Quick definition: visual rhetoric is a form of communication that uses images to create meaning or construct an argument. Here's an example:
Many prospective college students visit university websites when trying to decide on a shortlist of colleges that they will apply to. You may have visited the Stanford website for this very reason, probably looking at the "Introduction" to Stanford created for prospective students. This in itself is a deftly crafted piece of visual rhetoric

-- a persuasive visual piece designed to make a certain argument about what Stanford means and what type of student attend it. The goal? To convince you that Stanford is the place you belong. Take a moment and follow the link to Stanford's introduction. Look at the first four images across the top of the screen:

  • First you see the young woman studying. Notice the classic library setting, complete with leather arm chair: also notice how she is studying -- not sitting upright, but lounging to one side, obviously engaged in her reading. Apparently, this image suggests, Stanford is a place where tradition meets individual style -- where learning is an enjoyable, comfortable experience.

  • Next we move to the second image: the college professor. He seems actively engaged in his research (an important detail for a Research institution like Stanford); also his ethnicity marks Stanford as an institution committed to diversity at all levels of education.
  • The image of the intense academic is balanced by the next picture in the sequence, which highlights women's athletics. Think about the implications of the camera angle (slightly skewed), the decision to feature women's sports rather than men's, and the way that this picture provides a balance to the first photo of the solitary student in the library.

  • Now look at the last image that greets you before you officially begin your on-line tour: the classic Stanford image of students biking through the quad. Here it all is: Stanford tradition (the beautiful arches) and the unique Stanford student life (biking culture). Below this image lies the "entrance" to the tour itself, so the images have moved you from left to right, and then draws you in to the tour.

Obviously, you could continue this analysis in many ways:

  • By looking at the tour itself
  • By comparing this tour to the Stanford slideshow that heads the Stanford homepage
  • By looking at the different messages about Stanford featured on the cover of your Approaching Stanford guide or your facebook
  • By comparing Stanford's site for prospective students to that of other University's to see how the arguments differ between institutions.

In analyzing images in this way, what you're doing is analyzing VISUAL RHETORIC: the way the images work on their own and collaborate with written text to create an argument designed to move a specific audience.


go to Visrhet Example 2 -- Example 3 -- Example 4 -- back to home