Kress, Gunther and Theo Van Leeuwen — Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design


In this text, K and L inventorize established compositional structures or conventions of  various visual semiotic resources and analyze how these common patterns are used to produce meaning in Western cultures.   Making this inventory possible is the assumption that a dominant visual language exists and is controlled by the global cultural/technological  empires of mass media (4).  K and L’s purpose, then,  is to identify the contemporary Western grammar of visual design and to explore the “broad historical, social, and cultural conditions that make and remake the visual ‘language’” (5). 


Their work is theoretically grounded in social semiotics; as such they see representation as s socially and culturally situated process of making signs to express meaning, guided by the sign makers own interests (6).  Thus they see signs as motivated “conjunctions of meaning (signified) and form (signifier) in which sign makers choose the most apt semiotic modes to express their desired meaning (6).  These choices always arise out of the “interest of social groups who interact with within the structures of power that define social life” (159).  Part of the work then of those studying visual communiction is to understand the values and interests which inform and benefit or do not benefit from signs in use in any given context.


K and L have attempted to provide a descriptive framework that can serve as a useful tool in visual analysis.  The see this framework as a language in which we can speak about the forms and meanings of visual commiunication.  According to K and L, visual communication has two functions based on Halliday’s own theoretical terms:  ideational function of representing world around and inside us and interpersonal function of enacting social interactions as social relations (13).  Also, in their eyes, all semiotic systems have a textual function; by that, they all have capacity to form and function as texts (41).  Thus not only can we identify patterns of representation but also social interaction or ways in which the grammar of visual design make possible the various things we do and the relations produced between sign makers and viewers (13). 


K and L see writing as a visual form of communication, but they also think that the visual components of a text is an “independently organized and structured message”; therefore, verbal and visual components are connected but not dependent on each other.  They interact to create form and meaning.  K and L also see visual communication as having grown into a major form of communication alongside verbal language.  They emphasize the visual communication is always coded and these codes need to be learned by students in order to survive in the new “semiotic landscape” that has arisen in the contemporary Western landscape.


Their theory in a nutshell:

  1. human societies use a variety of modes of representation
  2. each mode has unique potential for meaning-making
  3. each mode has unique value in context
  4. different potentials indicate different potential for subjectivity formation
  5. individual use variety of modes and thus have various ways to make meaning and form subjectivities
  6. these modes are in a state of constant interaction
  7. these modes affect communicative behavior
  8. each mode evolves throughout history and affect new meanings and subjectivities
  9. “as modes of representation are made and remade, they contribute to the making and remaking of human societies and the subjectivities of their members” (40).


In the various chapters, K and L identify the ways in which semiotic play interacts within narrative and conceptual representations and the ways in which these representations interact with their audience and establish relations between the two.  K and L also explore modality markers used to establish some kind of truth or version of reality as well as elements of composition, which contribute to interpersonal and ideational functions of visual designs.  In the second to last chapter, K and L explore inscription, which “comprises interrelated semiotic resources of surface, substance and tools of inscription,”  and each of which has its own semiotic effects and produce complex meanings (241).  In final chapter, K and L attempt to show how the grammar of visual design may be applied to three dimensional artifacts but that discourse needs more work.


Key Concepts:


Grammar:  inventory of elements and rules underlying cultural-specific verbal communication


Grammar of visual design:  inventory of elements and rules underlying a cultural-specific form of visual communication; not universal;


Semiotic Landscape:  context in which visual communication in a given society is produced and range of forms or modes that constitute public communication in that society as well as its uses and values (33).  Product of social action and has a social history of people interacting on nature (34)


Semiotic modes:  shaped by both intrinsic characteristics of medium and history and values of society


Texts:  complexes of signs which cohere both internally and with the context in and for which they were produced (41); “material objects which result from a variety of representational practices that make use of a variety of signifying systems, each of which contributes to the meaning of the text in its own particular way” (231)


Key Quotes:


K and L seek to interpret pictures that employ verbal and visual texts as an integrated text.  “Our insistence on drawing comparisons between language and visual communication stems from this objective.  We seek to break down the disciplinary boundaries between the study of language and the study of images, and we seek, as much as possible, to use compatible language, and compatible terminology in speaking about both, for in actual communication the two and indeed many others come together to form integrated texts” (183). 


Texts, whether linguistic or visual or both, deploy a multiplicity of signifying systems, and semiotic theory should allow us to focus on the way each is used in the text, and on the configurations in which the text brings them together (241).



Filed under visual rhetorics exam

7 responses to “Kress, Gunther and Theo Van Leeuwen — Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design

  1. thanks for this brief explanation! it helped me so much in my college assignment!

  2. Saya mohon bantuan Anda , bagaimana langkah kerja dalam menganalisis karikatur,

  3. Pingback: Building a Narrative – Momentum Marketing

  4. Reblogged this on loveyoublue and commented:
    good explanation

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  6. Pingback: [2] Week 4-5 Journal – Lee Chak Yan, Catherine

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