What Is Visual Communication? - Definition, History, Theory & Examples

What Is Visual Communication? - Definition, History, Theory & Examples
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  • 0:01 Defining Visual Communication
  • 0:53 Communicating with Images
  • 2:39 Semiotics
  • 4:36 Importance of Visual…
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Visual communication is one of the most important ways that people communicate and share information. Through this lesson, we will define visual communication, explore its history, and gain insight into why it's important.

Defining Visual Communication

Imagine that you're on vacation in a foreign city, and you get lost while driving. If you were at home, you could stop and ask someone for directions. But here, you don't speak the language very well, so asking directions won't do much good. Instead, you can rely on a map, using landmarks, routes, and familiar signs, which successfully lead you back to your hotel. In this scenario, you have found your way back almost entirely through visual communication.

Visual communication is the transmission of information and ideas using symbols and imagery. It is one of three main types of communication, along with verbal communication (speaking) and non-verbal communication (tone, body language, etc.). Visual communication is believed to be the type that people rely on most, and it includes signs, graphic designs, films, typography, and countless other examples.

Communicating with Images

Given how broad a category visual communication is, it is somewhat difficult to trace its history. Nevertheless, there is evidence to suggest that it is the oldest form of communication. For example, in regions around the world, there are cave paintings from thousands of years ago, some dating back as far as 40,000 years. Cave paintings are a primitive form of communication that were drawn or etched into cave walls and ceilings. Though their exact purpose is not clear, these paintings include representations of, among other things, animals, landscapes, and sacred spaces, and act as a kind of prehistoric documentation.

As societies became more advanced, travel brought people that spoke different languages into contact with each other. In order to communicate, people developed pictograms around the 4th millennium BC as a way to communicate. Pictograms are images that represent physical objects and were used to share ideas or ask questions. For example, if I was in a foreign country and wanted to buy a tree, I could use a pictogram of a money sign and a tree to indicate my interest.

This works because, over time, there developed certain characteristics that people associated with different objects. A tree, for instance, has a trunk, branches, and different kinds of leaves. This sign would be universally recognized because the characteristics and meaning of the symbol are, at a basic level, shared around the world.

When people began printing with woodblocks around the year 600, the ability to communicate visually blew wide open. The printed word and other symbols allowed for ideas and information to be reproduced, shared, and preserved in a non-verbal way. Once these documents were translated into other languages, they were capable of traveling around the world.


In an academic context, the study of symbols and visual communications is called semiotics. Broadly, the purpose of semiotics is to analyze how people make meaning out of symbols, and how those symbols are interpreted. A basic example would be like the one made earlier about a tree: why do we look at a picture and automatically know that it means tree? This is primarily because people learn through society and culture what the word 'tree' means, which they then associate with the object and is ultimately recognized in the picture.

The tree example is fairly straightforward, but semiotics can actually get very complicated. Racial stereotypes, for example, rely heavily on semiotics in order to have any meaning. Consider the classic portraits of Native Americans that have been used frequently in advertising. You recognize this image because of semantics, which is the relationship between the symbol and its social or cultural meaning. In this case, you would see a darker complexion, possibly a headdress, war paint or some other stereotypical costume, which you have likely been taught to associate with Native Americans.

This application of meaning can get even more complicated when it extends to behaviors. Following the example of Native Americans, what if you saw someone dressed in that same costume and they were hunting with a primitive-looking bow and arrow, or maybe performing a powwow dance - would this strengthen your earlier association and interpretation? These types of behaviors and performances are referred to as signifying practices, or the behaviors and activities associated with a certain group.

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