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Getting Beyond Words in Visual Analysis

posted: 12.2.09 by Traci Gardner

Look at any visual text in your community, like a poster or billboard. You’re likely to see a blending of words, images, and layout working to communicate a single message.

Take that poster or billboard into the classroom, and what will students see when you ask them to analyze the message? Most of the time they zoom in on whatever words are included. They may later come back to other aspects of the poster, but the words color what they see.

You can share analytical tools like my WILCO mnemonic to ensure that students look at the whole message before drawing conclusions. Even then, the words in the messages can ultimately take priority.

How can we emphasize the other aspects of these messages? How can we silence the words, even briefly, to teach this lesson? Non-English posters are a great solution. Consider this poster from the Spanish Civil War:

Spanish Civil War Poster from UCSD
Source: The Visual Front


If you cannot read Spanish, you are forced to focus on other aspects of this poster to draw conclusions about its meaning. As the words fall away, the red hand in the center, the children huddled in the lower left corner, and the interplay of strong red, black, and white colors immediately rise to the surface. You have to rely on the images, the colors, and the layout. Granted, propaganda posters have fairly easy to detect messages, but the strategy works with any visual text that incorporates foreign language words.

Here are some sites with resources can you use for this strategy:

You’re bound to be wondering about the students in the classroom who can read the non-English text on these posters. Do exactly what you’d do if the text were in English: ask them to ignore the words and concentrate on the other aspects of the poster. Once you’ve explored the image, layout, and color, these students can be invited to translate the words for the class if desired.

If no one in the class can translate the words, that’s okay too. The point of the activity is just to emphasize how much of the message is communicated by things other than words on the posters. Once you’ve completed the activity, move to some English posters, like those from one of the war poster sites I’ve written about earlier this year. Ask students to use the same strategy they used on the foreign language posters. Urge them to get beyond the words by looking at the image, color, and layout first!

Categories: Visual Argument, Visual Rhetoric
You might also like: More Resources for Poster Analysis
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2 Responses to “Getting Beyond Words in Visual Analysis”

  1. Traci Gardner Says:

    Here’s another site, included in the Dec 4 Scout Report:

    Chinese Anti-Malaria Posters, from the U.S. National Library of Medicine,

  2. Traci Gardner Says:

    The Visual Front site is now at