Because texts derive meaning from several sources, several methods are necessary to understand a text’s overall meaning. Part of the meaning lies in its visual construct. The arrangement of elements on a page encourages readers to gather meaning in particular patterns. While texts often consist of several elements (e.g., text, graphics, images, white space), the principles of visual literacy help to “read” a text’s visual design. Visual literacy is the method by which we can begin to analyze how a text constructs meaning visually.
Basic Principles of Visual Literacy
The “syntactical guidelines” that Donis Dondis offers as a way to inform visual literacy are balance, stress, and leveling and sharpening.
The balance of a figure, image, or page is determined by how a visual element falls on a vertical and horizontal axis. The horizontal axis acts as a base for the element. The vertical axis, or “felt axis”, extends upward from a point on the horizontal axis, but is an “intuitive” rather than “technically computed” center.
Dondis’s point is that a figure can still achieve a sense of balance without being perfectly symmetric. Balance will have a calming effect on the reader, while a lack of balance will lead to stress.
Stress arises from elements that have no strong sense of balance. For example, readers can draw a horizontal base and felt axis over a circle, but it is still unbalanced because it does not fit squarely on the horizontal base. A circle is a minor example, but consider an asymmetrical figure without a solid base and “unexpected variation”.
Like a circle, figures without balance achieve a level of stress than those that are balanced. Dondis suggests that the stress per se is neither good nor bad; stress is useful in so far as it enhances (or hinders) the overall meaning of the text.
Leveling and Sharpening
To demonstrate the concepts of leveling and sharpening, Dondis uses the example of a dot in a rectangular visual field. Leveling is a method to achieve total balance, like placing the dot in the center of the visual field. Such an arrangement “offers no visual surprise… [and] is totally harmonious”.
Sharpening is the opposite of leveling—a way to disrupt a feeling of harmony. In our example, if the dot were placed in the upper-right of the visual field but off of the horizontal and vertical axes and the diagonals, it would offset the balance and harmony.
The Relationship between Visual Literacy Principals and Visual Rhetoric
The visual arrangement of a document can guide readers in different ways. Some texts may level elements or equally sharpen elements to achieve a balance that provides a stable, harmonious feeling. Other texts may offset the balance, increase the stress, and sharpen elements to draw attention to some portions over others.
Bernhardt's analysis of the sample wetlands document in "Seeing the Text" includes an example of offset balance to emphasize certain portions of the document. He calls attention to the headings in the lower-left, which are surrounded by significant white space compared to the text on the right. At a glance, the reader can understand the hierarchical structure, then decide which text to read more thoroughly. Although Bernhardt's discussion relies on the Gestalt principle of equilibrium, the principles of visual literacy provide insight into the way offset balance establishes meaning within the text.
As Bernhardt's example illustrates, the visual design of a document is inseparable from the content. The design can either help to reinforce the content, as in his example, or it can hinder meaning. Visual literacy helps technical communicators not only organize information, but use such organization as a way to help convey the appropriate information to applicable audiences.