Graphic images have become an increasingly powerful way of communicating ideas and messages more quickly and effectively than text alone. They impact almost all our daily activities.
Images rely for their effectiveness on the response of the viewer. They need to be instantly recognisable for what they are – the perception of objects is never the result of passive reflection, but a process of active collation. (Agostini 1988 p.8). The viewer brings their own experience to the text.
We are required to address the demands of visual communication in meaning-making, as recognised by the Australians Curriculum: English – Visual knowledge – Understand how visual elements create meaning.
Reading for inference
Graphic images do double duty. Like most written text, each is a ‘condensed idea’ (Sutherland 2010 p.23). It has the surface message, and a more extensive meaning behind it.
Even these straightforward road signs include explanatory notes on the NSW Government’s Roads and Maritime ‘Traffic Signs’ section of their website.
Awareness and understanding that visual images convey meaning on different levels supports the development of understanding that words in written text can do the same thing – the viewer/reader can infer meaning from the message created by the author. Explore this with the use of imagery in text.
By the time children come to school they are pretty good at communicating using both language – the vocabulary of the average 5 year-old is about 5000 words – and with symbols. They already have the understanding of inference.
We can lead our students’ into broader meanings of text by examining the broader meanings of graphic images with which they are familiar.
Many popular icons frame a story, a dream, or an aspiration. Thy can show both who we are and who we want to be. Or what we want to be seen to be.
Of course, what a logo or symbol represents isn’t always what was originally intended, and its meaning can change over time as well as with individual interpretation. Discussion with students can reveal different understandings of symbols. Shifts in meaning are often also deliberately exploited in advertising, for example.
Examining graphic images
Recognition and interpretation of different visual images sit firmly in the Australian Curriculum: English, in Literacy – ‘expanding the repertoire of English usage’ (AC:English)
A study of these as one aspect of multimodal texts will address the following aspects of literacy:
Texts in context
- Texts and the contexts in which they are used
Interpreting, analysing and evaluating
- Purpose and audience
- Reading processes
- Comprehension strategies
- Analysing and evaluating texts
Introduce the topic and some of the terminology. Provide examples of familiar symbols. Discuss each, its purpose and how it is doing ‘double duty’ as a recognisable image that represents something else – an instruction, a warning, values or activities of a business, or something even greater, such as with the red cross or red crescent which represents humanitarian assistance.
Provide some less familiar icons and discuss different interpretations, including the importance of ensuring clarity of meaning.
The strength of these logos matches the strength of their product. Everyone recognises the meaning of the outline of an apple, a pair of golden arches, and a swoosh symbol on a shoe. It’s clever stuff, using the power of graphic design to transcend language.
(Bisset ABC RN Blueprint for Living)
Currently we have dozens of apps, each with its own logo – from the place marker of Google Maps and the blue bird of Twitter to the stylized camera of Zoom.
Start a collection. Make the task manageable. Students can focus on one category, or the collection belongs to the class. Each needs to be identified as to what the name of the company/organisation is, and what the symbol represents.
Identify businesses’ logos, and categorise these – eg motor vehicles, clothing companies, apps, games, foods, retail chains etc. Compare and contract their designs. Research the companies or organisations and find out what they do, what the symbols mean, whether the logo/symbol is actually representative. Use the principles of design as a guide, and encourage students to develop their own thoughts and ideas.
Work with students to identify the differences between the message and the deeper or more extensive meanings.
- Street signs have important meanings for road users – investigate size, shape colour, placement; students can take photos to illustrate their comments; see ‘Traffic Signs’
- Warning signs such as for building sites, the coloured flags at the beach, hazard tape and walking track signs are to be noticed; see examples here.
- Look for designs based on regular geometric shapes or letters of the alphabet to see how the message has been constructed. Try here.
A symbol is quickly understood by the brain, just as a rooftop cross or crescent moon instantly tells us the purpose of the building it crowns. (Bisset ABC RN Blueprint for Living)
Make your own. There are internet sites that do all the work for anyone wanting to develop their own logo, but it is a great exercise for students to develop their own, perhaps around their initials or their family name. A useful site for examining and playing with the elements of this graphic design is here.
A couple of logo design links are included at the end of this piece.
To the future. With so many visual images crowding us, the words of linguist Richard Hudson are appropriate –
‘Language is like any device which we humans find helpful … it can be dangerous if not controlled intelligently’
(Hudson, 1984 p.153).
We are seeing the power of words in propaganda, of ‘fake news’, of rumour and misinformation and the emotional, often irrational responses that can be generated, especially in challenging times.
And we are being exposed to tsunamis of images – apps’ icons, online everything, texting conventions, advertising, and the development of emoticons, so that the image has almost achieved supremacy over the use of written text in our daily lives.
We have to give attention to visual literacy for our students.
Explore visual ambiguities. Students will be able to see how each interpretation brings a different ‘back story’ to the image. Try The Necker Cube, Rhombille tiling, and the work of Dutch artist M.C. Escher (view some of his images here). Stage 3 students can construct their own.
Callow, J. (2013) The shape of text to come Newtown: PETAA introduces the elements of visual literacy.
Agostini, F. (1988) Visual Games UK: Guild Publishing
Hudson, R. A. (1984) Invitation to Linguistics Oxford: Martin Robertson & Company Ltd
Sutherland, J. (2010) 50 literature ideas you really need to know London: Quercus Publishing Plc