Visual Rhetoric: Analyzing Visual Documents
Definition and Goals of Visual/Rhetorical Analysis
A visual document communicates primarily through images or the interaction of image and text. Just as writers choose their words and organize their thoughts based on any number of rhetorical considerations, the author of such visual documents thinks no differently. Whether assembling an advertisement, laying out a pamphlet, taking a photograph, or marking up a website, designers take great care to ensure that their productions are visually appealing and rhetorically effective.
The goal of any rhetorical analysis is to demonstrate your understanding of how the piece communicates its messages and meanings. One way of looking at this process is that you are breaking the piece down into parts. By understanding how the different parts work, you can offer insights as to the overall persuasive strategies of the piece. Often you are not looking to place a value judgment on the piece, and if there is an implicit or implied argument you may not be ultimately taking a side.
It’s worth asking then: is rhetorical analysis of visual documents any different than this basic description? Yes and no. Sometimes you will encounter an interplay of words and images, which may complicate the number of rhetorical devices in play. Additionally, traditional schooling has emphasized analysis of certain texts for a long time. Many of us are not so accustomed to giving visual documents the same kind of rigorous attention.
We now live in such a visually-dominated culture, that it is possible you have already internalized many of the techniques involved with visual communication (for example, every time you justify the text of your document or use standard margins, you are technically using visual rhetoric).
That said, writing a rhetorical analysis is often a process of merely finding the language to communicate this knowledge. Other times you may find that looking at a document from a rhetorical design perspective will allow you to view it in new and interesting ways.
Like you would in a book report or poetry analysis, you are offering your “reading” of the visual document and should seek to be clear, concise, and informative. Do not only give a re-telling of what the images look like (this would be the equivalent of stopping at plot summary if you were analyzing a novel). Offer your examples, explain the rhetorical strategies at work, and keep your focus on how the document communicates visually.
Elements of Analysis
The Rhetorical Situation
No matter what specific direction your essay takes, your points and observations will revolve around the rhetorical situation of the document you are analyzing. A rhetorical situation occurs when an author, an audience, and a context come together and a persuasive message is communicated through some medium. Therefore, your rhetorical analysis essay will consistently link its points to these elements as they pertain to the document under question. More general information about the rhetorical situation can be elsewhere on the OWL. The following sections deal with considerations unique to analyzing visual documents.
The audience is the group of people who may or may not be persuaded by the document. Analyzing the audience for a visual production may not be all too different from analyzing an audience for a solely textual work. However, unlike academic essays or short answers written on an examination, visual productions often have the potential to reach wider audiences. Additionally, unlike literature or poetry, visual documents are often more ingrained in our daily lives and encountered instead of sought.
A website might potentially have an audience of anyone with internet access; however, based on the site, there are audiences more likely to end up there than others. A pamphlet or flyer may also technically have an audience of anyone who finds it; however, their physical placements may provide clues for who the designer would most like to see them. This is often called a “target audience.” Identifying and proving the target audience may become a significant portion of your rhetorical analysis.
It’s best to think of audience analysis as seeking and speculating about the variables in people that would make them read the same images in different ways. These variables may include but are not limited to: region, race, age, ethnicity, gender, income, or religion. We are accustomed to thinking these variables affect how people read text, but they also affect how people interpret visuals.
Here are some tips and questions for thinking about the audience of visual documents (they are also tips you can use when composing your own).
- Different audiences have different taste for certain visual styles. For example, the quick cuts and extreme angles of many programs on MTV are often associated with the tastes and tolerance of a younger audience.
- People have drastically different reading speeds. In slide shows or videos with text, look for accommodations made for these differences.
- Whether by using controversial or disturbing imagery, sometimes documents purposefully seek to alienate or offend certain audience groups while piquing the curiosity of others. Do you see evidence of this and why?
- Does the document ask for or require any background familiarity with its subject matter or is it referencing a popular, visual style that certain audiences are more likely to recognize?
Visual productions have almost limitless purposes and goals. Although all parts of the rhetorical situation are linked, purpose and audience tend to be most carefully intertwined. The purpose is what someone is trying to persuade the audience to feel, think, or do. Therefore, a well produced document will take into account the expectations and personalities of its target audience. Below are four categories of purposes and example questions to get you thinking about the rhetorical use of visuals. Note: a document may cross over into multiple categories.
Informational: documents that seek to impart information or educate the audience
Examples: Brochures, Pamphlets, PowerPoint presentations
- How does the layout of the information aid readability and understanding?
- How do images clarify or enhance textual information? (Try imagining the same document without the visuals and ask how effective it would be).
- What mood or feelings do the visuals add to the information? How does that mood aid the effectiveness of the information?
Inspirational: documents that primarily inspire emotion or feeling often without clearly predetermined goals or purposes
Examples: Photography, Paintings, Graffiti
- What emotions are invoked by the document? How?
- Can you use color symbolism to explain how the artist created a mood or feeling?
- Has the image been framed or cropped in such a way to heighten a mood or feeling? Why?
Motivational: documents that spur direct action, attendance, or participation
Examples: Advertisements, Flyers, Proposals
- How do images make the product look appealing or valuable?
- How do images help create excitement or anticipation in the audience?
- Is there text paired with the images that give the image added associations of value?
Functional: documents that aid in accomplishing tasks
Examples: Instruction Sets, Forms, Applications, Maps
- How do pictures or illustrations clarify textual directions?
- How does layout aim to make the form easy to use and eliminate mistakes?
- Has size (of text or the document itself) been considered as a way to make the document user friendly and accessible?
As you may see, analyzing how a document’s purpose is rhetorically accomplished to persuade its audience can involve many factors. Search the owl for more information on some of the concepts mentioned in these questions.
- Visual Rhetoric
- Using Fonts with Purpose
- Color Theory Slide Presentation
- Designing an Effective PowerPoint Presentation
Context refers to the circumstances of the environment where a piece of communication takes place. Sometimes the author has a measure of control over this context, like within the confines of a presentation (where, of course, there will still be some factors beyond control). Other times,a document is specifically made for an audience to encounter on their own terms. Either way, context is an important part of the rhetorical situation and can easily make or break the effectiveness of a document’s message.
Below are some questions to get you thinking about the possibilities and pitfalls when analyzing the context of a visual document.
- In a presentation setting with many people, has the document considered the size and layout of the room so that all participants have a chance of experiencing the document equally?
- Does the document use any techniques to draw attention to itself in a potentially busy or competitive environment?
- Linking is how websites get noticed and recognized. The sites that link to a web page or internet document can provide a context. Do the character of those links suggest anything about the document you are analyzing?
Organizing Your Analysis
There is no one perfect way to organize a rhetorical analysis essay. In fact, writers should always be a bit leery of plug-in formulas that offer a perfect essay format. Remember, organization itself is not the enemy, only organization without considering the specific demands of your particular writing task. That said, here are some general tips for plotting out the overall form of your essay.
Like any rhetorical analysis essay, an essay analyzing a visual document should quickly set the stage for what you’re doing. Try to cover the following concerns in the initial paragraphs:
- Make sure to let the reader know you’re performing a rhetorical analysis. Otherwise, they may expect you to take positions or make an evaluative argument that may not be coming.
- Clearly state what the document under consideration is and possibly give some pertinent background information about its history or development. The intro can be a good place for a quick, narrative summary of the document. The key word here is “quick, for you may be dealing with something large (for example, an entire episode of a cartoon like the Simpsons). Save more in-depth descriptions for your body paragraph analysis.
- If you’re dealing with a smaller document (like a photograph or an advertisement), and copyright allows, the introduction or first page is a good place to integrate it into your page.
- Give a basic run down of the rhetorical situation surrounding the document: the author, the audience, the purpose, the context, etc.
Thesis Statements and Focus
Many authors struggle with thesis statements or controlling ideas in regards to rhetorical analysis essays. There may be a temptation to think that merely announcing the text as a rhetorical analysis is purpose enough. However, especially depending on your essay’s length, your reader may need a more direct and clear statement of your intentions. Below are a few examples.
1. Clearly narrow the focus of what your essay will cover. Ask yourself if one or two design aspects of the document is interesting and complex enough to warrant a full analytical treatment.
The website for Amazon.com provides an excellent example of alignment and proximity to assist its visitors in navigating a potentially large and confusing amount of information.
2. Since visual documents often seek to move people towards a certain action (buying a product, attending an event, expressing a sentiment), an essay may analyze the rhetorical techniques used to accomplish this purpose. The thesis statement should reflect this goal.
The call-out flyer for the Purdue Rowing Team uses a mixture of dynamic imagery and tantalizing promises to create interest in potential, new members.
3. Rhetorical analysis can also easily lead to making original arguments. Performing the analysis may lead you to an argument; or vice versa, you may start with an argument and search for proof that supports it.
A close analysis of the female body images in the July 2007 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine reveals contradictions between the articles’ calls for self-esteem and the advertisements’ unrealistic, beauty demands.
These are merely suggestions. The best measure for what your focus and thesis statement should be the document itself and the demands of your writing situation. Remember that the main thrust of your thesis statement should be on how the document creates meaning and accomplishes its purposes. The OWl has additional information on writing thesis statements.
Analysis Order (Body Paragraphs)
Depending on the genre and size of the document under analysis, there are a number of logical ways to organize your body paragraphs. Below are a few possible options. Which ever you choose, the goal of your body paragraphs is to present parts of the document, give an extended analysis of how that part functions, and suggest how the part ties into a larger point (your thesis statement or goal).
This is the most straight-forward approach, but it can also be effective if done for a reason (as opposed to not being able to think of another way). For example, if you are analyzing a photo essay on the web or in a booklet, a chronological treatment allows you to present your insights in the same order that a viewer of the document experiences those images. It is likely that the images have been put in that order and juxtaposed for a reason, so this line of analysis can be easily integrated into the essay.
Be careful using chronological ordering when dealing with a document that contains a narrative (i.e. a television show or music video). Focusing on the chronological could easily lead you to plot summary which is not the point of a rhetorical analysis.
A spatial ordering covers the parts of a document in the order the eye is likely to scan them. This is different than chronological order, for that is dictated by pages or screens where spatial order concerns order amongst a single page or plane. There are no unwavering guidelines for this, but you can use the following general guidelines.
- Left to right and top to down is still the normal reading and scanning pattern for English-speaking countries.
- The eye will naturally look for centers. This may be the technical center of the page or the center of the largest item on the page.
- Lines are often used to provide directions and paths for the eye to follow.
- Research has shown that on web pages, the eye tends to linger in the top left quadrant before moving left to right. Only after spending a considerable amount of time on the top, visible portion of the page will they then scroll down.
The classic, rhetorical appeals are logos, pathos, and ethos. These concepts roughly correspond to the logic, emotion, and character of the document’s attempt to persuade. You can find more information on these concepts elsewhere on the OWL. Once you understand these devices, you could potentially order your essay by analyzing the document’s use of logos, ethos, and pathos in different sections.
The conclusion of a rhetorical analysis essay may not operate too differently from the conclusion of any other kind of essay. Still, many writers struggle with what a conclusion should or should not do. You can find tips elsewhere on the OWL on writing conclusions. In short, however, you should restate your main ideas and explain why they are important; restate your thesis; and outline further research or work you believe should be completed to further your efforts.