VisCom Theory

VisCom Theory Readings

If you want to learn about VisCom theory, I recommend reading the following books (alphabetical order by author):

Smith, Kenneth; Moriarty, Sandra; Barbatsis, Gretchen, and Keith Kenney (2004). Handbook of Visual Communication. NY: Routledge.Handbook of Visual Communication

“This Handbook of Visual Communication explores the key theoretical areas in visual communication, and presents the research methods utilized in exploring how people see and how visual communication occurs. With chapters contributed by many of the best-known and respected scholars in visual communication, this volume brings together significant and influential work in the visual communication discipline.

The theory chapters included here define the twelve major theories in visual communication scholarship: aesthetics, perception, representation, visual rhetoric, cognition, semiotics, reception theory, narrative, media aesthetics, ethics, visual literacy, and cultural studies. Each of these theory chapters is followed by exemplar studies in the area, demonstrating the various methods used in visual communication research as well as the research approaches applicable for specific media types.

The Handbook serves as an invaluable reference for visual communication theory as well as a useful resource book of research methods in the discipline. It defines the current state of theory and research in visual communication, and serves as a foundation for future scholarship and study. As such, it is required reading for scholars, researchers, and advanced students in visual communication, and it will be influential in other disciplines in which the visual component is key, including advertising, persuasion, and media studies. The volume will also be useful to practitioners seeking to understand the visual aspects of their media and the visual processes used by their audiences.”

Additional VisCom Theory readings

Barone, Tom and Elliot W. Eisner (2012). Arts Based Research. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

My definition of VisCom research has always been broad enough to include the artistic and the aesthetic. Barone and Eisner’s argument that artistry in the social research process has existed in scientific research from the beginning only strengthened my belief. Moreover, science is not the only way for shedding light on some aspect of the physical world; art can also tell truths about the world. Elliot Eisner, from Stanford University, is a founder of arts-based research and he bases his ideas on the philosophy of John Dewey. The book includes chapters such as: “Yes, But Is It Research?” and “”What are Some Criteria for Assessing Arts Based Research?” These are important questions for anyone attempting to use art, rather science, when conducting research.

Bernstein, Richard J. (1983). Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 

I believe that VisCom research must avoid the objectivism, which is associated with Descartes, Locke, Kant, and scientific, empirical research; but it must also avoid the relativism where anything goes—where all concepts of rationality, truth, reality, and so on must be understood as relative to a specific theoretical framework, paradigm, or culture. This book provides a solid philosophical basis for social science theory based on the works of Gadamer, Habermas, Rorty, and Arendt. Click here for reviews.

Dewey, John (1934). Art as Experience. NY: Penguin Books.

I find it very useful to think of the meaning of photos, films, maps, and so on as our experiences of these media rather than as things themselves, with a fixed meaning shared by everyone. I also favor pragmatism as a philosophical basis for art and aesthetics. Click here for reviews. And here for more reviews.

Elkins, James (2003). Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction. NY: Routledge.

Visual communication is not the same as “visual studies,” but I think they can learn from each other. According to the book jacket, Elkins proposes “ten ways in which visual studies could be made more ‘difficult’—or more interesting—both practically and theoretically. I like his effort to think outside the box. Elkins approaches visual studies from an art history and a cultural studies perspective. Click here for reviews.

Finnegan, Ruth (2002). Communicating: The Multiple Modes of Human Interconnection. NY: Routledge.

This book hasn’t really caught on—been cited much—but it is relevant for me because Finnegan writes specifically about communication, which is rare. I like her idea of multiple modes of communication, including touch. I’m not sure about the animal communication sections.

Gee, James Paul (2003). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

The best way to convince you this book is relevant is to provide some of the chapter titles, so here goes: “Semiotic Domains; Learning and Identity; Situated Meaning and Learning; Telling and Doing; Cultural Models; The Social Mind.” To me, visual communication is about these ideas. Click here for a review. And here. And here.

Goel, Vinod (1995). Sketches of Thought. Cambridge: MIT Press.

I like the idea that people use different types of symbol systems and that visual communication includes symbol systems that differ from written textual communication. I also like the idea of visual communication, in other words, the exchange of visual messages in order to communicate, and I think that sketching is a good example of people exchanging visual messages. Finally, although I believe cognitive science is extremely important, I don’t think it has all of the answers for a VisCom researcher. Goel is a cognitive scientist who challenges cognitive science by arguing that not all thought processes are precise, rigid, discrete, and unambiguous. Symbol systems such as sketching, painting, and poetry are dense, ambiguous, and amorphous. Our current notions of representation, he argues, are not rich enough to capture the thought processes at work in sketching. Goel builds upon the work of Nelson Goodman, who I like, but have difficulty understanding. Click here for a review.

Kress, Gunther (2003). Literacy in the New Media Age. NY: Routledge. 

I agree with Kress that we are increasingly using images (in addition to words) when we communicate; and we are increasingly viewing these images and words on screens rather than paper, and these changes matter. Anyone doing VisCom research should be able to study multimedia screen-based messages, and Kress helps with this. Here is a quote from his book: “The new media make it easy to incorporate multiple communication modes (image, audio, video), and these modes, Kress argues, are “governed by distinct logics [which] change not only the deeper meanings of textual forms but also the structures of ideas, of conceptual arrangements, and of the structures of our knowledge” (p. 16).” Click here for a review.

Kress, Gunther and Theo van Leeuwen (1996). Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. NY: Routledge.

This book draws heavily upon social semiotics, and I’m not a big fan of semiotics in general, but Kress and van Leeuwen have been extremely influential amongst professionals as well as academicians, so please read their book. Kress and van Leeuwen provide an account of the grammar of visual design in order to examine the ways in which images communicate meaning. They demonstrate the differences and similarities between the grammar of language and that of visual communication. Click here for a review. And here.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

I think that Lakoff and Johnson’s philosophy about metaphors is brilliant and I also think it applies to visuals as well as, or better than, it applies to the language of words. Click here for a review. And here.

Lincoln, Yvonna S. and Egon G. Guba (1985). Naturalistic Inquiry. Newbury Park: Sage.

I believe that if you are going to do VisCom research, you are generally going to use qualitative research methods, and if you are going to use qualitative methods, then you need to read this book. Lincoln and Guba critique positivism and provide an alternative paradigm—a naturalistic method of inquiry. This book has been cited at least 19,000 times! It will provide the theory/philosophy you need in order to convince traditional, quantitative, empirical researchers that your work is just as “true,” “valuable,” and “reliable” as theirs.

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