Visual Communication Conference 9, Flagstaff AZ, 1995
The study of visual communication theory is a multi-disciplinary, multi-dimensional effort. People who write on this topic come from mass communication, film and cinema studies, education, art, anthropology, psychology, architecture, philosophy, linguistics, and semiotics, among other fields.
Although this brings a rich melange of viewpoints, which is an asset because of the insights that come from cross-fertilization, it causes some problems academically for those who teach visual communication because of the lack of any sense of common theory. This is not to suggest that there is or should be a central or core theory that organizes the field, however, it would be easier to order a curriculum, as well as a graduate program of study, if there were some notion of at least the important theories from the various disciplines that need to be covered.
This paper reviews work accomplished as part of a project to identify the roots of visual communication theory. It begins with a review of the literature from various disciplines and then reports the responses to an open-ended survey that asked visual communication educators to comment on their views of the theories that had been most useful to them in their intellectual development. The objective of the survey was to determine first if there is any sense of fundamental theories and then identify the most important contributing disciplines.
In addition, the study investigates two points of possible confusion in the theoretical development of the field--1.) language as a metaphor for visual communication, and 2.) the meaning of the phrase "visual aesthetics." The language metaphor is frequently used to help explain how visual communication operates, however some scholars question whether language is an adequate model. This question simply sought to determine some since of the usefulness of the language metaphor. The visual aesthetics question sought to determine whether that term generally refers to an aesthetic or functional viewpoint.
As an introduction to the complexities of visual communication theory, let's begin with a review of some of the major pieces of work, the scholars working in this area, and the disciplines they represent.
But first, what are the sources? Important conferences includes the annual Visual Communication Conference, a summer conference that focuses on visual communication but is unaffiliated with any membership organization, the annual International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA) conference in the fall, and the Visual Communication Division sessions at the Association for Education in Journalism and Communication (AEJMC) conference in August. IVLA publishes its conference proceedings. The Speech Communication Association (SCA) also has a visual communication division. Two recent international conferences have been particularly stimulating including the IVLA international conference in Delphi Greece in 1993 and the Nordic Visual Communication Conference in Oslo in 1994.
Articles are found in IVLA's Journal of Visual Literacy (previous name is Journal of Visual-Verbal Languaging) and Visual Literacy Review newsletter, AEJMC's Journalism Quarterly and the Visual Communication Division sponsored Visual Communication Quarterly which runs as an insert in the News Photographer magazine. Two other publications include Visual Sociology and Visual Anthropology. Another important publication which is now defunct was Studies in Visual Communication, which also included a strong focus on anthropology and cultural studies. Other publications that occasionally contain articles on visual communication include Design Issues, Visible Language, J ournal of Consumer Research, Social Research, Journal of Creative Behavior, Communication, and Communication Theory . Another interesting development is that Kevin Barnhurst is trying to get a Visual Communication journal started either with the support of Syracuse University and various publishers or as a merged publication (the viscomm sponsor would be the Vis Com group of ICA--International Communication Association) with Visual Sociology (parent is IVSA--International Visual Sociology Association).
Probably the most important book specifically focused on visual communication theory is Sol Worth's series of essays which appeared in his landmark book, Studying Visual Communication. Another important work is a book of readings called Visual Literacy edited by Moore and Dwyer, which comes from the educational media discipline but includes a number of essays that relate to basic visual communication theory, as well.
Rune Pettersson's Visual Information is a useful textbook that focuses more on information theory. Paul Lester's textbook on visual communication is another important general introduction to the topic. The Morgan and Welton book, See What I Mean? approaches visual communication from a communication theory perspective. Arthur Asa Berger's Seeing is Believing is an introduction to visual communication from a more semiotic perspective. John Berger's book, Ways of Seeing, is a series of essays based on a BBC television series by the same name. Artist Deborah Curtiss has written a book, Introduction to Visual Literacy, which explains how we learn to appreciate and use various aesthetic elements. Communication scholar Donis Dondis also analyzed the basic elements of images and composition in terms of syntax and visual literacy in her book, A Primer of Visual Literacy. Most recently Paul Messaris's book also titled Visual Literacy, takes on the conventional view of visual literacy as a learned process similar to language and instead proposes that visual literacy is largely a natural process.
Other important conceptual investigations includes a work by Braden and Baca, "Toward a Conceptual Map for Visual Literacy Constructs" that attempts to map the field of visual literacy in terms of basic concepts, as this report hopes to do for the broader area of visual communication.
Jeffrey Johns has also attempted to develop a model of visual communication from the mass communication viewpoint, an effort that has been unsuccessful in finding a publication outlet, and illustrates the problems that visual communication has establishing itself as a recognized discipline.
Visual Literacy Let's begin with the area of visual literacy, since so much of the theoretical work has been produced by scholars working from an education, learning or thinking viewpoint. An important theoretical analysis of the instructional/educational technology viewpoint was developed by John Hortin in his review, "The Theoretical Foundations of Visual Learning" in Moore and Dwyer's book of readings. The visual literacy approach outlined by Hortin begins with verbal language as a fundamental model and focuses on the transactional processes by which we receive and transmit visual meaning. This approach reflects the work of many IVLA scholars.
Hortin's piece highlights the important work of John Debes as a pioneer in this area, as well as scholars like Ruesch and Kees who developed a model of three kinds of nonverbal languages (pictorial, action, object) in their book on nonverbal communication. Francis Dwyer's Strategies for Improving Visual Learning is another important early contribution in this area.
Also in the Moore and Dwyer book is a review of visual literacy, thinking, learning, and communication by Barbara Seels. Nikos Metallinos has also reviewed visual literacy theory relative to television processing in "Visual Literacy: Suggested Theories for the Study of Television Picture Perception."
Some scholars have tried to identify the interrelationships between visual and verbal information such as Roberts Braden who has developed a theory of visual/verbal symbiosis. Ralph Wileman has created a typology of verbal and visual image relationships.
From an entirely different discipline, philosopher Nelson Goodman in his analysis of art, The Language of Art, also concludes that pictures represent reality in the same way that language does. In other words, meaning is determined by convention and thus learned. The Morgan and Welton book, See What I Mean? also presumes that visual appreciation is learned.
In contrast to the viewpoint of Nelson and most of the IVLA scholars, communication scholar Paul Messaris's argues in his book Visual Literacy that people become visually literate through a process that is basically perceptual and innate rather than learned as is language. His premise, that visual literacy is a normal human condition, is also argued by Cassidy and Knowlton.
Development Children's developmental processes are also important areas of study that crosses over between education , psychology, and communication. Piaget and Dewey are important scholars whose work includes notions of visual development and their work has been joined more recently by Flavell and Gross who focus on the cognitive dimensions.
Much of the recent work on development in visual communication focuses on how children learn to perceive television images including Robert Abelman's "You Can't Get There from Here: Children's Understanding of Time-Leaps on Television," Sandra Calvert's "Television Production Feature Effects on Children's Comprehension of Time," Gardner and Jaglom's "Cracking the Codes of Television: The Child as Anthropologist," and Smith, Anderson and Fischer's "Young Children's Comprehension of Montage." Other work includes Hochberg and Brooks' "Pictorial Recognition as an Unlearned Ability: A Study of One Child's Performance," and the numerous studies by Georgette Comuntzis-Page.
Visual vs Verbal Other scholars such as Howard Gardner argue that visual communication processes are entirely different than language-based processes and that visual thinking and learning should be kept separate from language-based models. Gavriel Salomon questions whether literacy can be transferred from medium to another arguing that different media create different ways of knowing.
Allan Paivio's work is particularly useful for his analysis of the independent but interrelated system of dual coding of verbal and visual information. (Add Broadbent?.....he is also later.) Moriarty argues for the primacy of visual communication in a forthcoming article.
Psychology of Perception and Physiology The perceptual approach with its roots in psychology and physiology is also where photojournalist Paul Lester begins his textbook. Murch's work provides a good overview of visual and auditory perceptual processing. A chapter by Nikos Metallinos reviewing the physiological dimensions of perception is included in the Moore and Dwyer book.
Some of the most important works on the optics, physiology, and neural dimensions of visual perception include books and articles by Richard Gregory (Eye and Brain, The Intelligent Eye), David Hubel (Eye, Brain, and Vision), Ulric Neisser ("The Processes of Vision"), and M.D. Vernon (A Further Study of Visual Perception). James J. Gibson's book, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, and his other writings, are classics in this area.
Cognition and Information Processing For an understanding of the area of visual thinking the work of Jerome Bruner, who proposed that knowledge is categorized as enactive, iconic, and symbolic, is a good starting point. C.S. Peirce's, who is more commence known as the father of American semiotics, also has developed models of knowledge based on his tripartite schema of iconic, symbolic and indexical information.
Other important figures include Rudolf Arnheim (Visual Thinking, Art and Visual Perception), a scholar in the psychology of art, who approaches visual thinking from a perceptual approach and other thinkers such as E. H. Gombrich (The Image and the Eye), Robert McKim (Experiences in Visual Thinking), and C. W Bloomer (Principles of Visual Perception).
Other important works on the way information is coded for storage and how it is contained in pictures include James Gibson's "The Information Available in Pictures," John Kennedy's "How Minds Use Pictures," and Kosslyn's "Information Representation in Visual Images."
The psychological approach to visual communication theory also looks to cognitive processing theories. Foundation work comes from Broadbent, Neisser, and Posner. Work that is more clearly focused on the visual aspects of cognition include the series of essays in Randhawa and Coffman's book, Visual Learning, Thinking, and Communication, David Marr's book titled Vision: A computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information, and the work of Norwegian scholar Torben Grodal.
A review of this area is undertaken in a chapter titled, "Images and Imagery Theory" in the Moore and Dwyer book by Miller and Burton. Julian Hochberg is another important figure in this area with his book, Perception, and many other writings on perception. Doris Graber discusses schema theory in her analysis of political coverage and much of her analysis focuses on news visuals.
Howard Gardner's book, Art, Mind, and Brain: A Cognitive Approach to Creativity, is a cross-over approach where cognitive psychology is used to analyze art and artistic production. Similarly Ann Marie Barry's chapter, "Perceptual Aesthetics and Visual Language," looks at visual aesthetics from the standpoint of perceptual psychology, particularly the gestalt school.
Art and Aesthetics Art has also been a source for theory development in the visual communication field such as Susanne Langer's Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art, the essays in the book of readings by Bryson et.al., Visual Theory: Painting and Interpretation, and many others. Hungarian designer Gyorgy Kepes, who was affiliated with the Bauhaus School of design, wrote and edited several important books including The Language of Vision and Sign Image Symbol. A basic review of design elements and design principles is available in Thompson's chapter, "Design Considerations of Visuals," in the Moore and Dwyer book.
But even in works focused on art there is often cross-over with other disciplines. The Curtiss book, mentioned earlier, is on visual literacy, but it focuses how we learn to appreciate and use various aesthetic elements. Likewise the Dondis book analyzed the basic elements of images and composition in terms of syntax and visual literacy.
Ideation Creative thinking is another field similar to visual communication in that it is not anchored in any one discipline. There are theoretical works in that area, however, that are useful in understanding visual communication. For example, consider Finke's book on creativity imagery, as well as the Sheikh's book on imagery in education, the MacInnis and Price article on imagery in information processing, Kennedy's piece on how minds use pictures, Wim Koole's article, "Imagination Depends on Images," and the chapter by Couch, Caropreso and Miller on creative thinking and visual information in Moore and Dwyer.
This is by no means an exhaustive survey of the literature; its purpose is to review the major streams of research and identify points where there are intersections between disciplines. In addition, it identifies certain areas--visual literacy, visual thinking, visual perception--that are evolving or have evolved with their own literature base, theoretical issues, and well-known scholars.
Symbols and Signs Several communication scholars have looked at the symbolic nature of communication and the symbolic interpretation of visuals such as Larry Gross ("Life vs. Art"), Sol Worth ("Pictures Can't Say Ain't"), and Christian Metz. ("The Perceived and the Named"). Other work includes a review of visual symbols by Edward Sewell.
Visual metaphors have been discussed in a number of papers and in books by Evelyn Hatcher, Colin Turbayne, and Trevor Whittock and in articles and papers by Stuart Kaplan and Paul Messaris.
Semiotics and semiology have been a source of theoretical writing on visual communication. Arthur Asa Berger's little book, Signs in Contemporary Culture, provides an introduction to this area. For other basic writings in this area, see the work of Peirce, Eco, and Sebeok, among others. The work of Roland Barthes often focuses on visual images, particularly Image Music Text, as does Berger.
Moriarty proposed last year at this visual Communication Conference that semiotics ought to be given a more central role in the theory of visual communication in her paper, "Visemics: A Proposal for a Marriage Between Semiotics and Visual Communication" and continued that discussion in a forthcoming article on Peirce's abductive thinking and its relationship to visual thinking. She has also used semiotics to analyze advertising, as has Mick and Verba.
Also working from a semiotic perspective Fernande Saint-Martin proposed a theory of syntactical analysis of the topography of visuals in her book, Semiotics of Visual Language.
Communication and Mass Communication Areas Communication theorists have also made contributions to visual communication theory. Wendt in "The Language of Pictures," interpreted visual communication in terms of basic communication theory and is responsible for the highly quoted notion that the meanings of pictures are not in the pictures, but rather in what we bring to them.
Film and cinema studies, along with broadcasting and video studies, is another rich source for theoretical discussions including work by Christian Metz (Film Language, The Imaginary Signifier). Other works include James Monaco's, How to Read a Film, as well as many other books and articles with theoretical discussions on film theory. Herb Zettl's Sight, Sound, Motion makes an important contribution to the discussion of video theory, as well as film. A number of works approach film images in terms of a code.
Rhetoric and persuasion in communication studies are other sources of visual communication studies. Paul Messaris has written an article "Visual 'Manipulation': Visual Means of Affecting Responses to Images" that investigates these topics and is working on a book in the same area. Other work includes Lester Olson's "Portraits in Praise of a People: A Rhetorical Analysis of Norman Rockwell's Icons in Franklin D. Roosevelt's 'Four Freedoms' Campaign," Linda Scott's paper on visual rhetoric, and Jack Lule's analysis of a Gulf War Newsweek cover.
In the mass communication arena, photojournalism is also a source of theory discussions which appear in many works. The realistic approach to visuals is often represented in the work of people concerned with photography such as Berger and his book Ways of Seeing.
In the area of graphic design, Kevin Barnhurst has dissected how layout works in newspapers in his book, Seeing the Newspaper, and other writings. Edward Tufte has developed a number of insights into the graphical presentation of information in his two books, Envisioning Information and The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Other investigations of design elements include work by Self and Groover, and Robert Craig, among others. A special 3-part series of Visible Language has recently been published on critical histories of graphic design.
Studies which investigate theoretical questions from a journalistic perspective include John Morello's work on the visual structuring of the presidential debates, the analysis of the Carter-Reagan Debate by Tiemens et.al, the visual information in TV news by Slattery, the analysis of sports photographs by Hagaman, and the Moriarty and Popovich analysis of campaign visuals, among others. Of course, the work mentioned earlier by Graber also makes important contributions to the understanding of how visuals contribute to the understanding of news looked at from the perspective of schema theory.
The persuasion industries of advertising and public relations are other mass communication areas that serve as a point of investigation and theory development for visual communication scholars. Sidney Hecker and David W. Stewart's book, Nonverbal Communication in Advertising. is a book of readings that considers a variety of nonverbal communication systems, including visuals, and their effects. Other works include Robert Craig's "Advertising as Visual Communication," David Mick's work on advertising semiotics, and other work by Liu, Belk, Pollay and Moriarty.
Social Sciences The cultural, anthropological and social dimensions of visual information provide another area of theory development. Anthropology has made a number of contributions in the area of visuals where photography is used as a social documentation tool. This body of work was often found in the now defunct publication, Studies in Visual Communication and more recently in the journal Visual Anthropology. There is also a journal titled Visual Sociology and a group called the International Visual Sociology Association.
Some of these works include, John Fischer's "Art Styles as Cultural Cognitive Maps," Piette's review of the theory of anthropological photography, Harper's review of the field of visual anthropology, and Rollwagen's analysis of theory in ethnographic filmmaking, among others.
Critical Studies The role of imagery in cultural is investigated from a number of perspectives. One of the classics articles is Benjamin's piece, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Yeaman provides a postmodern analysis of visuals including the implications of work by Derrida and other cultural criticism scholars in his chapter in the Moore and Dwyer book. Moriarty and Rohe have developed a culturally sensitive approach to graphic design in an article on "cultural palettes. "Moriarty and Sayre also analyzed responses to imagery in a television commercial from a postmodern viewpoint, and Linda Scott has analyzed the postmodern dimensions of advertising.
Feminist scholars also look at imagery and gender studies. Some important work in that area includes Laura Mulvey's classic work on "visual pleasure;" McNally and Wolfe's work on the role Images in the social production of meaning," among others. Goffman's work looks at mass communication images in terms of stereotyping.
Mass communication scholars are particularly interested in social responsibility theories and these are discussed in Paul Lester's book of readings, Images That Injure. his chapter on that topic in his textbook, Rosskill and Carrier's book on truth in visual images, and a growing body of literature in journalism on digital manipulation and privacy.
Social responsibility issues also emerge in the educational side of the field centering on questions of ideology and post structuralism interpretations as reviewed in Muffoletto's chapter in the Moore and Dwyer book.
Ideology is also an important issue in works in the film arena
such as Nichols' "Ideology and the Image" and Keith
Kenney has also identified the ideological qualities of visual
The next step in this project was to develop a short survey inviting open ended responses by visual communication scholars to three questions relating to visual communication theory. The objective was to determine how broad the theoretical foundation might be and where the points of emphasis should be in the continuing evolution of visual communication theory.
The surveys were mailed to attendees of the 1994 Visual Communication conference, members of the International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA), and members of the graphics division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC). A total of 350 surveys were mailed and 37 usable responses were received--15 were returned as undeliverable and 10 people responded that they were not "theoretical" and didn't know how to answer the questions.
From a survey methodology perspective, this admittedly is a low response but there are a number of reasons for that response. For one thing, there was some duplication in the membership lists. Furthermore many people on the mailing lists--particularly the AEJMC VisComm division list, are on there to keep up with the division activities even though they may not be practicing visual communication scholars.
The most important factor in analyzing the response rate, however,
comes from those few people who either called or sent the survey
back with a note that they were unable to respond because they
didn't teach theory. In fact, that may be true for a large number
of the people on both the AEJMC and IVLA lists. In other words,
I suspect many people tossed the survey rather than acknowledging
their disinterest in theory. In truth, it may be an accomplishment
that 37 people cared enough about the topic of visual communication
theory to develop little essays in response to these rather challenging
The survey included three open-ended questions plus a 3-part background question that asked about their professional education and experience, their department, and the courses they taught. The questions were:
1. What are the key theories or theoretical foundations that structure your work in visual communication? In other words, what are the roots of the field of visual communication as you teach, analyze, and practice it?
2. Is the verbal language model an adequate or useful metaphor for describing how visual communication works?
3. What does the phrase "visual aesthetics" (or film
aesthetics, media aesthetics, etc.) mean to you?
First let's look at the people who responded in terms of their orientation--i.e. their background and what they teach. This is an attempt to identify the various disciplines contributing scholars to the field of visual communication.
Table 1 summarizes the background of the respondents in terms of their disciplines. The most commonly reported identification was with mass communication (15), graphic design (10), photography (7), education (5) visual communication (5), and film (4). Other categories with three mentions included instructional technology, advertising, TV/broadcasting, and fine arts. Areas with two mentions included communication, aesthetics, psychology, philosophy, literature; those areas with one mention were visual literacy, speech, PR, art education, political science, anthropology, and feminism
*Please note in coding this information that people were allowed to self identify themselves so the terminology used in this report reflects their own identification and the discriminations they drew.
Only seven of the 37 identified themselves as being single focused--three identified their focus as mass communication, two as educational technology, and one each mentioned a concentration on film studies, television, and visual communication.
Another ten identified themselves as double focused. Those respondents with two areas of focus mentioned mass communication/graphic design twice and another two said photography/graphics. Other combinations mentioned once include:
education technology/visual literacy
graphic design/mass communication
The interesting finding is that the other 20 respondents identified themselves with three or more disciplines. Of the 20, one person mentioned six areas and three listed five. While most were working in related areas, there were some interesting eclectic mixtures:
journalism/photo/graphic design/pol sci
This review confirms the notion that people teaching in the area of visual communication come from a variety of disciplines and teach a variety of topics.
The first content question, and the heart of the survey, asked respondents to identify the key theories or theoretical foundations that structure their work. In the analysis, their responses were listed and then grouped to determine some indication of relative emphasis based on frequency of mention. A total of 16 theoretical areas were mentioned as providing grounding for visual communication study. Table 2 summarizes the responses.
When the categories are collapsed, the largest number of mentions were found in the psychology category (49). This breaks down into gestalt approaches (9), cognitive/info processing (22), and perceptual psychology (15). A general area summarized here as meaning theories (semiotics/semiology, symbolism, semantics) was second with 15 mentions.
Contrary to the views of some respondents, visual communication emerged in this study as an area with a body of theory of its own and was third in emphasis with 14 mentions. It should be noted that what is being designated here as the set of visual communication theories may also be related to other areas such as education for visual literacy and psychology for visual perception.
Aesthetics, mass communication, and cultural/critical theories were noted eight times. Cinema/film studies were noted seven times. Communication theory and literary studies including postmodern theories followed with six mentions. Education related theories such as learning and development were next with four mentions. At the end of the list are those theoretical areas mentioned once or twice: historical, linguistics, philosophy, ideation, ethnography, sociology, behavioral sciences, and chaos/complex systems.
Another way to analyze these theories is in terms of the scholars producing the work. The theory question did not ask for specific references to leading theorists, however, a number of respondents did note the people whose work they use. This list was compiled by looking for names in the answers to all three questions. Table 3 summarizes those mentions.
The interesting finding is that 56 names were mentioned but few were mentioned more than once. Herb Zettl and Christian Metz were mentioned three times. Another six--Rudolph Arnheim, Sergei Eisenstein, J.J. Gibson, David Marr, Paul Messaris, and Sol Worth--were mentioned twice.
The second question investigated the support for analyzing visual
communication using verbal language as a model. On this question
there was more unanimity with 17 people saying no and four saying
either "no but useful." On the positive side, one person
said yes, another three said "yes but.." In the middle
were four people who said yes and no. One didn't understand the
question, and another six didn't provide any answer. The comments
were interesting because the respondents who were critical of
the verbal metaphor were also quite verbal in making their points:
No, because it's preposterous (literally) to use non-visual
material (language) as the model for visual material
The verbal language model is grossly inadequate for describing
how visual communication works because the sequential process
of the left brain limits simultaneous visual comprehension. Visual
communication utilizes mainly the right brain to process visual
The verbal realm is linear, logical; the visual is more holistically
oriented, more intuitive.
... more harmful than helpful. The analogy can never be fully
Language seems to work best in a linear fashion. Visuals encompass
so many dimensions simultaneously that I believe we need to use
concepts directly related to the visual.
Visual communication is DIFFERENT from verbal communication.
We need to recognize that from the outset and develop different
Concepts like "grammar" and "syntax" are
perhaps helpful in initial categorization but not in explaining
how anything works...Ultimately, I don't think a verbal language
model works because it is a symbolic system that grew out of high
order abstraction. Its codes and conventions must be learned.
I think visual communication is more fundamental than that.
People process visualizations differently than they process verbal data, in part because the perceptive pathways to acknowledging visual information are different--"peripherally" rather than "centrally" is how the ELM model might express it.
Verbal language is the worst model of all for visual communication.
Good film, video, and even photography work at the level of music,
emotion, and sensuality which are non-verbal and non-cognitive.
If you mean "grammar," "syntax," "vocabulary,"
the verbal model is NOT useful. If you mean redundancy, then yes.
The need for work in this area came through in several comments. One person said, "We desperately need to develop a visual information processing model." Another noted that obviously verbal language is inadequate but we use it because of the lack of another model. And another respondent concluded by saying, "I would be very interested to know if others also find this metaphor awkward."
The point of this question was to determine if there is any general sense of definition for this term. The reason for possible confusion is that the word aesthetics usually implies some notion of beauty or pleasingness, the artistic dimension. However, in the work of Zettl and other writers on visual production, it takes on a functional quality and is used to describe how the visual codes and conventions work. The word "effective" sometimes is used in these discussions of "media aesthetics" or "film aesthetics." Ann Marie Barry's work on "perceptual aesthetics" is an attempt to bring these two concepts together, although her work is more focused on the functional side of cognitive processing. Since there are such radically different streams of meaning embedded in the phrase "visual aesthetics," this survey sought to determine if the respondents are using this term with any consistency.
The largest number of responses (14) were focused on the artistic
dimension rather than the functional dimension (5). Another six
explained the concept by trying to marry the two. Four responses
were impossible to analyze in terms of these distinctions and
another eight didn't answer. Once again, the comments are interesting
as they illustrate how the respondents grappled with this question.
First from the artistic viewpoint:
Aesthetics may be broadly defined as an appreciation of the
beautiful, and more narrowly defined as a philosophy of art...
...a means for codifying those qualities which a particular
culture agrees to be beautiful
...means to be able to see and appreciate the beauty or qualities
inherent in either natural phenomena or man created or designed
production in art, graphics, photography, illustration, film,
Then consider the comments explaining the functional approach
to visual aesthetics.
The practice of visual aesthetics promotes a generalized heightening
...the aesthetic guidelines would be based more on the effectiveness
of the visual communication of the message than in fine arts
Some respondents explained that they use the term "visual
aesthetics" to mean the artistic dimension and then went
on to disclaim its application on the functional side:
"Aesthetics" to me, refers to the level of pleasure,
rather than to effectiveness
For me the word "aesthetics" has to do primarily
with art or with visual pleasure, not with visual meaning in a
more general sense
Finally, some comments indicated the respondents were aware of
both aspects of the term's use and they were able to marry these
It means either 1.) beauty or 2.) theories of visual organization
The term pertains to the artistic elements which direct the
production of visual messages...Zettl has developed basic principles
of television aesthetics from his knowledge of art...We need to
know the ways that visuals are effective to the perceiver.
Aesthetics gives us a unified approach to art which reveals
a cross-pollination of perceptual and aesthetic insights in the
form and content of creative works....In other words, an understanding
of how and why we see is also a means for creating and appreciating
art as well...
I LIKE visual images that look good (are aesthetically pleasing),
but I regret THE TERM visual aesthetics. In my opinion the term
encourages the artistic at the expense of the communicative. Which
isn't what Zettl had in mind at all.
...forging a connection between the philosophy, intention and
expression of art and the practice of communication
These comments demonstrate the confusion that the term carries
and the need for some attention to more careful analysis of such
basic theories as aesthetics relative to the more functional qualities
The objective of this project was to determine the breadth of the theoretical foundation of visual communication and where the points of emphasis should be in the continuing evolution of visual communication theory.
People who teach visual communication are housed in different homes and that makes it difficult to bring together scholars and researchers who are working on similar questions. It's probably wishful thinking for most of us who are affiliated with entrenched academic disciplines, but an enlightened approach to this area would be through a cross-discipline program that brings all these viewpoints together. Envision a department or college of visual communication.
In spite of the views of one of the respondents who said, "There are no key theories in visual communication," it seems clear from both the review of the literature and the responses to the first question, that there is an evolving body of visual communication theory and literature that crosses a variety disciplines.
Such work clusters in the areas of visual literacy, visual thinking, visual perception, and signs and symbols. Different disciplines approach these topics from different backgrounds, but there is a central core of work that could provide a foundation for a more generally recognized discipline of visual communication. With more attention to this developing body of literature, visual communication would have more visibility and recognition as an academic field worthy of scholarly respect.
Regarding the two theoretical issues: it seems clear that most scholars responding to these surveys were frustrated by the verbal language metaphor which drives much of the work in visual communication. While a central theory may be too much to hope for, there is still a need for the development of a more widely accepted model that better addresses the unique characteristics of visual communication.
An apparent anomaly in these responses comes from the high ratings for the various theories derived from the psychology area when compared with the academic background of the respondents. Psychology was the highest rated theoretical area, and yet only two of the respondents acknowledged formal academic study in that area. Granted education graduate students study educational psychology and communication students may get an introduction to information processing in their courses, but this study was not significant enough for them to acknowledge it in this survey as part of their orientation.
The question about visual aesthetics illustrates the nature of the mixed metaphors that drive this field. On one hand, it refers to an aesthetic philosophy, which most of the respondents felt needed to be emphasized, but on the other hand it acknowledges the functional side of codes and conventions that either "work" effectively or "don't work." In fact, the tension between theory and practice is one of the assets of the area (discipline?) of visual communication, one that also crosses over all the borders and divisions of our various disciplines. The only consensus here is that there is confusion, not only about what the phrase means, but what it represents to us as a field.
In closing, let me refer to an insight from one respondent who
is also struggling to identify the theoretical roots, as well
as the importance, of this field of study:
From personal experience I can only conclude that visual thinking
and visual statement making entail an extraordinarily high form
of mentation not fully grasped or appreciated, alas....
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