Part 1: Objectives

Introduction to Visual Communication

This unit starts asking and answering the following questions:

  • Why is visual communication so important?
  • What are some of the theories and practices underlying the field of visual communication?

Part 1: To-Do List

  • Readings
    • There are two (2) assigned texts for this short unit, which you will find below.
    • The first is a short reading (and a video) explaining why sight is such an important sense.
    • The second reading is a outline of the major theories of visual communication. We will revisit some of of these theories as we go through the semester and look more deeply at aspects of visual communication. This will give you an overview of the lens through which critics and scholars look at and analyze visual communication.
  • Discussion Board
    • This discussion board self-introduction is not a typical one.
    • You will introduce yourself by providing a visual — an avatar, logo, or visual that you feel is a good representation of yourself.
    • There are detailed instructions on the discussion board on BB itself.
      • You can get to the Discussion Forum by clicking on the “Discussion Board” menu item on BB.

Want to have your picture displayed next to your name in all your BB discussion posts? It’s easy! (video 0:50)

Part 1: Readings & Text

In Rule #10 of John Medina’s best-seller book Brain Rules, he explains the power of our visual sense:

Brain Rule Rundown

Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses.

  • We are incredible at remembering pictures. Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.
  • Pictures beat text as well, in part because reading is so inefficient for us. Our brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures, and we have to identify certain features in the letters to be able to read them. That takes time.
  • Why is vision such a big deal to us? Perhaps because it’s how we’ve always apprehended major threats, food supplies and reproductive opportunity.
  • Toss your PowerPoint presentations. It’s text-based (nearly 40 words per slide), with six hierarchical levels of chapters and subheads—all words. Professionals everywhere need to know about the incredible inefficiency of text-based information and the incredible effects of images. Burn your current PowerPoint presentations and make new ones.
Citation: [John Medina] (2012, Oct. 27) Vision: Vision trumps all other senses (Brain Rules by John Medina) [Video File]. Retrieved from

Visual Communication Theory

From Lisette Hernandez-Willemsen’s blog “The Journey Within,” March 7, 2012 post [Lightly edited from the original for clarity – Prof. Levy]

Visual communication

As the name suggests, visual communication refers to communication through visual aid and is described as the conveyance of ideas and information in forms that can be read or looked upon. Visual communication in part or whole relies on vision, and is primarily presented or expressed with two dimensional images, it includes: signs, typography, drawing, graphic design, illustration, color and electronic resources. It also explores the idea that a visual message accompanying text has a greater power to inform, educate, or persuade a person or audience. [Wikipedia]

In visual communication we deal with different theories

We have the sensual theories

  • Gestalt (means forms or shapes)
  • Constructivism
  • Ecological

And we have the perceptual theories

  • Semiotics
  • Cognitive

What does “sensual” and “perceptual” mean anyways in Visual communication? Well Sensual are raw data from nerves transmitted to brain. Perceptual” are meanings concluded after the stimuli are received. It is drawn from prior experiences, comparison with other senses, stored images, etc.

Sensual Theory: Gestalt

A gestalt theory deals with how our mind perceives wholes out of incomplete elements. To gestaltists, things are affected by where they are and by what surrounds them. When parts are identified individually they have different characteristics to the whole (gestalt means “organized whole”)

Gestalt Principles

Figures & grounds

The terms figures and grounds explain how we use elements of the scene, which are similar in appearance and shape and how we group them together as a whole. Similar elements figured are contrasted with dissimilar elements (grounds) to give impression of the whole.

Gestalt states that the eye merely takes in all the visual stimuli and that the brain arranges the sensation into coherent images.

Four (4) fundamental groupings or laws of Gestalt

  1. Similarity: The principle states that things, which share visual characteristics such as shape, size, color, texture, value or orientation, will be seen as belonging together.
  2. Proximity: The principle of proximity or contiguity states that things, which are closer together, will be seen as belonging together.
  3. Continuity/Good continuation: The brain does not prefer sudden or unusual changes in movement of a line –it seeks a much as possible a smooth continuation of a line.
  4. Common fate: The brain will mentally group items all pointing in the same direction – items pointing in a different direction than most of the whole create tension.

The brain classifies visual material in discrete groups. What we see when looking at a picture is modified by what we have seen in the past and what we want to see.

Sensual theory: Constructivism

Minor clarification to gestalt theory, attributing active perception and eye movement in constructing an image

Julian Hochberg, psychology professor (Columbia University), 1970, using eye-tracking equipment, found that human eyes are constantly in motion as they scan an image. Emphasizing that the viewer constructs the scene with short-lived eyes fixation, the mind combines these separate fixations into a whole picture. This finding helped to explain how the mind perceives difficult images.

Researchers found that the content, size, and placement of photos on a newspaper page are more important than whether the image is printed in color.

Sensual theory: Ecological

The ecological theory uses people in the real-world environments, not through eye-tracking equipment in a lab. We interpret depth from light and shadow cues, and no high-level brain function is required. Many perceptions about size and depth require no “mental calculation”

Perceptual theory: Semiotic

Semiotic is the study of signs; it is the study of anything that stands for something else. In a semiotic sense signs take the form of words, images, sounds, gestures and objects. Semotics is the field of research that studies signs as an essential part of cultural life and communication. According to semiotics, we can only know culture (+reality) by means of signs, through the process of signification.

There are 3 types of signs

  1. Iconic: To be like or to seem as something. Iconic signs most closely resemble the thing they represent.
  2. Indexical: Have a logical, commonsense connection to the thing or idea they represent rather than a direct resemblance to the object
  3. Symbolic: Symbols that have not logical of representational connection between them and the things they represent. Symbols more than the other types of signs, have to be taught

Perceptual theory:Cognitive

A viewer does not simply witness a light-structure object –but actively arrives at a conclusion about the perception through a mental process.

Mental activities that affects visual perception [Carolyn Bloomer]:

  • Memory: works both ways — images are interpreted by recalling stored images, and images we see spark memories of other things (seeing the mailbox reminds us we have to pay our bills)
  • Projection: we project meaning onto what we see, based on mental state, personality, and other factors (inkblots, clouds, two people whispering and laughing).
  • Expectation: we often see what we expect to see, overlooking details that don’t fit our mental model of what “should” be there (we have trouble proofreading our own writing).
  • Selectivity: we filter out details that aren’t relevant at the time, to avoid overload (looking for a friend in a red hat in a crowd).
  • Habituation: we ignore stimuli that we see often. One key to creativity is to look at familiar things in a new way. Conversely, unfamiliar stimuli help us think in new ways (go to a new place to think up new ideas).
  • Salience: we notice stimuli that are somehow relevant or have significance (hungry people notice restaurants).
  • Dissonance: we can only process one thing at a time. Distractions force us to avoid processing other stimuli (turn down the radio when we’re looking for a house).
  • Culture: many factors affect how we interpret visual stimuli — ethnicity, age, gender, socio-economic status, work, location, education, nationality, etc. (the image of Uncle Sam means many different things, depending on culture)
  • Words: we categorize, frame, interpret and remember ideas as words. Our language has a great bearing on what we perceive and recall. (Eskimos have over 100 words for snow… therefore, they may see, remember and describe a particular winter scene differently than someone with only 2 or 3 words).

Part 2: Objectives

The questions for the second part of the unit:

  • What is the difference between sensation and perception, or bottom-up versus top-down visual processing?
  • What are some of the major principles of Gestalt psychology and how do they affect our visual perception and visual communication?
  • What is color psychology and how important is it?
  • What are the implications of the physiology of human vision and the way it functions?

Part 2: To-Do List

  • Setting up your blog
  • Readings/Texts
  • Discussion board on blog rubric
  • Discussion board on next part of “Represent Yourself”

Part 2: Overview

This is a short part, but there is a lot of material here that we can only dip into.

If you took some sort of Introduction to Psychology course, much of this will be familiar to you. But don’t worry if this isn’t something you’ve ever studied. We are borrowing these readings from that field, but using it for our own goals: an understanding of the science and emotional component of what and how we see the world.

If you are interested in exploring these topics further, there is a lot of material you can read or watch to expand your knowledge. It is complicated, as you will see, but the goal is only to get a general appreciation of what is going on behind the scenes of our most complex and rich sense: vision.

As you go through this material, think about whether these readings bring up anything you would want to write about or reflect on for your first blog post.

Part 2: Readings and Texts

  1. Watch Crash Course in Psychology: #7 Perception. This 10-minute video will give you a general overview of the major aspects related to human vision.
Citation: [CrashCourse] (2014, Mar. 17) Perceiving is Believing: Crash Course Psychology #7 [Video File]. Retrieved from
  1. Read these two (2) chapters from Lumen’s Introduction to Psychology, Sensation and Perception” and “Vision.”
    • Each chapter contains self-check quizzes that can help you see if you are understanding the major points in the text, and there are embedded videos that are fun and informative that you should watch.
    • Both Crash Course and the Lumen chapters touch on important Gestalt principles that you read a bit about in the Part I Introduction (“Visual Communication Theories”). For psychologists, Gestalt principles are essential for understanding how the mind influences what the eye sees.
  2. The psychology of color is a controversial area of study. Many people believe that colors affect our emotions and attitudes. There has been much written about it and many studies, and you can find a lot of very strong statements about using or avoiding certain colors, or about how colors can be used to reveal personality traits or used for therapeutic purposes. But other scientists and psychologist are skeptical and would group color psychology in with astrology.
  3. There is a lot at stake, given how prevalent color psychology is in business marketing, advertising, and other fields. So our last text strikes a good balance on the issues: Gregory Ciotti, “Color Psychology in Marketing and Branding is All About Context.”

I’ll be interested to hear/read what you think about the subject.

Digging Down Deeper

If you are interested in learning more about Gestalt theories and their implications for design, watch the video below:

You’ve already read about some of the principles described in this video, but it is always good to reinforce those along with learning about some new ones.

Citation: [Comm 317] (2017, Dec. 13) Principles of Design 4 | 12 Laws of Gestalt [Video File]. Retrieved from

To learn about how Gestalt principles are used in some specific design fields:

Below is a PDF chart on colors and their meanings. It lists the symbolism and connotations associated with color in North American society compared to historical associations and that of other cultures and societies. It reminds us that colors, like visuals, have associations that are culturally and personally determined.

Rubric for your Blog Posts

I will be using your suggestions for what makes a good blog post to help create a draft rubric.

I will upload the draft rubric in a day or two and ask for your input on the draft.

I will put up a Discussion Board for you all to comment on the draft.

Discussion Board Assignment

Now that we have introduced ourselves with our visual representations, look through your classmates’ posts on the discussion board.

  1. Choose at least two (2) student posts to respond to. In your post state what you think the person’s visual representation says about them.
  2. By the middle of next week, after you have received a few comments on your post, reply to your original post and explain what you feel your avatar or visual says about you.

Go To Unit 2