Visual Rhetoric

We hardly ever persuade with words alone. Sometimes, a strong visual can carry even more meaning by itself. We see visual arguments all the time in our personal, social, workplace, and digital lives. Advertisers rely heavily on visual rhetoric to convey their ideas on websites. We have a wide set of terms and tools that help us read and compose images in rhetorical situations.

Icons — abstract representations of ideas or objects.

Photographs — images taken by cameras of real people, objects, and events.

Screenshots — frozen images of computer and smartphone screens.

Maps — abstract representations of physical spaces, and sometimes concepts or ideas.

Animations — moving images distinct from video.

GIFs — short videos that play in a loop, easily shareable.

Diagrams — maps made specifically to visualize information and complex ideas.

Charts, Graphs, & Infographics — visualizations of numerical data.

These images can appear by themselves, or in cooperation with each other as well as text as part of a larger argument. Think about a PowerPoint or Prezi presentation. They always contain blends of the types of images described above.

When designing visuals, you have a range of options and therefore need to think carefully about your choices. Designing a pie chart looks simple at first until you have to decide on issues like color, font size and type, and whether you want a 2D or 3D chart. These are just a few of the choices at your fingertips when using a program like Google Sheets, which provides a range of customization options. Once again, you need to think about your purpose, situation, and audience. Most professionals want charts that look dynamic and appealing, but not so flashy that they distract from the data. Ideally, you would want to make decisions that help emphasize the argument your data makes. For example, you might decide to highlight troubling data in red if you want to call attention to it as a problem to address.

We uses visuals to argue through representation, symbolism, and metaphor. Think about emojis. When you send a string of emojis to someone, you’re using symbols that they use to interpret your emotions. Corporations have used visuals for a long time to convey meaning and associations through logos. The Nike swoosh remains one of the most effective and powerful examples of visual rhetoric. Meanwhile, the colors red, white, and blue often convey the idea of patriotism and pride — at least in the U.S.

Images make meaning in a variety of ways. First, they have a literal meaning. When you see an American flag, a literal meaning or denotation is just that. It’s the flag that represents the United States. However, images always have figurative meanings and connotations. These can vary depending on audience. For many people, the American flag represents ideals like patriotism, freedom, and justice. For others it represents hypocrisy and oppression. As rhetoricians, our job isn’t to judge what meaning people take away from images, but to understand all sides.

Conflicts often arise over the contested meaning of images and symbols. Recently, violence and protests have broken out over the removal of Confederate flags and war memorials. This disagreement specifically involves different connotative meanings over images of the Confederacy. To many, these images represent slavery, racism, and treason. Others find these images to represent history and family heritage.

You can use images to make arguments, tell stories, and send messages through a variety of tools. These include visual narration, or arranging images in a way to indicates a sequence of events. You can also combine or manipulate images to create your own symbols, using programs like Photoshop, Sumopaint, or other openware programs like Canva and Visme.

Visual arguments often employ a number of tricks like metonymy. When using metonymy, an graphics designer chooses an image evocative of a specific action or idea. For example, the image of someone standing at the top of a mountain might convey the idea of ambition, willpower, or conquest.

Social media and the devices we use them on couldn’t function without visual metonymy. Icons like hearts, arrows, and thumbs-up invite users to indicate their reaction to posts and share them with others. We use icons and symbols to operate almost every program and app on our electronic devices.

You can juxtapose images with conflicting associations in order to make arguments. Think about an image featuring a toy and an assault rifle. What kind of argument might this make about an issue?

Images can also help to anchor text, especially in media like advertising and photo-essays. Photographs often illustrate or emphasize meaning in captions. On the other hand, text can often provide context for a compelling image, to help readers avoid confusion or misinterpretation. Imagine how confusing some images might look if no text accompanied them to guide readers toward interpretations.

*Use PSA images here.*

A specific kind of text anchor called a relay helps to explain transitions between images in a sequence. For example, graphic novelists employ relay in thought and dialogue bubbles, as well as narration boxes.

Photography requires a different set of terms, tool, and skills. Even if you’re taking photos with your camera phone, you can make decisions about the angle of your photo, proximity and distance, cropping, and color choices. Even a selfie calls for a range of rhetorical decisions, even something as simple as where to take your photo, as well as how much lighting and what kinds of filters to use.

When photographing, you can also decide how close to zoom in. A wide shot emphasizes the background. Backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts tend to use wide angles most often, to stress the location of the shot. Medium shots would work best if you’re trying to show all of an outfit, or showcase an item you’re holding. Close-ups and extreme close-ups obviously stress the face, as you can see when someone wants to emphasis a facial expression.

Photographers use one technique called the rule of thirds to decide where to place themselves or others in their frames. This means they divide the visual space into 9 rectangular sections and think about where they want items to appear. Photographers also think about how much open room or head space to leave at the marginal sections of the photo. They also try to place their subjects just to the right or left of center. It might seem strange, but viewers are often uncomfortable looking directly at the center of an image. Our eyes tend to naturally focus off-center.

Angel can also convey different meanings in photographs. When you take a photograph from a high angel, the subject often looks up at the camera. Not only does this tend to help with lighting, but it also might suggest a relationship between the viewer and the subject. Think about movie posters and other images where the characters look up at you. Compare that to low angles, where the subject is looking download. Finally, a photographer might use a dutch angle, tilting the camera at an unexpected angle. Doing this can create a sense of suspense or general unease in some situations. Or it could also help emphasize a kind of candid, amateur, or informal tone.

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