Steps for Producing Visual Media Messages

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

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

Learn how to create visual media messages in three easy steps. We will explore the importance of understanding audiences. Then we will examine intricacies and interpretations of visual composition.

Communicating Visually

People in the U.S. spend an average of 18 minutes per day immersed in a book. Compared this to the 3 hours on average that people spend glued to a television set.

From television commercials to advertising integrated into prime time programming, to billboards and magazine centerfolds, media messages address viewers and readers. Ads and commercials can have a strong emotional effect.

Let's stop for a moment and contemplate the way visual media such as these communicate their messages. That way, the next time you come across an ad you be equipped with the tools to decode meaning from the combination of text and image.

People spend 3 hours a day watching TV

In a world where people spend more time watching TV than reading, we spend far too much time learning about verbal language and not enough time developing visual literacy skills. Visual literacy refers to the skills a viewer uses when 'reading' images. According to the principles of visual literacy, images express meaning in the same way that written language communicates using words.

Visual media messages are conveyed in a variety of formats, including:

  • Advertisements
  • Photographs
  • Comic books
  • Web pages
  • Film and television

In order to gain a better understanding of how visual media convey messages, this lesson explores the process of creating a commercial advertisement.

Creating Visual Media Messages

When you first set out to create a meaningful picture, you should already have three things in mind: audience, purpose, and context. Ask yourself these three important questions:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What message will the visual image convey to them?
  • In what context will your audience find the image?

The answers to these questions will guide you through the process of creating your visual message.

Just as a reader is aware of the voice of her narrator, media producers must have a sense of who it is they are communicating with. Understanding your audience will help guide and direct the way you form your message.

From talking to preschool children to army soldiers, to a group of expecting mothers or to at-risk urban youth, your message will be communicated when you have an understanding of who is reading. How embarrassing would it be to hand an army veteran a pamphlet aimed at a preschool student? This is why understanding your target audience is so important.

You can then define the purpose and intention of your message based on your knowledge about your audience. Advertisements offer a perfect example for this scenario because they have a clearly defined purpose.

Billboards and ads in magazines aim to sell products. Television commercials can have the added purpose of being entertaining for their audience, because they need to deter them from switching the channel. Additionally, ads can aim at evoking the experience associated with their product.

The ad 'The Real Thing' for Coca-Cola exemplifies this last strategy. By gearing the visual message to a specific audience and a defined purpose, the ad associates its product with a balmy afternoon on the bleachers.

Ad for coca-cola associates the product with the experience of summer sports and the value of authenticity.
coca cola

Finally, the author chooses the context in which viewers will read the image. What medium will the message take? Will the message be conveyed in a television commercial? A glossy magazine ad? A billboard? Choice of medium plays an important role in conveying the message because it determines how the reader interacts with the content.

For example, it would be a poor decision to place a wordy ad on the side of a bus, for example, because readers probably wouldn't have enough time to read it as the vehicle speeds by.

Ad on the side of a bus
bus ad

Visual Syntax

Just as an open ended conclusion to a good book can lead readers to different conclusions, visual images can inspire all sorts of different interpretations. Visual communication is more of an art than a science.

Compared to verbal communication, where a word pairs up pretty closely to an associated idea, images can mean different things to different people. By following principles of visual composition, artists can gain a better grasp over the messages in their images.

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