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Thoughts about Visual Communication theory


The Cheese Monkeys

Note: I wrote this as part of a course in visual communication theory. Ultimately, this essay was scrapped in favor of one with a different purpose. I have posted it here because I didn’t want it to be buried on my hard drive.


To make a statement about visual communication theory, one must begin by defining visual communication. I believe that visual communication and art occupy similar, if not parallel, characteristics. However, I believe the divergent point is that art pieces are aesthetic encoded with cultural message, both explicit and implicit, while visual communication is encoded with informative messages that might contain implicit cultural statements.


Take, for example, the fictionalized retelling of book cover designer Chip Kidd’s freshman year of college in his book, The Cheese Monkeys. Kidd tells the story of his classmate Himillsy Dodd bringing in a stolen “No Parking” sign for a project in their graphic design class. When the professor questioned her, appalled she referenced the work of Marcel Duchamp, saying “Well, he said a piss pot was Art and, Shazzam! it was Art. I say, Shazzam! This sign is Graphic Design!” The professor replied “And it is! Kazowie! The Traffic Department’s!”


Yes, DuChamp’s urinal was art, because it had an explicit cultural statement, and Himillsy’s parking sign was visual communications (and it gives its message “Don’t park here” with the only bit of implicitly encoded cultural data was that, apparently, rules about parking cars were important to 20th century American civilization).


Therefore, it is my opinion that while visual communication can be defined as any form of information decoded from what is seen, Visual Communication (note the capitalization) as a discipline of study is the examination of messages encoded within aesthetics that primarily serve as a means of transmitting information.

Now then, there is the cultural aspect of visual messages, including visual communication messages. I understand the study of messages of culture decoded from visual signals to be a field named Visual Culture. And Visual Culture and Visual Communication are the academic equal to identical twins, that is, strangers can look at them and think they are exactly the same, but their mother can look at the two and find the unique aspect of each. In this case, the mother are the scholars working within the two disciplines.


So then, visual communication theory would be a collection of thoughts or ideas that try to explain the phenomena that occur when people consume information through a visual means. The phenomena here are that messages can be decoded similarly by different people, a linguistic theory called semiotics. They can be interpreted differently by different cultures, the interdisciplinary theory of globalization. They can be interpreted differently by women than men, feminist theory. Different by homosexuals than heterosexuals, gay theory. Similarly across geographical boundaries, globalization again. As a universal language, linguistics. The list goes on. The reason here, is that one cannot separate visual from messages unless one separates vision from the senses. Every visual is decoded through an individual lens of consciousness, and the focus of that lens will determine the understanding of that message.


Globalization tells us that everyone understands Himillsy’s sign to mean “don’t park your car here.”


If these are the theories of visual communication, theories borrowed from other disciplines, why then, does the field of visual communication exist. It exists because visual communication is an essential part of our daily lives. Scholars of visual communication must embrace the interconnectivity of the discipline, as the visual messages we study are interconnected with life itself. By studying visual communication, you have committed to studying not only the message, but the messages that surround the message: the medium that makes the message. By studying visual messages, scholars study the means of discourse in modern life.

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 © 2019 by Matthew J. Haught

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