Kress and Van Leeuwen: Symbolic Processes, Embedding, Conceptual Structures, and Color

In The Wounded Angel, there are many things that are symbolic, one of them being that she clutches a bunch of snowdrops, symbolic of healing and rebirth.
The Statue of Liberty becomes a symbol of America, and in turn the state of the world itself.

Symbolic processes

Symbolic processes explore what a participant in an image means or is. This is broken down into two categories: Symbolic attributive and Symbolic suggestive. The symbolic attributive process deals with the relationship between the carrier and the symbolic attribute; it represents meaning and identity as being conferred to the carrier. In other words, a participant comes to represent something other than the participant itself, such as a virtue, motif, or greater significance. Contrarily, the symbolic suggestive process only deals with the carrier. This process represents meaning and identity as coming from within, as deriving from qualities of the carrier themselves. This basically means that the carrier represents itself rather than some greater idea.

The arrow inside the FedEx logo is an example of embedding.


Like language, sentences can be simple or complex. There can be major and minor structures within pictures which are determined by the relative size and conspicuousness of the picture’s elements. This is to say that there can be minor elements embedded within the major elements. Each picture can be analyzed according to elements such as classification processes, analytical processes, symbolic processes, and transactional processes. Pictures will vary in how these elements are embedded at different levels, and in certain instances any one of these elements could be the major or minor ones.

Conceptual Structures

The representation of conceptual structures in images bears both similarities and differences to that of language. Halliday differentiates between “relational” and existential” linguistic structures, each represented in the respective diagrams below. Both types of processes are similar to information representation in images in that they communicate fairly permanent states of being. To relate a specific, designed message to an audience requires the organizational strategies presented by Halliday. Where an image may present an overall representation of given information, a linguistic conceptual structure relates material in ways that images cannot (i.e. processes, details, ranking of importance). This ensures a source of information is communicating an intentional message rather than allowing an audience to come to a perceptual interpretation.

Relational processes, which are divided among identifying and attributive relational processes, provide information about a “carrier” or “token” subject, as illustrated by the examples in the diagram above.

Existential clauses describe a state of existence and can be events or entities.


Kress and van Leeuwen believe that color is used metafunctionally, or in three primary functions: ideational, interpersonal, and textual. These functions work to define how an audience perceives color and how color can manipulate a platform to create symbols, influence moods and power structures, and create unity.

“what can brown do for you” shows how color can start to represent an idea
Similarly, the T-Mobile pink represents who they are and colors their advertisements.

The ideational function focuses on using color to represent an idea through other means. Kress and van Leeuwen explicitly define it as being used “to denote people, places and things as well as classes of people, places and things, and more general ideas” (229). In this way, we can see color as being the vehicle for an idea, where the audience is able to interpret a deeper meaning through personal experiences and cognitive functions.

The use of red in the stop sign is to help grab a drivers’s attention.
However, the use of red in the Russian propaganda posters of WWII was to promote the power of the Russian government.

The interpersonal function influences stress and attention span, can alter moods, and can represent a power structure. “It can be and is used to do things to or for each other: to impress or intimidate through ‘power-dressing’, to warn against obstructions and other hazards by painting them orange, or to subdue people” (229). In this way, the interpersonal function enables social relations.

The periodic table of elements is often color-coded to help people find what they need.
Color-coded keyboards are often very helpful for people who work in programs that use many hotkey and shortcut functions.

The textual function distinguishes, creates unity, and simplifies in platforms focused on text. “Colour can be used to create coherence in texts. Textbooks make wide use of this, whether in ‘reading schemes’ or in mathematics texts to indicate ‘levels’ of difficulty, or in science textbooks to provide topical unity” (230). They advocate that “colour-coordination” is more effective in textual cohesion than a single color.

In regards to these functions, Kress and van Leeuwen make two points—that color fulfills these three metafunctions at the same time, yet it won’t always fulfill all three equally. “Colour does what people do with it, in making a sign and in remaking the sign in its reception” (230).

Colors can be defined by a combination of particular values, that each contain a “meaning potential” as in “their potential to become signifiers.” Each of the following values have their own meanings, which in turn come to define a color itself.

Value refers to the value of the gray scale, that ranges white to black. Light and dark are “fundamental experiences” that everyone can relate to, and as such possess an “edifice of symbolic.”

Saturation is a measure of the most pure and pastel colors (high saturation) to the most dull colors (low saturation). High saturation can suggest exciting or positive, or maybe vulgar and garish. Low saturation can be more subtle and tender, or in a more cold and negative.

The purity of a color is can be described as “purity vs. hybridity”; more purity in a color suggests a sense of modernity, whereas colors that possess a higher sense of hybridity are more post-modern.

Modulation is the juxtaposition of flat colors vs. highly modulated or textured images (the artist Cezanne vs. Matisse). Flat colors are simple and bold, or overly basic and simplified, whereas modulated colors can be more subtle, or sometimes overly fussy.

Differentiation describes the high levels of variation in the color palette. Higher levels are seen as “adventurous.” Lower levels are seen as more timid.

Hue is scale that ranges from red to blue. Blue is cool and calm—Red is warm and energetic. This spectrum has many correspondences and uses

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