a tree to each person usually, but it may signify many different things. For one person they may see the tree as clean air, or to someone else history, or to someone else family origins.


Semiotics Landscapes


As noted earlier in the chapter, semiotics, in its most basic definition, is the study of signs and symbols. The word sign itself has ambiguous meanings depending on what is being analyzed. However we shall use this example again in order to understand how broad of a spectrum interpretation of both images and language is on any level of communication. It is important to understand that every individual has his or her own social history (mental lexicon) and own way (analogy pathways) of interpreting images. In many cases, interpretations of an image or sign may be similar or identical from one person to another; however, it cannot be assumed that this will be the case for every image and every person regardless of culture, history and time.

Verbal and visual rhetoric are often intertwined when it comes to their interpretation, often-verbal rhetoric triggers some sort of visual depiction in our minds and imagination. The images that we recall when stimulated by various words various from person to person just as an image may inspire different thoughts and ideas.

A Hearty Example

When one hears, the word ‘heart’ one is able to correlate images with possible definitions, or interpret and encode the sound to have a particular meaning. The sound for ‘heart’ [hahrt], could potentially mean, the innermost or central part of anything or the center of the total personality, especially with reference to intuition, feeling, or emotion; or in its anatomical form, a hollow, pump-like organ of blood circulation, composed mainly of rhythmically contractile smooth muscle, located in the chest between the lungs and slightly to the left and consisting of four chambers. On the other hand, perhaps hearing the sound for 'heart', you misinterpret it for the word ‘hart’, which could mean a male deer, especially an adult male red deer. Homonyms like these present a particular challenge when hearing alone without the added stability of context, or the additional clarity of their written form. All of these meanings for the verbalized sound, pronounced 'heart' are related and attached through analogy and all have a common source of high abstraction and low complexity. The simplest and most dominant analogy pathway (the path of least resistance) is the first one utilized unless further clarification dictates otherwise. We may start by visualizing a valentine's card or open-heart surgery but end up realizing, through context, that the topic is actually 'hart', an adult male red deer.

Semiotic Landscape: A Defintion

A Semiotic Landscape is defined by Kress and Van Leeuwen as the construction of signs and symbols in a way that forms an understanding of meanings within and across cultures. Any landscape is made up of human and social interaction and production but also the effect of the land itself. A visual object is made up of its materials and corresponding signs as well as the context of the culture and its unique place among that culture.

Landscaping in Different Cultures

There are many cases where visual images can mean many different things depending on the context. The rainbow for example, even within one society, means many different things. The rainbow originates from science and depicts the range of the light spectrum. In nature, the rainbow is simply colors, which exist in light.

The rainbow came to mean luck and happiness. Seeing a rainbow in the sky holds a particular meaning. The medium of nature makes a rainbow a beautiful and often considered a lucky sighting. Rainbows are seen in many different places representing these things in themselves but taken out of its natural context rainbows have also come to symbolize that a person is or supports the homosexual lifestyle. All of these meanings are true and legitimate within the American culture. Depending on the context, that the rainbow is viewed among people will be able to take away the intended meaning.

As mentioned previously, interpretations are dependent on the social and cultural background of the individual. Words, images and gestures can hold different meanings for whoever the interpreter is. Similar to the rainbow example, non-verbal communication, including hand gestures and facial expressions, differs accordingly in various cultures. The reason for this is that every cultural group is different; both in the way they assign meaning to 'things' and, in some cases, the meaning that is assigned. It follows then, that the mental lexicon and analogy pathway of a child raised in Europe will differ from that of a child raised in Indochina. The result of this is evident in innumerable ways of experiencing, interpreting, internalizing, and then reacting to the world around them. File:Hand2.JPG



Visual communication and visual images have many similarities and differences in relation to verbal. In essence verbal communication is based off of visual symbols but the way that these two modes have been defined and thought in our society have caused them to appear stratified. In order to see the connections between the modes we must bring ourselves back to the idea of shared meanings and how we interpret all information that we are presented with. Semiotics, like texts, is based on our prior knowledge of an object or idea, combined with the context it is being presented and ending in a specific meaning or sets of meanings. Semiotics operates on a daily basis and in almost every moment of our lives. Semiotics as we have said before is recognizing simply cues and incorporating them into our lives. In order to understand the way that visual images can be understood similar to verbal images, it is important to start from the building blocks and remember that visual images too have been learned and established over time.

In essence, any physical sign can constitute visual rhetoric. According to one of the Definitions of Visual Rhetoric, “…using images to convince people instead of using words” is a staple of visual rhetoric. Employing this definition with the definition of a sign, the definition of a sign can be readjusted to say that a sign is actually simply a tool of visual rhetoricians. Therefore, if semiotics is the study of signs, then semiotics is really a study of the building blocks of visual rhetoric. In other words, semiotics is immeasurably important to the study of visual rhetoric.

Works Cited


Barthes, Roland "Rhetoric of the Image" Visual Rhetoric in a Visual World: A critical Sourcebook. Ed. Carolyn Handa. Bedford/St. Martin's: March 12, 2004.

Hofstadter, Douglas R. Analogy as the Core of Cognition. Stanford Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and Arts. Stanford University. Mar. 2007 <>.

Kress, Gunther & Theo van Leeuwen (1996): Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. London: Routledge