Kress and van leeuwen visual grammar

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kress and van leeuwen visual grammar

Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design by Gunther Kress

I was reading this book during the week and it said something and I suddenly realised I could test what it said by doing a quiz of my friends on Facebook. This is the question I asked:

You approach the toilets in a public building and the only symbols on the doors to indicate the sex of the users are a square and a circle. Which door should a woman enter?

Probably the square

Probably the circle

Couldnt begin to guess


I’ll leave you to think about that for a while - if you are interested you can put your answer in the comment section.

This is a seriously interesting book. It applies Halliday’s functional linguistics to how we make meaning from images. I’ve been reading – off and on – Halliday’s An Introduction to Functional Grammar over the last couple of months. The problem isn’t so much that it is a hard read. It is that, but not insanely so. The problem is that the book is too big to be read comfortably and so I need to be sitting at a desk to read it. This has made other, more conveniently sized books much more appealing.

For example, one of the things Halliday says is that sentences in English generally come in two parts, what would traditionally have been called the subject of the sentence followed by the predicate. The subject of the sentence is generally ‘known’ and comes first in the sentence (at the left of the sentence) – It is the person or thing we are telling the story about. What is ‘unknown’ is what they have been up to. So, English sentences tend to move from the known to the unknown and from left to right. This book gives lots of examples from art and newspapers where this structure also applies to our reading of images. Often the thing that is given is placed on the left of the drawing and what is problematic is placed on the right. They even go so far as to say that when new, push button phones came out in the early 1990s they tended to have the handset (what had remained the same about phones) on the left hand side and the new fangled buttons and answering machine functions on the right – despite right-handed people then having to juggle the phone into their left hand to use it properly.

A wonderfully interesting example of this is given when they talk about God in works of art in both medieval and renaissance art. In medieval art God is the given and so He often appears on the left-hand side of the image. But on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Adam is on the left and God on the right – this is because by the Renaissance man is the obvious given and God had become problematic and in need of explanation.

If moving from the left to the right is a movement from the known to the unknown and problematic, then up and down in the frame is also highly significant. The bottom of an image is related to the earth, the top the sky: the mundane and the ethereal, the real and the ideal. I understand these classification systems don’t always work, but over the last few days I’ve become fascinated looking at images and objects and it is remarkable how often these schemes have helped me interpret images.

Of course, not all images are meant to be read left to right or even up and down. Some images are centre focused and so what is in the centre of the picture is of maximum importance and things become less important as they move out towards the periphery. They present an image of the Buddha in the centre of a lotus flower and other holy men on the petals around him as an example.

These ‘rules of thumb’ are also shown to apply to flow-charts and newspaper layouts. They show how changing the orientation of image and text changes the meaning of the layout – and this is quite something.

There is also a very interesting discussion on abstraction – particularly distortion within scientific drawing. The example I enjoyed the most concerned the standard textbook drawing of a cube. Generally this involves a perfect square facing the viewer and parallel lines going off to the side so you can see a side and the top. Interestingly, if you could see a perfect square face of a cube that would be all you would be able to see – the other faces, by definition, would remain hidden from view. But scientific drawing isn’t really interested in naturalism – it is about illustrating reality in such a way as to make a problem or experiment transparently clear, not really in duplicating reality. So, scientific drawing is about distorting reality so as to make it, in a way, more real. I’ve drawn cubes like this all of my life and never really thought about them being ‘distorted’. Some images are presented from Newton’s Optics as a case in point – since Newton stands early in the scientific process his drawings are, if anything, far too life like – and so not nearly schematised enough, not abstract enough.

The point the authors make strongly at the start and justify throughout the rest of the book is that we assume images are immediate and transparent and so students don’t really need instruction in learning how to read them. However, I really wish at some stage someone had offered me some instruction in the basics of reading images. A lot of what helps us to make sense of images, like the choices of focus and lighting and perspective, seem obvious when they are explained – but really, it takes the greatest of geniuses to point out the obvious. We can generally do with more people prepared to point out the obvious in the world – even if, like Socrates and Jesus, sometimes we then have to kill them for doing just that.

I’m going to end with the results I sent to my friends who responded to my quiz above about women and toilets:

I’ve been reading a book called ‘Reading Images’ – anyway, it said in passing that two of the fundamental shapes (the circle and the square) are gendered in our culture. They said this is because there are no squares in nature, but our civilisation abounds in them. There are windows and walls and city blocks and television screens. Nature prefers curves and circles. But we also have a preference for considering nature as female – mother nature – and civilisation as being male – man-made. When I read this I thought it was one of those likely sounding ideas that wouldn’t quite work if you put it to the test. So, I put it to the test.

I’ve asked the question here on Facebook and to people elsewhere. The results so far have been:

Don’t Know 6 Circle 20 Square 0

Now, some of you thought this should be completely random – but let’s imagine it actually was. Let’s say the question had been: “I am going to flip a coin, will it land – heads, tails or I don’t know?” In that case surely most people would say – I don’t know. There might be some who would say heads (I’m even prepared to believe more people would say heads than tails) but surely some of those silly enough to choose something other than ‘I don’t know’ would also say tails. Notice that not one, single person said the woman should go through the square signed door.

Prior to doing this I was wondering what I might consider a fair level of statistical significance. So far that hasn’t really been an issue. I suspect the odds of getting 20 people to say women = circle and none to say women = square is 2 to the power of 20 (thanks Choupette) to one against – or about a million : 1.

Now, it might well be that the authors’ reasons for coming up with why we associate circles with women are wrong. Alternative suggestions so far have focused on circles and holes or on the shapes of male and female bodies. I can accept that there is something to all of these or perhaps that they are all rubbish – but the fact seems to remain that our society is much more gendered than we generally notice.

I want to stress how bizarre this is. In the hypothetical hotel toilets I made up I put what might well have seemed like two completely random shapes on the doors – shapes people don’t generally think about as being gendered in any way – and yet nearly 80% of people picked the ‘right’ door for each of the sexes to go through and not a single person went through the ‘wrong’ door. If success was no girls in the boys toilets then we have 100% success.

Oh, and two people – both female – told me they thought the experiment so obvious it didn’t really even need doing.

Thanks for taking the time to do this - I had no idea it would work out quite the way it did.


Since then I’ve had five more people respond – all have voted for the circle.
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Published 27.12.2018

Professor Gunther Kress on The Materiality of Signs

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Gunther Kress

Reading images : the grammar of visual design

A comprehensive account of the grammar of visual design. Draws on examples from children's drawings to textbook illustrations, photo-journalism to fine art, as well as three-dimensional forms such as sculpture to examine how images convey meaning. Read more Please choose whether or not you want other users to be able to see on your profile that this library is a favorite of yours. Finding libraries that hold this item Praise for the first edition:'Reading Images is the most important book in visual communication since Jacques Bertin's Semiology of Information Graphics. It is both thorough and thought-provoking; a remarkable breakthrough.

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What is MULTIMODALITY? What does MULTIMODALITY mean? MULTIMODALITY meaning & explanation

In the early years of schooling, children are constantly encouraged to produce images, and to illustrate their written work. They are seen as self-expression, rather than as communication: as something which the children can do already, spontaneously, rather than as something they have to be taught. Whereas texts produced for the early years of schooling are richly illustrated, later on visual images give way to a greater and greater proportion of verbal, written text. In as much as visual images continue, they have become maps, diagrams or representations with a technical function — photographs illustrating a particular landform or estuary or settlement type, in a geography textbook, for instance. Outside school, however, images continue to play a very important role, and not just in texts for children.

An okay intermediate-level manual of the semiotics of visuals and visual design. Imperfect, and full of a lot of what most people would call "theory gibberish. Gunther R. Reading Images provides the first systematic and comprehensive account of the grammar of visual design. By looking at the formal elements and structures of design - colour, perspective, framing and composition, Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeunwen examine the ways in which images communicate meaning. Drawing on an enormous range of examples - children's drawings, textbook illustrations, photojournalism, advertising images and fine art, as well as three-dimensional forms such as sculpture and architecture, the authors demonstrate the differences and the similarities between the grammar of language and that of visual communication.

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5 thoughts on “Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design by Gunther Kress

  1. Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data. Kress, Gunther R. Reading images: the grammar of visual design / Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen.

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