Comunicación Visual en el Diseño Gráfico • Ilka Perea Studio

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design

Communication that is done through sight is called visual communication. It plays an important role in our daily lives. For example, facial expressions, gestures, signs, maps, graphs, and posters all contain visual communication. It offers a more efficient and aesthetic transmission of ideas so it is important to know the concepts of visual communication for graphic design.

Visual communication involves the transmission of messages through visual media and is therefore considered one of the most important basic concepts in graphic design. It also explores the idea that a visual message that accompanies text has a greater power to inform, educate or persuade a target audience or public; for instance, books, magazines, interactive design, videos, advertising design, corporate identity, or packaging design.

Visual Communication

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: Vloggers
Vlogs are excellent examples of how visual communication supports topics that oral communication fails to explain completely. Photo: www.freepik.com

Why are Visual Communication concepts important for Graphic Design?

Visual communication is the transmission of ideas and information in ways that can be perceived wholly or partly by sight. Among its benefits are instantaneous transmission, ease of understanding, and cross-cultural communication.

Advantages of Visual Communication

Ease of understanding

One of the main advantages of visual communication is simplicity. Complex information, data, and numbers can be easily presented in graphs, images, and diagrams.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: Books and teaching materials for preschoolers
Books and teaching materials for preschoolers rely on the resources offered by visual communication for educational purposes. Photo: Freepik.com

Increased efficiency

Visual techniques help prevent loss of time. Oral and written communication takes a long time to exchange information; instead, messages arrive more quickly when they are communicated visually. Visual communication helps make quick decisions. Imagine a sign in red. Without reading, it is known to be a matter of caution and the senses are alerted.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: Regulatory traffic signs
Regulatory traffic signs are geometric symbols with a red border, white background and black lettering. They communicate to drivers the limits and prohibitions on the road. Photo: javi_indy – www.freepik.com

Improving the aesthetics of a presentation

Not only are they easier to read, but they also make the information more attractive to see. Charts, graphs, tables, etc. are color-coded, making them easier to see. Imagine numbers thrown on a sheet versus numbers visually arranged on the sheet using shapes that are easier to understand.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: Enhanced presentations
Well-designed graphics enhance presentations. Photo: creativeart – www.freepik.com

Flexibility for intercultural communication

When people cannot understand the foreign language, a symbol or image will remove the language barriers. This is why many public places use signs as well as words to send messages. Such flexible communication can reduce geographical distance and cross-cultural differences.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: Traffic light icons
Traffic light icons and colors are recognized no matter what language the viewer speaks. Photo: jeshoots – www.freepik.com

Effective for illiterate readers

Very similar to the case of cultural difference. Regardless of the language, if the receiver is illiterate, visual communication can replace written communication by making the exchange of information more effective. They can easily understand the information that is presented visually. For example, storybooks for preschoolers.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: Animal Rescue de Patrick George.
Animal Rescue is the product of Patrick George’s creative work. This is a wordless book that allows the reader to choose the level of interaction appropriate for the child. Photo: Amazon.com.
Animal Rescue by Patrick George.

Oral communication aid

Visual techniques can be used with oral communication. This type of communication becomes more meaningful if graphics, images, and diagrams are used with it. For example, teaching materials for education or museum exhibitions and murals.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: oral information
In business meetings, diagrams often support the exhibitor’s presentations to complement the oral information. Photo: pressahotkey – www.freepik.com

More comfortable

Visual communication is more comfortable because people don’t like long speeches and long explanations. Consequently, most people prefer an attractive image that summarizes the message. For example, infographics.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: Infographics
Infographics can simplify large data contents into visually pleasing and more easily comprehensive information. Photo: Jordan Alvarado

Disadvantages of Visual Communication

There are some limitations to visual communication:

Incomplete method

This technique is considered an incomplete method because a visual presentation is not sufficient to communicate everything clearly. However, it can be a successful method if complemented by oral communication.

Time as a resource

Sometimes visual techniques require a lot of time to be designed. While oral communication can be immediate.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design:  visual media is time-consuming
Designing diagrams, infographics, posters, displays and other visual media is time-consuming, without taking into account the complexity of the project. Photo: freepic.diller – www.freepik.com

Ambiguity

Sometimes the visual message is misinterpreted by the receiver so the message is distorted. Both the sender and the receiver are required to share a common frame of reference and the same context.

Visual Language

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: emoticons
With a few graphic elements, ideas can be coded and express emotions. Therefore, emoticons are modern examples of visual language. Photo: Freepik.com

What is the difference between Visual Communication and Visual Language?

Visual language is the communication system used in the creation of visual messages. While visual communication allows the exchange of information through sight, visual language is the set of graphic images and signs used to encode the elements that have been seen. In other words, visual language supports visual communication.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: Visual Communication Process
Visual language is part of visual communication.

But visual language is subject to certain semiotic rules because it is a system of signs that must be coded (by the designer) and decoded (by the audience or users) who share the same visual language. Therefore, visual communication takes place.

In order to strategically build your message, the designers must know the different visual signs to use them properly in their design and recognize the power of image to convey a clear, direct, and eye-catching message.

Sign

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: Photography
Photos are one of the most commonly used icon-type signs in graphic design. Photo: www.freepik.com

What is a sign?

Sign can be defined as that which refers to something else, which is absent. Signs are containers of concepts that gain meaning when they are interpreted by memory, similarity, or analogy. Signs do not have any meaning by themselves, we give them meaning when we interpret them.

Semiotics deals with signs and their relationship to objects and meaning. Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the founders of semiotics, saw signs as the basic unit of meaning and defined its two parts: the signifier and the signified.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design:  Sign, signifier, signified

In short, the signifier is the existing physical reference associated with something (e.g., the dog), the signified is the idea or concept of the thing (e.g., the idea that evokes the image of the dog), and the sign is the object that combines the signifier and the signified into a meaningful unit (the photo of the dog). The sign is the relationship between the concept and the representation of that concept.


Example –  One sign. Several signified.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: One sign. Several signified.
Photograph of a big brown Labrador retriever. Photo: master1305 / Freepik

For our example, we have a photograph of a big brown labrador retriever. The photograph is the sign.

Let’s imagine two scenarios: one represented by Amanda, the other by David. In both scenarios, the dog is not present, but in its absence, its photograph will evoke several meanings in spite of being the same signifier: dog.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design:
According to our example, Amanda loves dogs. For her, dogs have a positive meaning. Photo: Freepik.com

Amanda has a dog. Her dog is a brown labrador. She loves her dog. It’s not just her pet. She considers him her best friend. In this scenario, Amanda sees a picture of a dog (the sign) and recognizes the resemblance to her dog: the same breed, color, age, and size (signifier). For Amanda, the picture of the dog has a positive connotation because, for her, dogs are affable, faithful, loving, and secure (signified).


Review 1

Let’s look at Amanda’s case:

  • Sign: Photograph of a brown labrador retriever
  • Signifier: Dog
  • Signified: Security / tenderness / friendship

The opposite is the case with David. He had a difficult experience with a dog as a child.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: aggressive dog is intimidating
An aggressive dog is intimidating. For David, dogs are dangerous. Photo: photoangel / Freepik

David has also seen the photo of the big brown labrador retriever (sign). The dog of his childhood was different. But in the absence of that dog (referent), the photograph of the brown labrador (sign) reminds him of the incident. For David, the photograph of the dog has a negative connotation because for him, dogs are aggressive, dangerous, threatening (signified).


Review 2

Let’s look at David’s case:

  • Sign: Photograph of a brown labrador retriever
  • Signifier: Dog
  • Signified: Danger / aggressiveness / threat

As we have seen, the same sign can have different signified. Likewise with the signifier. A signifier can have more than one signified.

In this sense, there are people who have dogs to take care of a property; others, for company. Thus we have that the signifier “dog” can have as signified security or friendship.

In practice…

Dog food ads should consider what segment of the market they are targeting. The treatment will be different.

A group needs to feed a big, strong dog. The other group wants to spoil their pet with the best food to keep them healthy. This group often makes a large investment in their pet because they consider it a family member.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: Advertising Design Concept for "Pedigree" Dog Food • Martin Spasovski
Photo: Advertising Design Concept for “Pedigree” Dog Food • Martin Spasovski

Keep in mind that the signifier and signified cannot be separated and provide a meaningful basis for the sign.

Sign Structure

Sign has been defined in many ways, both functionally and by its components. When reviewing some definitions, several terms come to mind:

  • the stimulus: it is the physical signal that is used
  • the signifier: is the model of which the stimulus is a manifestation
  • signified: it is the concept or mental representation of meaning, which can be
  • logical or
  • psychological
  • the referent: is what we are talking about when we use a particular sign

The sign is the unit produced by combining one or more of the terms described above.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: Sign Structure: Referent, Signifier, Signified, Sign

Sign Components

The stimulus is the perceivable physical element (for example, the photograph or something in the photograph) that serves as the substrate on which the signifier manifests itself.

The signifier is the physical model; for instance, the dog, body posture or expression, location, or size, of which the stimulus is a manifestation.

The signified is the mental concept contained in the sign. It is often divided into semes, which are semantic characteristics (indicated by diagonal bars). For example, the signified for “rose” is the sum of semes as / flower /, / red /, and so on. Seme is the smallest unit of meaning recognized in semantics.

As the sign is the photograph of Luna, the signifier “tongue out” and the associated concept “thirst” have been taken. The signified is: “Luna is thirsty”.

The concept is the mental representation corresponding to the signified. As well as the referent, the concept is the most problematic term to describe. It has been defined in numerous, sometimes contradictory ways. The concept is sometimes seen as a logical element, sometimes as a psychological element; sometimes as a universal or general element (one that does not show significant variation from one individual to another) and sometimes as an individual element. It seems that the theories that incorporate the logical concept as part of the sign do not incorporate the psychological concept and vice versa.

The referent can correspond to a concrete element (the cat is shown in a drawing of a cat) or an abstract element (love, represented by the icon of a heart). It can correspond to a real element or a fictional one.

Visual Signs

Visual signs can take different forms. For instance, they can be a logo, a geometric figure, a photograph, graffiti, or traffic signs. Despite being in different forms, Charles Sanders Peirce, another founder of semiotics, classified signs into 3 types: Index, Icon, and Symbol.

Index

The Index is a sign formed from some physical remnant of elements represented. Indexes, signs or traces are all those signs that maintain a physical relationship with their referent, there is a real connection with the objects. In few words, there is a cause-effect.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: The footprints on the sand - Index sign
Index is a sign that shows evidence of what’s being represented. The footprints on the sand are an indication of who walked there. Photo: freepik – www.freepik.com

For example, footprints in the sand can indicate whether it was a person, an animal, or a vehicle. In the image of the beach, the person is not present but the footprint gives evidence of its walk in that area. It can even be determined if the person was barefoot or wearing shoes if it was an adult or a small child.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: Seguros ARS SUPERFULL • David Munoz Suarez
The example shows the huge footprint on the pavement. Although the creature is not seen, the footprint is a sign that it is a large and heavy creature. Photo: David Munoz Suarez
Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: Nike Unlimited Stadium
This running track in Manila is shaped like a Nike shoe print. Photo: Nike Unlimited Stadium
Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: Nike Unlimited Stadium
At this example, it can be deduced what the size and type of footwear would be from the size and shape of the footprint. Photo: Nike Unlimited Stadium
Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: McDonald's billboard
McDonald’s billboard. Photo: puromarketing.com
Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: index sign
Announcement against violence to women. The facial laceration is an index sign. The beating was not seen, but one can deduce how hard it was.
Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: index sign
Stained glass design. Photo: farklifarkli.com

Icon

An icon is a direct imitation of the object or concept it represents.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: icon sign
The icon is any sign that maintains a similarity with the represented object. Photos: kriengsuk / Freepik , vectorpouch / Freepik

With icons exist a real connection between the signifier and the signified. Icons have a physical resemblance to what is represented. A photograph is an example of an icon sign. Take a picture of a tree and the resulting image will look like that tree. Paintings and sculptures are also examples of icon signs.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: BEM BOM - Burger Branding • Márcia Quintela Viana
For example, you can see the logo whose elements resemble a hamburger. Photo: Márcia Quintela Viana

A selfie for VanGogh

Samsung Electronics presents the campaign “For self-portraits. Not selfies.” for the NX Mini camera.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: VincentVanGogh
Campaign “For self-portraits. Not selfies.” by Samsung.

Based on VanGogh’s famous self-portrait, Samsung recreates the supposed environment where the work was painted. The concept of icon is used to maintain the relationship between selfie and self-portrait.

Symbol

The Symbol is a sign that has lost all relation with the characteristics of the represented object but that acquires a meaning.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: symbol icon
The white dove symbolizes peace. The relationship between the symbol and the represented is random. Photo: www.freepik.com

The symbols are at the opposite end of the icons. The connection between signifier and signified in symbols is completely arbitrary and must be learned culturally. The relationship between this type of sign and its object is established by a specific, culturally established law or norm; there is no common shared code, therefore, it is not universal.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: alphabet
The letters of an alphabet are a good example of symbols. The shape of each letter and the sound it represents have no physical connection to each other. Photo: HT Nuage™ DisplayConstantinos Ηaritos

There is no logical connection between a symbol and what it represents. The connection must be learned and is usually associated with the concept it represents within a context. For example, language, numbers, flags and musical notes are symbols. What they communicate must be learned.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: Religious Symbols
Religions use symbols to represent their faith and to differentiate themselves from others. The figure shows religion and the name of the symbol that represents it.
Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: symbol sign
American Airlines Advertisement.
Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: Orbit ad
Orbit Advertisement. Photo: ideasparalaclase.com

An icon or index can also become a symbol over time through repetition.

Difference between icons and symbols

Generally, symbols represent an abstract concept and may be linked to an icon or an index.

To clarify this point we have, for example, the Latin cross. The Latin cross is an icon, in that it bears a physical similarity to the cross on which Jesus was crucified, as dictated by the Christian tradition.

The similarity is in their shape. The Latin cross can vary in material, it doesn’t have to be made of wood for it to retain its resemblance to the one used by the Romans for crucifixions.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: icon and symbol signs
The cross is the icon that represents the cross where Jesus was crucified. Photo: www.freepik.com

However, the Latin cross was taken by the first Christians to identify themselves among themselves, as a representation of the new religious doctrine, the symbol of the New Gospel.

The relationship between the Latin cross and the faith professed by a group of Jesus’ followers is totally arbitrary; their relationship is not one of cause and effect (index) neither is it one of physical likeness (icon). Religion is an open and subjective concept. It is here that of all the available icons, Christians choose the shape of the cross where Jesus died as a symbol of their faith.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: icon sign + symbol sign
The icon of the cross is used as a symbol of the Christian religion. Photo: www.freepik.com

This same case can be applied to the Star of David. It has an icon that is the star, but it is the symbol of Judaism.

The “icons” that aren’t icons…

Today the term “icon” is closely linked to the graphics we see on the web or in user interfaces to describe a function or activity.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: user interfaces symbols
Function symbols for user interfaces.

When computer user interfaces were first created, most of the signs were imitations of real objects. For example the printer, the folder, and the floppy disk. This is possibly the reason why we refer to all signs on user interfaces as “icons”.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: Floppy Disk icon
Floppy Disk Icon

Of course, the original signifiers used were icons in the sense that they resembled what they represented. In the past, documents were stored on floppy disks or disks, for which a similar icon was designated. Floppy disks have now been replaced by larger and more secure equipment and storage systems, even though they are no longer physical but digital. Now there is the “cloud” whose icon is a cloud but is the symbol of a digital storage service over the Internet.

Similarly happened with the e-mail symbol. As you know, its icon is an envelope similar to the one used to send letters at the Post and Telegraph Office. Now that same envelope icon symbolizes the function of sending an e-mail. Another example is the paper plane icon that symbolizes the “send (message)” function.

Image

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: image
Smartphone cameras allow you to capture images of reality. Photo: rawpixel.com / Freepik

Power of Image

The sign is a unit of representation.
An image, therefore, is a sign and, therefore, a unit of representation of visual language. An image is a visual representation, which manifests the visual appearance of a real or imaginary object.

Reality is everything that exists, whether it is a tangible object or an imaginary concept; while an image is a representation of reality. Within the structure of the sign, the image can be a stimulus. The referents are found in reality. As an element of visual language, the designer (encoder) makes use of the image to replace a real element and transforms it into a meaningful element (sign) that will be decoded (understood) by the user (receiver).

Images are a powerful force in design. No matter what the subject, we are attracted to them: from beautiful high-definition photos to carefully designed graphics. We always respond to images naturally and almost intuitively. The old adage “A picture is worth a thousand words” confirms their communicative power by delivering complex messages that are more truthful than words. 

Designers use images such as photographs, illustrations, logos, or stylized symbols to achieve the desired impact on their designs. They are the hook to attracts the viewer. Compelling images help designers to connect with their audience and make a strong impression, even before they have read a single word.

Denotation and Connotation

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: LEGO ad
LEGO advertisement. Photo: legosaurus.com

The image has a dichotomic description. First, a description, or denotation, puts the important details into words without interpreting the meaning. For example, the denotation of the LEGO advertisement will be: “Plain yellow background, a spoon, a fork, a white plate full of LEGO pieces in yellow, red and green. Second, when someone interprets the meaning of the image, it is a connotation. Continuing with the same example, a connotation of the image could be: “Playing with LEGO feeds the imagination.”

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: connotation and dennotation
SURFRIDER FOUNDATION Advertisement. Photo: hellogreen.mx
Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: Plasticeberg: National Geographic cover  by Jorge Gamboa.
Plasticeberg: National Geographic cover by Jorge Gamboa. Photo: domestika.org

The denotation is the literal description of the signifier, while the connotation focuses on the underlying message or feelings contained in the image, the signified. The first one is literal; the second one is implicit.

Connotation and denotation are not two separate concepts. Consequently, they are two aspects or elements of a sign, and connotative signifiers exist alongside denotative signifiers.

  • The connotation represents different social, cultural, or emotional implications.
  • The denotation represents the explicit or referential signifier of a sign.

Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design: Oreo
Oreo advertisement. Photo: creativebloq.com

The connotations are the main part of how we understand the signs. However, we will not all have the same connotations when we interpret the same signs. Connotations require context, and context is constructed from unique experiences, ideologies, schemes, and mental models. Because we have different experiences and mental models, it means that different people can interpret the same sign in different ways.

Bibliography

Books for Graphic Designers:Fundamentos del Diseño Gráfico • Ilka Perea Studio
Books for Graphic Designers
  • Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. Routledge. 2017.
  • Gómez-Palacio, Bryony; Vit, Armin. Graphic Design Referenced: A Visual Guide to the Language, Applications, and History of Graphic Design. Rockport Publishers. 2011.  ISBN-10: 1592537421.
  • Hébert, Louis. An Introduction to Applied Semiotics. Routledge. 2019.
  • Hébert, Louis. Sign Structures. The Sign according to Klinkenberg. Signo. [Recurso electrónico].  Rimouski, Quebec. 2006. [Consulta: 19 octubre 2017]. Disponible en: http://www.signosemio.com/klinkenberg/sign-structures.asp.
  • Heller, Steven; Vienne, Veronique. Becoming a Graphic and Digital Designer: A Guide to Careers in Design.  2015. ISBN-10: 1118771982.
  • Leborg, Christian. Gramática Visual. Editorial Gustavo Gili. 2013.
  • Lupton, Ellen. Diseño gráfico: Nuevos fundamentos. 2ª ed. Editorial Gustavo Gili. 2016. ISBN-10: 842522893X.
  • Poulin, Richard. Fundamentos del Diseño Gráfico. Promopress. 2016.  ISBN-10: 8415967896.
  • Sherin, Aaris. Elementos del Diseño Fundamentos del Color. Parramón. 2013. ISBN-10: 8434240491.
  • Wong, Wucius. Fundamentos del Diseno. Editorial Gustavo Gili. 1998.