Visual language is composed of codes that encrypt the message so that it is transmitted and interpreted by the receiver, or target audience. Therefore, designers must understand the codes in visual language for graphic design in order to reach effective visual communication.
First of all, visual communication is one of the most important basic concepts in graphic design. It involves the transmission of messages through visual media. As part of the visual communication process, visual language comprises the graphic images and signs used to code the elements that have been seen. Consequently, designers must be able to efficiently employ the codes of visual language if they want to produce striking and creative designs that generate changes. Understanding these codes forms the basis for the development of the visual literacy that every graphic designer must master.
In order to strategically assemble your message, designers must know the different visual signs to use them properly in their design and recognize the connotation of an image to convey a direct, clear, and powerful message. However, if you are not clear about terms like visual language, visual signs, and the connotation and denotation of the image, I recommend you review this post: Visual Communication Concepts for Graphic Design.
According to Spencer-Oatey: “Culture is a fuzzy set of attitudes, beliefs, behavioural norms, and basic assumptions and values that are shared by a group of people, and that influence each member’s behaviour and his/her interpretations of the “meaning” of other people’s behaviour.” In this sense, to understand the codes it is important to understand the culture of the receiver or audience to whom the message is addressed.
Social and cultural meanings in communication
Social and cultural codes in communication are rules, values, norms, and symbols with meanings that are interpreted by members of that society. They are structured, implicit, and have social consequences.
Certainly, culture is not only that influences the behavior of the individuals who make it up. Other factors such as personality and role models also play a significant part in this. All these factors modify the codes in the visual language for graphic design.
Far from being considered an obstacle or impediment, codes in communication offer established rules that allow graphic designers to determine what actions to take and under what conditions.
The Codes, Context and Sign Interpretation
Ferdinand de Saussure said the signs are not significant in isolation. Meaning comes from interpreting signs in relation to each other. For example, every word you are reading right now is a sign with a meaning (signified). In fact, each word is a sign (symbol) composed of individual signs (symbol) in the letters they include.
On their own, letters are not particularly meaningful, but when combined they form words that take on meaning. The meaning of words changes according to the way they are combined and the order they are given. The Spanish language serves as the context for reading this publication.
Similarly in graphic design, concepts such as shapes, colors, points, lines, or texture do not have a meaning on their own. However, when designers combine them, it is possible to create meaningful designs.
Language is a common code that allows those who know it to communicate with each other, to transfer meaning from one to the other. Signs are most effective when the creator and the interpreter speak the same language. In other words, when they use the same code. Consequently, codes in visual language for graphic design are an indispensable tool for creating messages in the form of a logo, a brochure, a billboard, an illustration, or a web page.
Codes help make sense of our world
We learn to understand the world through the key codes and traditions present in the culture in which we live. These are systems of meaning or systems of beliefs that help us to simplify the signs we see in order to make communication easier. Therefore, these systems or maps allow us to limit the possible meaning of a sign in order to interpret it more quickly.
Besides, keep in mind that codes are dynamic, they can change over time, even within the same culture.
Semiotics seek to identify codes and the implicit rules and restrictions that underlying the production and interpretation of meaning within each code. For more convenience, the codes are been divided into groups. Daniel Chandler, a British visual semiotician, designed a tripartite structure for the category of codes. He identified the social code, the textual code, and the interpretive codes.
In a wider sense, all semiotic codes are social codes:
- verbal language (phonological, syntactic, lexical, prosodic and paralinguistic subcodes);
- body codes (body contact, proximity, physical orientation, appearance, facial expression, look, gestures, and posture);
- product codes (luxury possessions, basic needs items, entertainment items, etc.);
- behavioral codes (protocols, rituals, role-playing).
Representation codes included:
- scientific codes, including mathematics;
- aesthetic codes within the various expressive arts (poetry, drama, painting, sculpture, music, etc.) – including classicism, romanticism, realism;
- genre, rhetorical and stylistic codes: narrative (plot, character, action, dialogue, setting, etc.), exposition, story, etc;
- media codes, including photographic, television, film, radio, newspaper, and magazine codes, both technical and conventional (including format).
Interpretive codes, which are the codes of perception and ideological codes, evolve as the relationship between social codes and textual codes does.
Chandler expresses that the acceptance of interpretative codes and semiotic codes remain basic arguments. Ideological codes are emphasized. In other words, we can list the ‘isms’, such as individualism, liberalism, feminism, racism, materialism, capitalism, progressivism, conservatism, socialism, objectivism, consumerism, and populism; (note, however, that all codes can be seen as ideological).
Example – Dress Codes
Clothing varies from one culture to another, as the circumstances do. The contexts within a culture are also constraints on dress codes.
Chandler postulates: “Social conventions for the appropriate dress are explicitly referred to as ‘dress codes’. In some institutions, such as many business organizations and schools, a formal dress code is made explicit as a set of rules (a practice that sometimes leads to subversive challenges)”.
Particular formal occasions, such as weddings, funerals, banquets, etc., involve high expectations regarding “appropriate” dress. In other contexts, the individual has more choices of what to wear, and their clothes seem to “say more about them” than about an occasion when they are present or the institution they work for.
The way we dress can serve as a marker of social background and subcultural alignments. This is particularly evident in teenage subcultures.
In the practice…
Clothing, along with all its accessories and apparel, has always been loaded with cultural components. In this sense, clothing communicates, and depending on the cultural context, it can communicate social status, chronological age, profession or work activity, individualism, or social dysfunction, for instance.
Understanding these codes, Playtex has developed a campaign for “rebel babies”.
Playtex Infant Care advertising for Binky Babies, “For Difficult Little People”, was one of the winners at the Global Awards for health-related advertising honored in New York. Three print advertisements, “Yakuza Baby”, “Punk Girl” and “Tattoo Boy” associate the Playtex brand of the pacifier with hard-to-handle babies.
Learning these codes implies adopting the values that are incorporated in them, without normally being aware of their intervention in the construction of reality. However, the existence of such codes in relation to design interpretation is most obvious when we examine designs that have been produced within and for a different culture. For instance, advertisements produced locally in a different country than the domestic market which it has designed for.
The interpretation of these ads requires “cultural competence” for the specific cultural context in which the ad was produced, even when the design is mostly visual.
Because signs need context for interpretation and because the interpreter needs a code to understand the meaning of a sign, not everyone who sees a sign will have the right context to interpret it as intended.
Design trends (any trend really) such as squeumorphism and flat design are popular, though temporary, codes. The change from one trend to another could be seen as a redefinition of the popular code.
Besides, this context comes from codes that are systems of meanings or systems of beliefs that help us limit the possibilities of finding meaning more efficiently.
The codes are changeable, dynamic. They can have different values and meanings depending on the culture, geographical location, and the time of year in which the target audience is located.
Codes have structure and most of the time it is implicit and in agreement with the rest of the members that compose the same organization, community, society, or culture.
In conclusion, the most effective communication occurs when the designer and the receiver of a visual communication project have the same codes. Consequently, designers must understand their audience as best they can. In addition, they must know what codes their audience have because those codes will be the context in which their messages will be interpreted.
Designers are liable to know the code with which their target audiences communicate visually. This requires previous research. Observation and documentation will be essential for this research process.
Visual literacy, together with knowledge of the target audience’s visual language codes, is part of the background that every designer should possess.
- Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. Routledge. 2017.
- Dondis, Donis A. La sintaxis de la imagen. Editorial Gustavo Gili. 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.
- 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.
- Spencer-Oatey, Helen. Culturally Speaking: Managing Rapport Through Talk Across Cultures. Continuum Intl Pub Group. 2000