Part 1: Objectives

Metaphors, Language, and Symbolism of the Visual

The questions for this first part of the unit:

  • How do some fundamental principles of communication function in a visual context?
  • Why do figures of speech play such a vital role in communication?
  • How do we use figures of speech in visual communication?
  • What are some of the main principles of visual design?

Part 1: To-Do List

  • Readings
  • Watch narrated slideshow (Google Slides)
  • Overview of Figure of Speech assignment
  • Setting up and posting to your blog

Part 1: Visual Communication is and as Communication

Verbal language/communication is expressive and symbolic. It uses words, inflection, voice, tempo, and loudness (among other features) to make meaning.

Content tends to be conveyed by words and phrases, but meaning is more than just the words. For example, connotation and denotation are important concepts in understanding verbal expression, whether spoken or written.

Denotation is what we tend to think of as the dictionary meaning of a word. But words are much more that their definition. They are living entities in a language, and as we use them, they acquire feelings, associations, histories, and attitudes that can alter the meaning or, more accurately, complicate their meaning. That is what we mean by connotation. Compare these three words: “happy,” “satisfied,” and “ecstatic.” They basically have the same denotative meaning. But you can’t use them interchangeably. That is because they have different connotations.

Visual language/communication is also expressive and symbolic, but it uses a visual vocabulary to communicate. In analyzing the elements of visual communication, we will see that there are similar factors at work. 

We will start looking at those elements in this unit. You will see how these factors that you may be familiar with from your studies in communication, psychology, linguistics, media, sociology, etc. work in a visual context. We will specifically focus on: figures of speech, especially metaphor; connotation and denotation; and introduce some principles of visual design.

Part 1: Lecture Recording

Prof. Levy’s lecture on Making Meaning through Denotation, Connotation & Metaphor

Part 1: Readings & Text

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.

  1. Chris Jones, “Lakoff on Metaphor”: This is a good summary of Lakoff’s writings on Metaphor.
  2. “Figure of Speech,” Wikipedia; and/or Figure of Speech,
    • According to Merriam-Webster, a figure of speech is “a form of expression (such as a simile or metaphor) used to convey meaning or heighten effect often by comparing or identifying one thing with another that has a meaning or connotation familiar to the reader or listener.” Scholars have identified and categorized many, many different figures of speech.
    • Look at either the Wikipedia entry or’s page (or look at both) to get an overview and sense of the range and variety of figurative and creative language forms that humans have been utilizing since the first humans started using language. Don’t worry about the technical aspects of these figures and their classifications entry. You should just dip into it and look at a few. These sites should be good references for you.
  3. Hanno Ehses, “Representing Macbeth: A Case Study in Visual Rhetoric”
    • In this essay, Ehses examines “how meaning [is] created visually in design” (as well as related questions) by looking at posters for productions of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Ehses used the idea in this article to teach students about using metaphors in a visual context: the students used 10 different figures of speech to bring out specific aspects of the play in posters that they designed for Macbeth.
    • You may find this article challenging as it refers to principles from the fields of Rhetoric and Semiotics, but just try to work through it to see why it is so important to understand and utilize figures of speech in visual design. Look carefully at the 10 posters that students created at the end of the article. Refer to the websites in #2 above for more explanation of the particular figures of speech that Ehses and the students used.
  4. Molly Bang, from Picture This: How Pictures Work  (1991)
    • Molly Bang is an award-winning children’s book illustrator. Picture This is the only book she ever wrote for adults, and it immediately became a classic used in art and design classes worldwide. In this text, Bang tries to tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood solely using cut-out paper shapes. As she does so, she and the reader discover the power and principles of storytelling through color, shape, and design.
    • In Bang’s own words: Picture This explores one basic question about how we see things: How and why do structural elements affect our feelings? The book is a ground for understanding this aspect of visual art and for and making it.” (”
  5. Molly Bang’s 10 Picture Design Principles + 2

Digging Down Deeper

If you want to delve more deeply into the original source material, read these excerpts from Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (1980)

Part 1: Assignment

Figure of Speech

As you will discover from the readings, metaphors are a regular part of the way we communicate. One of the best ways to improve your recognition and use of metaphors is to record the ones you hear, note how they were used, and try to use them yourself. Another good method is to take a figure of speech and turn it into a visualized statement. For this assignment, you will do both.

Part 1: Blogs

You should set up your blog and send me the link.Remember to make it public and allow comments (you can set it up so that you have to approve the comments before they can be posted). Your blog should have an “About Me” page. Your first class blog post should be a reflection on some aspect of the material in Unit 1-Unit 2 (Part 1).

Part 2: Objectives

Comics and Sequential Art

  • How do you tell a story through pictures?
  • How did comic strips and comic books become such important media?
  • What are the principles behind sequential art forms?
  • What are the artistic, linguistic, and communicative conventions involved?

Part 2: To-Do List

  • Download a copy of the rubric for your blog posts
  • Blog post relating to last week’s coursework or class
  • Readings/Texts
  • Attend optional live session or review material in live session folder if you didn’t attend
  • Look over Children’s Book Assignment

Part 2: Overview

Comic strips and comic books arose to prominence in the 20th Century. But communicating through sequential visual forms is not a new phenomenon, as you will see.

We have grown up understanding how to read comics, but once again, there is much more there than meets the eye. We have been trained to understand the symbols, conventions, styles, and humor involved in these media. And, as is always true in visual communication, there are contextual, cultural and generational aspects to understanding them.

As is also the case, there is a rich history and critical analysis of these sequential art forms, and we can only dip our toes into this vast critical expanse (metaphor alert!).

Because of these types of sequential visuals grew out of and along side other popular media and art forms, such as newspapers, mass printing, radio, film, and television, they share many of the tensions, biases, prejudices, and assumptions that these media drew on from contemporary culture. And they, too, have continued to evolve.

Part 2: Readings and Texts

  1. These two videos are similarly subtitled, but there is where the similarities basically end. Coming at the question from slightly different angles, these videos start to deal with why comics have been so successful and what makes them a powerful and unique medium, different from other visual forms:
Citation: [SYFY Wire] (2017, Feb. 23) “Marc Bernardin: The Power of Comic Books” [Video File]. Retrieved from
Citation: [Piled Higher and Deeper (PHD Comics)] (2013, Feb. 14) “The Power of Comics” [Video File]. Retrieved from
  1. Alex Grand, “Advancement of Storytelling and Legal Lessons in Platinum Age Comic Strips” May 9, 2020.This is a good overview of both the practical, legal, social, narrative, and artistic development of comic strips and comics. It makes comparisons between the comics in their early years and current comics.
    • Please Be Aware: this article contains examples and some discussion of offensive stereotypes, prejudice and biases that commonly appeared in the comics, as in other popular media of the time. At the same time it is important to note this aspect of comics and popular media and not gloss over or make light of this phenomenon: media reflect the politics, fears, prejudices and economic interests of society and those in power.
  2. Neil Cohn is an influential linguist who studies the linguistic elements and grammar of comics. Here’s a short overview of one of his experiments in how people read comic books. You can find many of his original scholarly articles on the subject in academic journals and on the web. (See below under “Digging Deeper” for an example.) Ryder Diaz, “The Visual Language of Comics,” Inside Science, May 13, 2013.
  3. Duke University’s Writing Guide: Visual Rhetoric/Visual Literacy: Writing About Comics and Graphic Novels This handout is an excellent overview of the important elements of visual rhetoric in writing about and analyzing comics.

Digging Down Deeper

If you’d like to read more on comics and sequIf you’d like to read more on comics and sequential art, here are two links that can immerse you in the field.(An added bonus is that some of you might find Scott McCloud’s work of some help on your Children’s Book assignment, but it is not required or necessary for the assignment.)

Consider reading or glancing into these if you are personally interested and have the time:

Go To Unit 3