Organizing Principles

The Organizing Principles for communicating with visual media

There are two bodies of knowledge we will draw upon to practice developing messages with visual media. They are both similar to how an author would approach a formal writing project:

  • Organizing Principles: Context, audience, and purpose.
  • Rhetorical Strategies: Communication techniques used produce a particular effect on an audience.


In this chapter, we will focus solely on Organizing Principles. This is a logical place to begin because we already use context, audience, and purpose everyday in our informal interpersonal interactions. Naturally, you would interact with a five-year-old child differently than you would interact with your supervisor at work or your grandparents. People shift and adapt how they speak according to their conditions, context, and audience.

Each communication goal calls for considering the following Organizing Principles in formal communication:

  • Context: What are the conditions under which the messages will be conveyed and received?
  • Audience: What do you know about the people that will be present in the moment they receive your messages?
  • Purpose: What is your goal? What is the intended outcome of your audience having received your messages?


In formal communication, you will use these three starting points as a basis for designing and organizing your thesis or messages. Here are some examples of how each element can affect how an author approaches message planning:

The context of communication can include the following:

  • Will the author present the information in person, or will the message be a standalone object? This determines how much additional information is needed to accompany an image in order for it to be interpreted as the author intended. A standalone image, without the benefit of the author explaining it in realtime, will need to be surrounded by text, sound, or other images in order to be interpreted as intended.
  • What is the social, political, historical, or cultural context where the message will be presented? This informs whether there are certain long term or short term conditions that would have an impact on how the author’s themes or messages might be perceived. Examples would include consideration of recent tragic events in a community where the author’s use of certain images would be considered insensitive, or the portrayal of a group of people in an inclusive way.
  • What can you know about the reality within which the audience will receive the messages? This informs how the author would shape the tonality of the message. An example would be where a message crafted for a group of political refugees would be different than for a group of wealthy donors at a political fundraising event.

The audience for a communication can include the following characteristics:

  • What are their demographic characteristics? This information helps the author to consider what would be appropriate for the audience’s age range, ethnicity, religious beliefs, gender, political preferences, regional identity, etc.
  • What is the audience’s level of education? This information helps the author to select a style of language or vocabulary that is typically used in their communication. (It is important to note that level of education does not necessarily equate to level of intelligence. An audience of “uneducated” carpenters or single mothers does not mean that they are incapable of understanding complex information. Making this mistake can cause the author to appear patronizing.)
  • What is the audience’s prior knowledge? This information helps the author to select references to other information that they are likely to already know about. Or the author may choose to preface a set of messages with some background information so that the audience is all on the same level of knowledge before proceeding further.
  • What are your audience’s expectations? This information helps the author to meet their expectations or to craft a series of messages that respectfully addresses them. It also determines how the author would go about conducting research. An example would be if a representative for a federal disaster recovery agency had to address a community of people whose homes had been destroyed and the audience was expecting action to take place within a certain time frame. The speaker should know this information in advance.

The purpose for a communication can include the following:

  • Why is the communication necessary? This explains the motive for the author’s work and what rhetorical strategies might be useful.
  • What is the goal of the communication? This describes the desired outcome. Having a clear goal prior to developing a message also guides how the author conducts research on the subject matter and audience to support the basis of each message.


To give you an example of how communication changes as the audience changes, a series of videos was produced by WIRED Magazine that demonstrates examples of one topic explained to five different in-person audiences. Below is an example where a scientist of genetics explains CRISPR to five different individuals.



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