Basics of Visual Rhetoric

“The Literacies that composers engage in today are multiple. They include print literacy practices (like spelling) that URL’s require; they include visual literacy; they include network literacy. As important, these literacies are textured and in relationship to each other. Perhaps more important, these literacies are social in a way that school literacies all too often only pretends to be” (Yancy “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key” 302).


As students in Domain courses write hypertexts, websites, Prezis, PowerPoints, and blog posts; generate digital maps and/or ethnographic databases; produce or remix video clips and/or audio tracks; and curate databases, they ought to remain mindful of ways the visual, and not just the verbal, engage audiences through modes of persuasion. Since the configuration of elements on a page determines audience response and rhetoric is “The faculty of observing, in any given case, the available means of persuasion,” design is rhetorical (Aristotle). Images are not merely decorative or secondary to sentences in digital composition, instead layout, spacing, contrast, coherence, and repetition all effect audience and the making of meaning. For digital composition to be successful, writers must simultaneously make best choices among verbal and visual systems because the medium is the message.

Anderson, Daniel. “Prosumer Approaches to New Media Composition: Consumption and Production in Continuum.” Kairos 8.1 (2003).

In both form and content, Anderson’s webtext provides a useful example of ways faculty can guide students through the basics of visual rhetoric, as they compose new media texts. Through both printed text and video clips, Anderson guides users through a series of new media projects he conducted in his classrooms. The projects range from low to high-level competency with digital technology, yet all the projects emphasize that students learn about multimodal composition best through composing in multiple modes. Anderson provides instructions for how to guide students through a screen capture, database, and analysis project; a video remix project; and student produced videos. Even though this essay is ten years old now, Anderson attends to the advantages and drawbacks of user-friendly design software. For instance while software such as iMovie makes it possible for users with lower levels of competency to produce video, the range of visual and verbal rhetorical choices available to the composer may be limited by templates.

Arola, Kirstin L. “The Design of Web 2.0: The Rise of the Template, The Fall of Design.” Computers and Composition 27 (2010): 4-14.

Arola argues Web 2.0 platforms, exemplified by social media such as Facebook, limit rhetorical choices through static templates. Her analysis of static templates shows that design (layout, image choices, color, etc.) and writing (word choice, grammar, style, etc.) are inextricable. Since the configuration of elements on a page determines audience response and rhetoric is "The faculty of observing, in any given case, the available means of persuasion,” design is rhetorical (Aristotle). Arola argues that multimodal writing courses should work with students to keep design present in the composing process: “If we are really to do the new work of composing, that which Kathleen Blake Yancey in her 2004 CCCC Chair’s Address argued, ‘includes the rhetoric and is about literacy [and] includes the literacy of print: it adds on to it and brings the notions of practice and activity and circulation and media and screen and networking to our conceptions of process’ (p.320), then we must (re)engage ourselves and our students with the rhetoric of the interface and this the rhetoric of design” (6-7). To engage students with the rhetoric of design, Arola suggests writing faculty give students tools necessary to analyze ways templates guide audience response so that interface does not remain neutral. Beyond student analysis of template design, she suggests students redesign an interface that includes a “written or oral justification in which they articulate the rationale behind their choices” (12). In their analysis, redesign, and production of new templates, Arola’s students communicate with a shared terminology drawn from the texts on which they work.

Hocks, Mary E. “Understanding Visual Rhetoric in Digital Writing Environments.” College Composition and Communication 54.4 (2003): 629-656.

Domain instructors can adapt many of the terms as well as the reading and writing strategies Hocks employs to teach visual rhetoric. In this substantive article Hocks thinks web design and visual rhetoric in terms of writing choices and audience stance. She troubles the assumptions that printed media is verbal and that digital media is visual. Instead of the overdetermined split between the verbal and visual, she suggests, along with Gunther Kress, that “communication is always and inevitably multimodal” (Kress, “Gains and Losses” 5). Hocks argues instructors of writing and new media can enact a “new pedagogy of writing as design” by first helping students recognize how visual rhetoric operates in texts they read, and second helping students to produce texts attentive to “audience stance, transparency, and hybridity” (632). In her analysis of a series of webtexts, Hocks shows how the stance the author takes toward the audience encourages users to participate in the projects as co-authors. Hocks shows how web design can trouble linear print design on which it is based by creating non-leaner paths through the information. She also shows that “native hypertextual writing and reading processes” force readers and writers to make rhetorical choices in which the visual and the verbal are not distinct (633).

Gunther Kress. “Gains and Losses: New Forms of Texts, Knowledge, and Learning.” Computers and Composition 22 (2005): 5-22.

In this article Kress stages a comparison of word and image in web text that is useful for Domain instructors. Many of the semiotic principles he covers can be easily adapted to guide students’ composition choices. For instance, Kress argues that “sequencing” provides one way to think through rhetorical choices involved in both verbal and visual composition. He argues, “Sequencing has effects for authorship and for reading. Hearers (and readers to a somewhat lesser extent) depend on the ‘unfolding,’ the revealing of elements one after another to be able to make sense of a whole” (13). While verbal written and aural text unfolds bit by bit, “all elements are simultaneously present” in the image” (13). As students write hypertexts, websites, PowerPoints, and blog posts; generate digital maps and/or ethnographic data bases; produce or remix video clips and/or audio tracks, Kress suggests remaining mindful of the temporality imposed in the modes. Authors impose temporal devices that may play out differently in image, word, and speech to effect audiences in specific ways. Attending to the sequencing, framing, and the space between words and images is a key element of visual rhetoric. See also, Kress, Gunther and Theo van Leeuwen. “The Meaning of Composition.” Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. London: Routledge, 2006.

Knight, Aimee. “Reclaiming Experience: The Aesthetic and Multimodal Composition.” Computers and Composition 30.4 (2013): 146-155.

As Knight explains in her abstract, “Recent scholarship points to the rhetorical role of the aesthetic in multimodal composition and new media contexts. In this article, I examine the aesthetic as a rhetorical concept in writing studies and imagine the ways in which this concept can be useful to teachers of multimodal composition. My treatment of the concept begins with a return to the ancient Greek aisthetikos (relating to perception by the senses) in order to discuss the aesthetic as a meaningful mode of experience. I then review European conceptions of the aesthetic and finally draw from John Dewey and Bruno Latour to help shape this concept into a pragmatic and useful approach that can complement multimodal teaching and learning. The empirical approach I construct adds to an understanding of aesthetic experience with media in order to render more transparent the ways in which an audience creates knowledge—or takes and makes meaning—via the senses. Significantly, this approach to meaning making supports learning in digital environments where students are increasingly asked to both produce and consume media convergent texts that combine multiple modalities including sound, image, and user interaction.

McKinney, Jackie Grutsch. “New Media Matters: Tutoring in the Late Age of Print.” The Writing Center Journal 29.2 (2009): 28-51.

In this extremely informative article McKinney argues, “…writing centers need to offer tutoring in new media texts, but not the same tutoring we’ve always done” (346). Via a synthesis of Cynthia Selfe, Anne Wysocki, and Cheryl Ball’s work on composition, McKinney recognizes the following as new media texts tutors are most likely to encounter: PowerPoint presentations or slidecasts; video essays and documentaries; audio essays podcast series; posters, collages, and other visual arguments; websites or hypertexts; and comic books, animations, or graphic novels” (347). Though McKinney rightly argues new media depends on rhetoric choices and as such falls in the domain of composition, she suggests that new methods are required to achieve meaningful tutor-text-student engagement. In order to value the visual and the alphanumeric in relation, the tutor must “look at student texts instead of through them” (352). “Looking at” requires tutors to “talk aloud” as they work through student texts on screen negotiating links and ways the visual and verbal rely on one another. McKinney also provides the following suggestions to tutors: emphasize visual elements as higher order concerns in new media texts; remember that “new media texts are rhetorical” (355); respond to/draw out interconnectivity and gestalt; and using new media terminology to respond to new media. The Writing Center at Columbus State provides this useful Quick Reference Guide based off of McKinney’s text.

Selfe, Cythia. Writing and New Media: Theory and Applications for the Expanding of New Media. Logan: Utah State UP, 2004.

Of interest to tutors and writing Center instruction is the chapter entitled, “Toward New Media Texts: Taking Up the Challenge of Visual Literacy.” McKinney argues the rubrics Selfe provides for digital composition instructors are also helpful for writing center tutors because they help train tutors to the “gestalt” of hypertext. McKinney draws out the following terms from the article and applies them to writing center: “Visual impact,” “Visual coherence,” “Visual salience,” and “Visual Organization.” (Selfe 85-87). Selfe’s book also contains a number of great multimodal activities.

Viz.Visual Rhetoric—Visual Culture—Pedagogy

This site may be useful for Domain instructors interested in teaching and writing about visual rhetoric: “The award-winning digital publication viz. is committed to the intersections of Rhetoric and visual culture. In keeping with its mission to promote visual literacy, the viz.blog presents a daily community forum for discussing images in the digital age. For instructors, a number of resources are available, such as Teaching, a static page with resources for pedagogy, and the Visual Theory page, hosting content in photography theory, new media theory, and design. The feature Views includes interviews with prominent Visual Rhetoric and Communications scholars” (About Viz par 1 & 3).

Williams, Robin. The Non-Designer’s Design Book. Berkeley: Peachpit P, 2003.

Williams writes as a graphic designer for a non-specialized audience. She emphasizes the four following elements of design: Contrast,” “Repetition,” Alignment,” and “Proximity.” Her text is equally useful for writers of and respondents to digital texts.

Wysocki, Anne Frances. “Impossibly Distinct: On Form/Content and Word/Image in two Pieces of Computer-Based Interactive Multimedia.” Computers and Composition 18 (2001): 209-234.

In her article Wyscoki works to “expand and modify conceptual categories we use in our teaching about the visual aspects of texts” (210). Both the form and content of the essay, the two halves of the dichotomy that Wysocki shows are inseparable, may be of particular interest to Domain instructors. Wysocki argues design persuades audience. She accomplishes her argument through comparison and close analysis of digital texts. Though this style of argument and analysis is a stand academic product, Wysocki makes certain visual rhetorical choices that force readers to recognize the medium through which she communicates her argument. Though printed texts, the dominant medium of written communication, are always designed and always rely on both visual and verbal elements to communicate. That said, the layout or template of a printed text is usually transparent, so the meaning readers produce as they read seems to dominate the visual. Wysocki arranges the verbal and visual elements in her text in unlikely ways. Sentence and parts of sentences are broken into single lines with line breaks that do not correspond with ends of clauses or sentences. Similarly, blank or white space between blocks of text draws attention to ways the visual and verbal corroborate in meaning making. This article may make a terrific model for a digital student-writing project in which they could experiment with layout, spacing, and sequence to disabuse assumptions about content/form, word/image, writing/visual, and information/design and the normative values those binaries inform. See also, “Composition and the Digital Age: Anne Francis Wysocki on Making, Teaching, Text” and “A Bookling MonumentKairos.