One of the strategic resources that rhetors can call upon in formulating communication
is the arrangement of visual elements. Although a good backdrop is a basic for
planning strategic speaking situations, the arrangement of visual elements is
even more important in non-oral formats. To track these choices, the following
dimensions highlight the strategic choices:
Strategic Dimensions of Visual Arrangement
- Selection. What will you present visually? What photographs
will you choose to include? what pictographs? what words in headlines?
- Spatial Placement. We know that some placements are more
important than others.
- Items more centrally located draw the eye first.
- Items located higher in the visual draw attention before those located
lower in the visual.
- A centrally located image will draw the eye from the edges of a visual
into the center.
- Temporal Placement. If there is a time dimension in the message,
beginnings and endings are particularly powerful in gaining attention. The
principle here is the same as in speeches.
- Size. Larger items receive more visual attention than smaller
items. This is the principle for headlining. The principle carries over into
the size of photographs and pictographs, and the number of columns across
a newspaper page that a story receives.
- Motion. Motion draws the eye. The motion may be actual
or a still photograph that depicts action.
- Interaction. These dimensions can work to reinforce each
other, or in resistance to each other. That is, large centrally located motion,
is particularly strong in drawing the eye. Or, a large photograph placed in
the lower right hand corner of a newspaper page will compete for attention
with a large headline higher in the page.
These are the dimensions to study.
Framing versus Information
Earlier we differentiated between communication as
information and communication as form. It was the latter that provided the
resources for the framing power of rhetoric. These two dimensions -- framing and
information -- are important in analyzing the strategic choices of visual arrangement.
- What information is presented? This question gets you to
the heart of selection for inclusion in the visual. The dimensions of arrangements
emphasize the different attention given to various bits of information. A
photograph, for example, presents particular information.
- What information is not presented? Because of the power
of the visual, what information to not include is equally strategic. And similarly,
placement deemphasizes certain information. For example, just as photographs
present information they deemphasize other information they do not present.
- How are the dimensions of the visual tied to the strategic frame?
Because the dimensions of the visual manage attention and emphasis they work
in the service of the frame. A photograph, for example, serves to frame information
into a particular story the photograph tells.
Formats and Visual Arrangement
There are variations in the strategic dimensions of visual arrangement in different
Everyday the editorial staff of a newspaper makes decisions about which stories
are most important. The newspaper is designed to relay this judgement. Newspaper
advertising, while generally beyond editorial control, employs the same principles
as news judgement.
- Sections and pages. Obviously front section priority (material in
the front section is more important than inside sections) and front page priority
(material on front page of sections is more important than material on subsequent
pages) is a principle of newspaper design.
- Above the fold. The basic principle of page design is the "above
the fold" principle: more important placement is in the upper portion
of the unfolded newspaper. The other dimensions including size and placement
principles apply as well.
- Color is another important dimension of newspaper design. Color pictures
or typeface receive more visual attention.
- Photographs have particular emphasis in newspapers because of the
dominance of typeface in the newspaper.
Some magazines work in ways similar to newspapers. Others, however, reverse
the typeface/photo ratio and adopt a format called "photo-journalism."
Advertising in magazines exploits the same visual arrangement dimensions as
- In photo-journalism the typeface (captions or stories) serves to modify
(reinforce or offset) the emphasis dimensions of visual arrangement.
- Other strategic dimensions of visual arrangement apply to photo-journalism.
Of course, all the dimensions of strategic choice that we have highlighted
govern the power of television advertising. The dimensions of visual arrangement
provide a framework for understanding the visual dimensions that separate the
power of television from oral speaking situations.
Television news combines the strategic choices of any speaker with the strategic
choices of newspapers. In doing so there are important dimensions for attention.
- Modern news channels carry several types of video
|Type of video
||Primary strategic planner
||Strategic media control
||Pass video/audio through unedited
||Rhetor presenting message
||to select to carry video/audio
||Questioner interrogating subject
||Experts being questioned
||Shared between questioner and subject
||Selection of subject; questions to be asked
||News account constucted by producer &/or reporter
||Nightly news story
||Story to present; all strategic choices
||News media figures speculating on events
||Sunday talk shows
||Anchor/moderator & talking head
||Who to give forum; issues to discuss; how to present position
- An overall newscast is arranged according to principles of selection, principles
of size, and principles of temporal priority.
- Individual stories are assembled from the following elements:
- Images captured by camera, including the speeches of principals, are
presented as supporting material for a story thesis. These images constitute
the primary information of a story and are influenced by the dimensions
of visual arrangement. Remember that images are selected so that even
though you may see a speaker, the real rhetor in the story is editorial.
- The reporter in the story adds additional information, but primarily
frames the story. This is a second level of story and the most dominant
level in establishing the frame.
- Typically, an anchor introduces the story with a headline that helps
set up the frame for the story. This is a third level of strategic control.
- Modern screen presentation often includes headlines over the shoulder
or at bottom of screen that also frames the story by reducing it to an
essential element as primary.
- As you analyze the strategic dimension of television news, layer your analysis:
- Determine type of video and who exercises strategic control
- Analyze the strategic dimensions of the newscast
- Analyze the strategic dimensions of the introduction of the story
- Analyze the strategic dimensions of the reporter presenting the story
- Analyze the strategic dimensions of the visual supporting material within
Although television news often presents their purpose as "to inform"
be sure you carefully analyze purpose beyond just informing. Is the story there
to promote commercial interests of the station? Does the story promote a particular
strategic position on an issue? This does not mean that stories are not there
"to inform," but they may be there for other purposes as well.
Internet Web Pages
Web pages have an inherently visual dimension.
- To the principles of any visual arrangement add the consideration of the
initial screen appearance. What loads on the screen first? What is below or
offscreen initially? What use is made of headlines?
- A second unique characteristic of web pages is that they are what we call
pull-technology rather than push-technology. That is, unlike the mass media,
the audience member is not "passive" but must take action to seek
information beyond the initial page. Thus, internet links are particularly
important in strategically expanding the audience's search for additional
- Finally, differentiate between web pages that merely deliver a different
medium through the web (such as this one) and those which are specifically
designed with the unique powers of the web included.
Working through a message
- Remember that, first and foremost, strategic messages that emphasize the
visual are still strategic messages. Analyze them using all the things you
have learned are appropriate starting with analyses of audience, purpose,
and rhetorical situation.
- Remember that visuals are a form of supporting material. As such they make
an argument. Pay particular attention to the proposition supported with visuals.
- Then work to understand how the dimensions of visual arrangement fit into
the overall strategic choices of the messages.