What is Visual Rhetoric?

Visual rhetoric, in a nutshell, refers to how we are persuaded by the things we see. Rhetoric (particularly in politics) often refers to language, whether written or oral, that is used strategically to persuade people to believe or act in certain way. When people talk about visual rhetoric, you might be inclined to think that they are referring to the way images are manipulated to skew the way we perceive things. But visual rhetoric is so much more than image manipulation. In fact, visual rhetoric refers to how we interpret and make meaning out of anything we see.

Look at the graphic below. You’ll notice that visual rhetoric starts with what we see coming into our eyes and ends with how we interpret and make meaning out of what we see. It’s what happens between the eye and the brain that is most interesting.

Visual Rhetoric Infographic


So what is Visual Rhetoric, Exactly?

Visual rhetoric is part of a communication process where we interpret and make meaning out of the world around us. In other words, visual rhetoric is a space where communication takes place, a space that is affected by complex variables. Aristotle once said that rhetoric is “observing, in any case, the available means of persuasion.” In other words, if you want to persuade someone to think or act a certain way, you choose appropriate words, organization, style, framing, and so forth to convince them. With visual rhetoric, you choose visual means of persuading. If you design a website, for example, you choose the layout, colors, and style of the site and people will interpret it as being fun, boring, worthwhile, credible, or a waste of their time. They make an impression based on what they see, and they are persuaded to feel a certain way about it.

The problem is, we sometimes communicate visually without even realizing it. And every time someone looks at something else, they are being persuaded by a whole host of things, including color, design, fonts, and so forth. Look at what you’re wearing right now, for example. How would someone who doesn’t know you interpret that? Does what you’re wearing say something about your age, gender, social status, financial situation, personality, or something else? Sure it does. But you don’t know exactly what; what someone interprets about you changes depending on the person and the situation.

The fact is, visual rhetoric (or the way people interpret messages by what they see) is affected by a whole host of things. You can see in the visual rhetoric graphic above that there is a “contextual filter” that changes meaning. In other words, context plays a huge role in what people will understand. If I look at an American flag, my interpretation of it as a white, thirty-something male who was raised in America will be very different than it will to a Japanese teenage girl.

Visual rhetoric, in essence, is the meaning that comes as a result of what we see, affected by context.

How Does Visual Rhetoric Work?

Whenever we look at something, visual rhetoric is in play. We look at the way things are designed and we make judgments about them. Our judgments come as a result of our past experience, education, age, and life experience. But our judgments are also affected by timing. If you watch a comedy about a funeral, it may be funny until you have a loved one die. The movie may suddenly become offensive. Your judgment has been shifted by life experience.

Take a moment to look around you. Everything you see has been designed: your computer, your desk, your clothes, this website, your pen. And each of those designs says something to you personally: fun, cheap, ugly, credible. What you determine the design to say to you is affected by anything from your personal taste to your expectations. Internally, after making these judgments, you determine three things about what you see: if it is credible, how it makes you feel, and and if it makes sense. This is known as the rhetorical triangle, commonly referred to ethos (credibility), pathos (emotions), and logos (logic). You’ll come up with a conclusion about these three things and interpret some kind of meaning.

So think about it like this: you log onto a website that you determine looks poorly designed. Your aesthetic judgment is based on seeing thousands of websites over your lifetime. You also might have some understanding of usability and other web practices that affects your interpretation of design. This is your education getting in the way. You quickly then determine that this website isn’t very credible, it might make you feel annoyed, and you may even determine that its logic doesn’t make any sense. You discount the website because the visual rhetoric persuaded you that this website wasn’t worth your time. Boom. Visual rhetoric at work.

What is NOT Visual Rhetoric?

Some might argue that if visual rhetoric starts with the things we see, then everything must be visual rhetoric. Some ask, is a tree or a rock an example of visual rhetoric? The short answer is, perhaps. The truth is, trees and rocks do communicate some level of beauty and aesthetic preference to us. Some might ask if a chair or a building can count. Well, sure. A building that looks scary to us persuades us not to enter. We’ve been persuaded by the visual rhetoric.

But many would argue that visual rhetoric only occurs when someone intended to communicate something, like in an advertisement or in a report. However you interpret it, visual rhetoric is at the root of most communication. Because we see almost everything before we understand it (with the exception of music and sounds, perhaps), we are always being affected by visual rhetoric.

Why Should I Care about Visual Rhetoric?

Whether you’ve thought about it much or not, you create visual things all the time. Every time you write a report, you are making choices about typography, font size, spacing, headings, and even colors. Even if you stick to the defaults in MS Word, you are communicating just that: that you don’t know much about design and that you consistently stick to the defaults–little design knowledge, little creativity, and little effort (at least that is how I would interpret it!) You’re resume is inundated with visual rhetoric. Did you know that most employers don’t spend more than 30 seconds on a resume? They need to be persuaded first by how it looks.

How you design the things in your life will say a lot about you, even if you don’t realize it. The way your food looks when guests come over, the cleanliness of your car when friends get in, the Post-its all over your computer at work: these all suggest something to someone and you are persuading them to think a certain way about you. The more you recognize which “available means” are most appropriate in any given situation, the more your visual rhetoric will work in your favor.


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