The Grammar of visual design

The Grammar of visual design

Kress and van Leeuwen in their book, The Grammar of Visual Design have tried to produce a ‘grammar of visual design’ with the aim to present a socially-based theory of visual representation.  They employ an analogy with language, noting that others working in visual semiotics before them have tended to concentrate on what could be described as the ‘lexis’ rather than the ‘grammar’ of images. Those concentrated on the lexis have focused on the isolated meaning projected by the individuals, scenes and objects portrayed within images. Whereas a concentration on grammar would be concerned with the connected meanings.

In this context “grammar” is not a set of rules for the correct use of language but rather a set of socially constructed resources for the assemblage of meaning.  Kress and Van Leeuwen  believe that visual design, like language and all semiotic modes, is a social  construct, and thus they try to decipher what is encoded  in images in order to arrive at coherent, meaningful, and focused messages, in much the same way that discourse analysts examine how words are combined into clauses, sentences and whole texts.  In fact, both culture and ideology are important in both the verbal and visual grammars, a point which Kress and van Leeuwen highlight in quoting Halliday’s assertion that;

Grammar goes beyond formal rules of correctness. It is a means of representing patterns of experience … It enables human beings to present a mental picture of reality, to make sense of their experience of what goes on around them and inside them.

historian of visual design

Thus a historian of visual design, instead of focusing on the designers, must concentrate on understanding of the visual culture. In such an inquiry, the researcher would focus on the socio-economic effects of design and on day-to-day impact of the visual communication on culture and  on political power structure.  Unfortunately, in many art schools, the history of visual communication remains essentially an dispensable or inconsequential ancillary to the design studio. Although the history courses are offered to enrich the information set of graphic designers, they are mostly seen as irrelevant, due to their lack of any socio-cultural vision and analytical depth. In fact, many of the instructors of the history of graphic design courses are not qualified researchers. They have been assigned to their tasks because the school administrators, in their infallible judgments, have inferred from the fact that somebody is already a visual art practitioner, therefore must be able to teach the history of his/her practice. Even in many of the European, and American art schools the visual design history is often taught by part-time instructors on hourly contracts, and many graphic designers see no relevance in design history for the practical side of their profession. Moreover, many instructors themselves are unaware of the socio-cultural significance of their tasks, and quite frequently undermine the importance of having a historical background as a prerequisite for studio works. For instance, Louis Danziger, has described his design history teaching, as neither academic nor scholarly , but something which is primarily concerned with helping students to enhance their performance as designers. He has asserted that practitioners cannot be good historians because their experience “inevitably introduces biases,” and they “cannot be objective.”

visual design

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