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I See, I Do: Persuasive Messages and Visual Literacy

By Lesley S. J. Farmer - Posted Jul 1, 2007
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If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a few images can constitute a persuasive argument. Consider the impact of propaganda posters, of billboards, and of photojournalism. Creators of visual images leverage visual art principles to convey messages. In order to convince the viewer of a specific idea, mass media producers who understand the language and connotations of visual literacy can manipulate images to elicit desired responses—a strategy that is used increasingly with the advent of digital tools. Particularly in this electronic age, students need to know and apply technological visual principles and skills to become critical visual consumers and producers.

Underlying Visual Elements and Principles

Universal and culturally defined visual codes exist, even at the level of color use. Consider these visual elements, which constitute the vocabulary of visual art:
* A dot implies a focus or location. An isolated dot is more prominent than a group of dots, signifying difference and focus.
* A line signifies borders and movement. Lines may be strong, dynamic, tentative, wavy, erratic, and so on.
* Shapes (space) imply different meanings: Squares are stable, triangles are active, circles are organic, and spirals are cyclical.
* Scale shows relationship of size between two objects, with the larger one usually connoting more power.
* Direction implies relationships between elements. They may connote movement, energy, sequence, relative power, etc.
* Dimension suggests three dimensions and perspective; well-executed images may seem more real and credible.
* Texture generates tactile and visual sensations: of roughness, luxury, softness, age, and even revulsion.
* Value shows the lightness or darkness of an image; light is often associated with goodness and airiness while darkness may connote power and doom.

Color (hue) is probably the most powerful and nuanced visual element. Color accounts for 60 percent of an object being accepted or rejected by a viewer (Eiseman, 2000). Strong saturated color is brighter, typically connoting more liveliness or power. Connotations related to color are often culturally defined. For instance, in some cultures, death is associated with black, while in others white is used. Depending on the culture and historical period, ideal wedding dresses might be white, green, or red. Yellow may mean cowardice or royalty, depending on the culture. Blue can calm, lower appetite (want to eat a blue carrot?), and show respect.

Use of these elements together leads to visual principles. These may be biologically "wired," such as symmetry (because a well-proportioned person is more likely to be healthy and a good progenitor) or simply artistic consensus over time.

* Balance indicates relative weight—and implied importance.
* Contrast is the difference between elements (e.g., light and dark, small and large); it can imply norms, alienation, moral values, etc.
* Proportion compares the size and shape of elements; a three-fifths proportion (the Golden Mean) is considered the most aesthetically pleasing. Items that are disproportionate stand out and may be considered unnatural.
* Pattern is the repetition of elements (e.g., stripes, polka dots), and rhythm connotes movement of pattern (e.g., calm, lively, threatening).
* Variety (leading to multiple interest points) and unity (elements that fit together) reflect humans’ need for novelty and order.

Students need to be aware of these elements and principles in order to discern the message intent. If they do not know other cultures’ visual coding system, they may misinterpret the meaning. For instance, in some cultures, distance is indicated by the vertical placement of the object rather than its size; the higher up on the page, the farther back it is—even if two objects are the same size. This ability to understand, create, and use visual images is called visual literacy.

Technology and Visual Messages

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This article is available in its entirety in a variety of formats — Preview (free), Full Text, Text+Graphics, and Page Image PDF — on a pay-per-view basis, courtesy of ITI's InfoCentral. CLICK HERE.


 
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