Constructing Meaning in Literature Using Words, Images & Sounds

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

The study of visual communication considers how both images and words convey meaning in similar ways. In this lesson, you will discover strategies of visual literacy that can aid in reading comprehension, learn how images communicate meaning, and explore examples from graphic novels, painting, and literature.

What is Visual Literacy?

Images are all around us: in advertisements and magazines, on television and in film, in the icons on computer screens and in street signs. We practice and hone our skills of reading and interpreting images every day when we encounter ads on the street and pictures in magazines. Learning about visual literacy is not just a skill you pick up when walking around an art gallery or museum.

Visual communication performs a key component of visual literacy. Recognizing that both words and images communicate meaning allows us to understand that pictures are just as complex as novels. Visual literacy refers to the way that images convey meaning just like texts do. It includes a set of skills intended to aid in the interpretation and analysis of images. Using these strategies we can decode messages in pictures to understand the way they communicate using form and composition.

The study of visual communication, an aspect of the field of Communication studies, examines two dimensional images as visual aids in the construction of meaning. It looks at paintings, photographs, illustrations, and even typography. Consider that when you choose a font, you are making a decision about the look and feel of your text by the design of the very letters that your document will be set in.

Comparing fonts

Distanced from the way art historians approach paintings as works of art, Communication studies treats both images and texts as forms of communication. In textual documents, an author will use words to describe the world. In painting, photography, illustration, and other forms of image production, visual artists use color, light and shadow, contrast, composition, depth, and focus to convey meaning. While authors use verbal language to communicate, artists use visual language.

Telling Stories in Words & Pictures

Reframing the question of language and communication to one of storytelling opens up the question of what format the stories take. Instead of thinking about visual communication or verbal language, we can instead think of novels, paintings, films, photographs and graphic novels as forms of storytelling. This levels the distinction between word and image so that we can become more familiar with their similarities rather than their differences.

According to principles of storytelling, a story must involve a character who performs actions and events that take place over time. Traditionally, stories have a beginning, a middle and an end.

Little Nemo comic strip, 1907
little nemo

A graphic novel or a comic strip will use both formats, word and image, to tell stories that take place over a span of time. Conveying a series of events including characters and actions from beginning to end, it uses a panel of frames that blends illustration, dialogue, and story exposition. This panel from the 1907 comic strip Little Nemo, for example, tells a story that takes place over time, depicting the adventure of a boy's dream using a combination of words and images.

Sometimes, sounds will also be depicted in the frame in their own dialogue bubbles. These effects draw the reader in by giving the story momentum.

Sound depicted in comic book format

Combinations of word and image are also found when examining the correlation between an artwork and its caption or wall label. Whether looking at an artwork and its wall label in a gallery, or a picture and its caption in print, the addition of words to an image will affect the viewer's interpretation. In Ways of Seeing, art historian John Berger discusses the way these two elements work together to construct meaning for the viewer (27-28).

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows (1890)
Van Gogh

Berger uses the example of Van Gogh's painting Wheatfield with Crows (1890) showing it twice: once without a caption and a second time with a caption. Note how the viewer's interpretation will change in each instance. In the second case, the words influence the viewer's interpretation of the meaning and significance of the artwork.

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows (1890) with caption
Van_Gogh with Caption

Images & Actions in Reading Comprehension

Just like an image is worth a thousand words, text can also evoke images in the mind of a reader. One of the most important reasons why F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby has been adapted for the screen so many times is because he uses colorful, evocative language in the novel. Reading the novel is almost like watching a movie in your mind.

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