Deconstructing Visual Media

The value of communicating with visual media

Communicating with visual media is not a new phenomenon. However, the pervasive use of visual information in contemporary communication calls for a higher level understanding of how visual media affects the human perception of messages, especially in digital form when the author is not present when the messages are received.

The purpose of your study of visual media is to strengthen your ability to recognize, as a consumer, how visual media is used to influence your beliefs, attitudes, and opinions as well as to elevate your ability to communicate as an author beyond text or speech alone.

In this chapter, you will review the similarities and differences between traditional written media and visual media followed by an introduction to the principles of formal communication. Last, you will review a theoretical framework that describes how to classify different forms of media according to their unique abilities to effectively convey meaning.

The similarities and differences between written media and visual media

The use of visual media in communication is similar to using written text: the author must consider the context of communication, the audience for whom the communication is intended, and the purpose for the communication.

However, written and visual media are “read” by the human brain quite differently. Visual imagery is analogue; written language is a code.

Visual media is analogous to that which it represents. A picture of a flag looks like an actual flag. A person who has previously seen a flag will recognize the visual patterns in the image and form a mental connection between the image and their prior experience (memory). Thus, an analogue representation of an object is about a relationship between the object and that which it represents, and is ascertained by the reader at a glance.

Written media – a sequence of digits – is a code for that which it represents. The word “flag” does not look like a flag, and if the reader did not know that the sequence of digits f-l-a-g referred to the object known as a flag, they would not know what the coded symbols meant. Written words need to be decoded according to a pre-established lexicon in order for them to be understood and must be sequenced according to the conventions of grammar and syntax.

The differences between these forms of communication present the author with challenges in order to convey a meaningful message in either form. For example, if the author writes a statement like, “The flag was raised atop the flagpole,” the reader can decode the meaning of the words clearly enough. But without more background information, the reader might not grasp the statement’s connection to a higher level of meaning, such as to represent “the triumph of the human spirit against tyranny.” Higher level meaning, in written form, relies on crafting a linear narrative of text and subtext that is decoded in a sequential order.

The author of visual media, just like in a text passage, needs to provide the reader with additional information about what the image of the flag relates to in order for the power of the image to produce its intended effect. In other words, a picture of a flag, in isolation, can convey an infinite range of meaning beyond the level of recognizing the object. It is up to the author to surround the image with the information (text or speech) in order for the reader to form the connection between the image of the flag and the message’s intended effect.

In the examples below,  a flag motif is used to convey a variety of messages. Some of the messages are designed to align with the conventional perception of the American flag, i.e., patriotism, duty, American idealism. Some of the examples use the flag as a commentary that stands in opposition to convention. The reader experiences these messages at a glance without much cognitive deliberation because that is the natural reflex of human visual sensory perception.

flag examples
Examples of flags used to punctuate various messages of patriotism and protest. All images CC0 – Public Domain

The relationship between visual media and text

The key difference in composing visual media compared to written text is that the reader’s attention and cognitive processing of imagery is not necessarily linear and orderly, like reading text. The author must make decisions about how visual information is selected and arranged so that the desired relationship is made between the image and what the image is intended to mean, in an instant.

In the examples above, each poster uses a flag as a rhetorical element, but it is the choice of words, color, and punctuation that cues the reader to the larger meaning of poster.

In the top-left image above, the use of the flag motif is combined with a symbolic skull image representing death and then punctuated with the text, “Mobilize Against The War”. The intended meaning, given this combination of imagery and text, is unambiguously in opposition to the Vietnam War. This stands in contrast to the use of the same flag motif in the “Long Island Women” poster where the symbolic meaning of the flag is shaped by the Columbia statue, homeland imagery, and text calling for patriotic defense of the homeland.

In the images below, however, two of the prior examples from above have been altered with their accompanying text changed to form a different kind of statement. As you can see,  the overall message is different because of the change in text, color, and composition.  You may also notice that the combination of imagery and text does not work very well to convey what appears to be the author’ intended message. The use of the skull image does not work very well to convey “patriotic defense of the homeland” while the noble Columbia statue and homeland imagery does not work very well to convey the urgency in the text to “stop endless war”.

These examples demonstrate the relationship between the selection of imagery in combination with text, color, and composition to produce a rhetorical effect consistent with the intended message.

flag demo opposite

About Media Richness Theory

With so many different forms of communication available in the 21st century, where does the use of visual media fit in the spectrum of other forms of communication? Why would an author choose to use visual media as an element of a message? For what purpose or advantage?

The research into this question is extensive. Media Richness Theory (1986, Daft & Lengel), attempts to classify various forms of communication media according to their inherent affordances to convey complex information. Each communication medium has more or less ability to:

  • handle multiple information cues simultaneously
  • facilitate rapid feedback
  • establish a personal focus
  • utilize natural language


Media with strengths in the features above are considered “rich” while those that have fewer of these capabilities are “lean”. However, it is important to know that “rich” and “lean” do not connote “good” and “bad” media, respectively. Rather, the purpose of the research was to determine which media would be most appropriate to use according to the nature of the communication task.

For example, a business person who needs to send a directive to others to meet at a certain time and location would need only to send a (lean) email. Setting up a face-to-face meeting to convey this information would be excessive. Conversely, if a group of people had to come to a consensus on a strategic plan, email would be insufficient to capture the subtleties of interpersonal interaction as people negotiate their positions. A face-to-face meeting would be the most appropriate venue.

This leads us to the question about where visual media fits into the media richness continuum. Where do you suppose an object like a poster would fit between “lean” and “rich” media? How about a narrated PowerPoint slideshow? Where do these types of media fit in relation to other media like video, telephone, radio, and others?

The answers to these questions suggest that creating visual media is richer than some forms of communication, but perhaps not as rich as others, such as face-to-face interaction. Recognizing these differences will enable you to anticipate the advantages or limitations of the visual media that you create.

Humans require closure in the messages they receive and a sense of certainty that they understand the intended meaning of a message. When you develop your visual media as part of a communication goal, you will be challenged to account for the limitations of the medium in which you are communicating and adapt your work as needed.


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21st Century Communication by Granite State College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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