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Constructing & Conveying Meaning in Nonprint Texts

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy is a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying media studies and cultural history.

In this lesson, we will explore the important facets that go into constructing and reading nonprint texts. We will examine questions that trouble producers and readers alike when evaluating nonprint texts.

What Are Nonprint Texts?

We are all media producers in one way or another. Adopting a broad conception of media as forms of communication allows one to consider print and nonprint texts in the same category. All of these forms of media have basically the same intention in mind: to communicate a concept or idea.

Non-print text: it's not a misnomer. Whether it's a live theatrical performance or a recorded film, a still photograph concretized in time or a live television event, nonprint media can communicate, entertain, inform, and persuade. From billboards and street signs to street performers and flash mobs, in social media and in town squares, visual media pervade our environment. Let's take a tour of some of the most common forms of nonprint texts:

  • Professional theatrical productions (live, face to face)
  • Film and video (time-based, recorded)
  • Live television (time-based)
  • Photography, art, and illustration (still, recorded)

To simplify things, let's take a look at the simplest of any non-print text you'll find in daily life: road signs. For example, what would like sign look like if it were translated to text? Isn't it more effective to represent the message as a visual symbol, as opposed to printed text?

Beware: entering falling rock zone
road sign

Sometimes, messages are more effectively communicated in the form of images rather than text. Images cross language barriers. They're immediately recognizable symbols.

Medium Specificity

What makes a concept more appropriate for nonprint (visual) than print text? This is a question of medium (plural, media) choice. Nonprint texts can be produced in a variety of media, including:

  • Performances based on scripts (theater, dance)
  • Moving images: film and video
  • Two-dimensional images: photography, painting and illustration

Take, for example, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. There are significant differences between the printed text, a live performance, and a film version. While reading the printed text gives you an appreciation for the complexity and precision of the prose, a staged reading breathes life into the cold page. Witnessing a live performance makes the audience feel an intimacy between themselves and the actors. A filmed version allows artists to integrate music and play with the structure of the narrative, for example by changing a monologue into a voiceover and compressing events in time through the use of montage sequences.

What is Visual literacy?

Literary authors 'paint' expressionistic scenes in words, sentences, and paragraphs. Visual artists do, too. They just use a different types of media: color and light.

Learning how to 'read' a film or a photograph (visual literacy) is just the same as learning how to read and interpret a novel. These two different types of authors just use different kinds of tools: works and pictures.

Looking beyond the literal.

Whether producing an original work, or evaluating an existing one, we practice and demonstrate our visual literacy by moving beyond literal, or explicit meaning. For example, advertisements and propaganda posters can be interpreted in different ways.

Rosie the Riveter
Rosie the Riveter

On the surface, it's clear to see that Rosie the Riveter (a U.S. World War II propaganda poster) is a strong working woman, based on her posture, muscles and outfit.

When read within is historical and political context, the poster takes on new meanings. It's a message sent from the U. S. government encouraging women to support the war by going back to work.

It's also a feminist image, portraying the strong, independent woman.

By moving from literal to inferential, or implicit meaning, the viewer or 'reader' interrogates and interprets the image by asking questions about content, purpose, and audience:

  • Who is the author?
  • What is the author's intention?
  • What, if any, message does the author intend?
  • Who is the intended audience?

When evaluating nonprint text, we must admit that there can be a discrepancy between the author's intended meaning and the viewer's/reader's received meaning.

If I state that 'I saw a man on a hill with a telescope,' you might infer that:

  • either I was looking through the telescope myself,
  • or else the man on the hill was using his own telescope.

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