What is Visual Rhetoric

Visual Rhetoric is a fairly recent theoretical development explaining how images communicate meaning to the audience. It is considered a component of visual literacy (two other components being visual thinking and visual learning).

Using Visual Rhetoric helps to make a text or presentation more efficient. It includes the use of images, charts, illustrations, colors, the arrangement of elements within a text, the choice of fonts etc.

In the academic field, the study of Visual Rhetoric is intended to fill the gap in Traditional Rhetoric, which previously had a tendency of ignoring visual elements, considering them unimportant. The study of Visual Rhetoric is closely linked to Semiotics, a science studying signs and their meaning.

The same image may mean different things to people from different cultures or societies. To convey the exact message and get the desired effect, the author must carefully choose his/her audience.

As the contemporary society becomes increasingly visual, knowing and understanding Visual Rhetoric becomes more significant.

Even if a text is plain and has no illustrations, it still provides a certain visual image to its readers.

What is visual rhetoric?

To define visual rhetoric, for all intents and purposes, references how we as humans are persuaded by the visual cues we receive on a daily basis. Rhetoric references strategic language, both oral and written, used to influence or persuade individuals to act in a certain manner. When a person references visual rhetoric it might seem obvious to believe that they are speaking about the manner in which images are manipulated to alter a person’s perception. However, there is much more to visual rhetoric than image manipulation. Visual rhetoric definition is, in other words, how a person interprets and analyzes the things they see.

Visual rhetoric is seen in a number of different industries, the most prevalent being in politics and in advertising.

To provide a good example of how visual rhetoric can impact advertising, consider the following image.

This image is powerful. Not only does it speak to the viewer, it persuades them to think and act in a manner that might be different from how they typically would respond.

When viewing the advert, ask yourself the following:

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  • What is this an advertisement for?
  • What is the purpose of the ad?

In order to conduct a proper visual rhetoric analysis, follow these steps:

  • Write down absolutely everything you see in the ad. Notice the colors, the objects, every possible detail.
  • Determine the importance of the objects and pictures. Ask yourself why the advertiser chose to use that particular picture. How do you feel? What do you think?
  • Consider the message. What is the overall goal? Do they want to inspire? Prevent something?
  • Determine who the audience is – the rules of visual rhetoric can be changed based on who the author is speaking to. Different audiences will respond differently.

Now, back to the ad in our example. Focusing on the elements of visual rhetoric, our analysis might look like this:

  1. This picture instills fear. The audience immediately feels empathy for the people who go through this in real life. People naturally are more sensitive to violence against women and children, hence why the advertiser chose a mother and child.
  2. The colors are calm and the image depicts the love of a mother and her baby – all elements that are contradictory to the violence shown.
  3. The words have an impact, however, they are smaller in scale to the image so that they do not distract from the main message. Would the impact have been the same if the image was smaller and the wording larger?

Types of Visual Rhetoric and Its Usage

Visual rhetoric can be defined to encompass several things, including:

  • The strategic use of imagery in arguments
  • The way that various elements are arranged on a page
  • The specific type of font or other typography used
  • The analysis of images and visual cues on a page or in a document

Visual rhetoric is everywhere, and you would be hard-pressed to go even one day without seeing an example in one form or another. Here are some of the places you might experience visual rhetoric:

  • Marketing and advertising
  • Political campaigns and marketing
  • Company logos
  • Business communications
  • Fundraising campaigns
  • Art and in the media
  • Social media and photography filters
  • Religious pamphlets

Remember, visual rhetoric is a part of the communication process. It is how individuals interpret and determine meaning of the things around them.

Simply put, visual rhetoric occurs, and can be found, in every facet that is used with the specific intent of communicating with a person or group and encouraging (or persuading) that person or group to either continue to think a certain way or to change their current thought process to adopt a new way of thinking or belief.

Visual rhetoric is ‘controllable’, the speaker (or developer) decides which visual means they will use to communicate with their audience. For example, a website developer might decide the layout, the font, the color scheme, and how they will use each element to engage with their site visitors.

Some of Famous Visual Rhetoric Examples

If someone were to write a rhetoric essay on a famous example of visual rhetoric, they might choose to explore the changing images of women in China, and how they have changed over the course of six decades or the Mona Lisa and her infamous smile. Both of these topics provide excellent insight into how this type of persuasive imagery has been used throughout history.