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REVIEW: Reading images: The grammar of visual design

Kress, G. & van Leeuwen, T. (1996) Reading images: The grammar of visual design. London: Routledge.

Kress and van Leeuwen identify the purpose of this text as to define a theoretical and descriptive framework that can be used for visual analysis. They use a social semiotic epistemology to construct their framework for visual understanding; they define social semiotics as an attempt to describe and understand how people produce and communicate meaning in specific social settings. To that end, they divide their text into eight chapters that consider the language of visual communication, social action, social constructs, viewers, reality, composition, meanings, 3D, and color. Their text is of particular interest to graphic design researchers, because it sets out frameworks to understand the ways in which theoretical design questions can be asked and answered. They are successful in their attempts to create a descriptive framework for visual analysis. While their theoretical construct has the roots of true mass communications theory, it does not satisfy major definitions of theory. That said, it is not a failure, as theory in visual research is in many ways in its infancy. Their work takes a major step in explaining the way images and design work to convey meaning.

Not raised in the text is the rationale for using social semiotics in the first place. Too often it seems that the use of social semiotics, or semiotics in general, is foregone and presumed to be the best option for understanding visual communication. In a book that seeks to establish theories for visual communication, it would be most useful to explain how we got to this point at all. While social semiotics has its uses, it is not the magic key to unlock the mysteries of visual communications. It’s premise is simple: words and images take the place of actual, physical things in communication. However, I counter, technology has so changed the way we communicate, notions of symbolic language might be a little outdated. Consider the “Save” symbol in Microsoft Word. People from my generation and above know that it means Save, and the icon is a 3.5” floppy disc. However, younger generations likely have never seen a floppy disc, and they only know that symbol to mean Save, not “Save to external disc” as it once did to many of us. The same is similarly true for the social aspect of semiotics; this dictates that mass society determines the mode (common meaning) of a symbol. While this can be true, it also has trouble holding up in the modern age. Take, for example, the swastika. While the mode considers the symbol to represent Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the swastika is used as a religious symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism. The age of digital communication allows people who subscribe to non-modal definitions of signs to have a subculture, and connects them across space and time. Therefore, the idea that social semiotics can be used for modal symbol analysis requires an additional layer of rigor to attach the correct societal mode to its symbolism.

All that withstanding, social semiotics remains the driving theoretical platform for visual communication research. Until modern researchers resolve the issues of visual and multimedia communication into a set of theories, research in these fields will continue to rely on social semiotics and other philosophical ideas.

In the first section, the authors address images and layout through semiotic and rhetoric frameworks. They say that images can work to tell as story through coded words and symbols, and tell stories. Layouts and images can use emphasis on certain objects to show importance, a rhetorical strategy. Semiotically, they can use color or graphics to send a message or trigger an emotion. They argue that images contain information, much like text does, and that information from text and information from images can function independent of each other, if they alone send a clear message. The coexistence of text and visuals creates a relationship between the two that aides their co-understanding. Through semiotics, they argue that images and layouts have messages, and like language, are one of many modes of communication used by humans. This claim sets up a list of hypotheses posited at the end of the first chapter that in summary state that visuals provide a rich and unique mode of communication for humans. I believe most of these hypotheses are true, but research must be done in qualitative and quantitative ways to test them. For researchers, this list is a valuable means for testing the constructs of visual communication research and can build theory regarding representation and rhetoric based in what is seen, and not what is said.

The third chapter deals with how to understand the symbolic attributes of an image. Using an example of a textbook cover showing children and a globe, the authors discuss how the image is coded with meaning based on the children’s ethnicities and genders. This type of analysis builds on the principles set out in Chapter 2, but gives a heavy amount of burden to the creator of an image. In the chosen example, it is presumed the image was constructed in such a manner because it, clearly, was staged for the cover of the textbook. However, in mass media studies, images are often more candid, more realistic, and less planned. Considering the image creators perspective in news or media photos is less valuable. However, the ideas there can easily be applied to design, which Kress and Leeuwen do address throughout the text.

Kress and Leeuwen define two groups of viewers, represented participants and interactive participants, which stand for those within the images, and those who communicate with the image, respectively. Interactive images are the type mostly used in media, as they communicate a message to an audience. These messages can show feelings including demand, personal, impersonal, attachment, power, and orientation, among others. Through this explanation Kress and Leeuwen create a framework for analysis of images based on their potential interactions with the audience. Though this type of framework is not a theory, per se, it does legitimize and normalize the potential coded messages within visual data.

Similarly, in Chapter 5, Kress and Leeuwen discuss the modality of images, particularly color modality, in its ability to convey meaning and truth. They define low modality as something that uses color for scientific means, say, in a drawing to differentiate between objects, while high modality is an image that is true to life. Their statement reminds me of a scene where cartoon characters are flying over the United States, and one says they are over Indiana, and the other says “We can’t be; on the map, Indiana is pink!” It’s true that images of low modality are not necessarily true to life, but, like Kress and Leeuwen point out, low modality messages can be very useful, such as color coded maps of airport terminals or shopping malls. (It remains to be seen, in my own musing, if the Yellow Brick Road and the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz count as high modality or low modality, but my hunch is it would be high, with the functionality of low.)

Chapter 6 deals with the composition of images and how composition creates information value, salience, and framing of the scene, and applies these categories to images, layouts, and film. Discussed throughout the chapter are the terms Given and New, which is, what is known and what is known now. They apply this concept to newspaper design, saying that newspapers operate in a New style, introducing information that is not already knows. This format is most useful in graphic design, as it understands what is known by a mass audience and the applies new knowledge to their mass understanding.

The seventh chapter focuses on the way inscriptions are made, that is, the way textual data is recorded. They suggest that text can be analyzed through social semiotics regarding the materials used to create the text; additionally, the text itself can be analyzed as a system of signs and signifiers. In a similar manner, they argue that three dimensional pieces, from art to industrial functions to appliances, such as a telephone, are designed in their form because it sends a message or serves a function.

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