7.04 Kress and Van Leeuwen's Grammar of Visual Design.

Gunther Kress had already begun to open his ideas of a social semiotic to visual communications in the late Eighties.

Discourse is a site where meaning plays between participants in a semiotic exchange, whether this is speech or dialogue, comic or film, ritual or game. (Hodge & Kress 1988 p182)

Kress then teamed up with Theo Van Leeuwen to develop the basics of a visual semiotic which was published as, Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, in 1996. What is innovative in this book is the focus on a syntax of visual images (the regularities of combinational relations) rather than on the paradigmatic (the inflexions of signs) which had been the focus of previous semiotic studies. Previous references to visual language simply used 'language' as an analogy; 'Reading Images' is the first thesis of a true visual grammar that I have found persuasive. They point out that a grammar, understood as an inventory of observed regularities, is a means of representation, not just a setting down of the rules of normative correctness. The implication of this, which they hint at but do not explore is that visual design is capable of argument and so could be a media of rational discourse in the Habermasian sense.

Kress and Van Leeuwen claim that contemporary visual communication is increasingly independent of verbal languages for anchorage. The grammar of verbal texts and images has developed side by side, so there is bound to be some congruence, but these similarities should not lead us to expect a linguistic model of grammar in the visual domain. More radically they suggest, the past dominance of the literary should not lead us to conclude that the visual domain is inherently dependent on the linguistic.

The historical dominance of the literary in the West has been outlined. Our knowledge is primarily mediated in this form. Oral cultures, which are outside of this knowledge, benefit from a wider conscious use of sense media and especially the visual.[1] Different media have different areas of facility. Oral media are, for instance, advantaged in the communication of affective content.

Kress and Van Leeuwen suggest a concept of the 'semiotic landscape'. This has boundaries, a history, specific features, and landmarks. It is comprised of institutions, social groups and time periods. The flowering of visual communications in the last fifty years has dramatically altered our semiotic landscape. They suggest its importance may lie in the cultural diversification that has occurred within Western countries along with the effects of the globalisation of markets.

I will now provide a summary of some of the main features of their theory of visual grammar.[2]

Narrative in visual representations:

In order to make a proposition in purely visual media, a vector is needed. A vector is a line, or implied line, that suggests direction. Elements of a visual composition are called 'participants'. The participant from which a vector departs is known as the 'actor'. The arrival point is known as the 'goal'. The meaning generated is a 'transaction'. If it is reversible it is known as an 'interactive transaction'.

The geometrics of such vector directed sequences of participants are themselves sources of meaning. On the crudest level a rectilinear visual proposition suggests science/ modernity whilst circular or curving vectors the organic or nature.

These vectors will relate to the track our eye follows when looking at a picture. Lack of a clear 'reading path' can lead to unease or ambiguity. A complete lack of reading paths may impose a solely paradigmatic reading.

Conceptual Representations:

1. Classification. As well as narrative relations there are taxonomic relations, which are diagrammatised as genealogical or evolutionary 'trees'. Again symbolism of shape and relation may be added to relational meanings. These sorts of diagrams may be covertly embedded within pictures such as adverts. Vectors may also be evident in such diagrams as flow charts, which are often used to suggest a processual sequence.

2. Analytic. This relation consists of a whole or carrier, and parts that give 'possessive attributes' to the whole. A map of London would be the whole whilst the symbols of key features would be the 'possessive attributes'.

Obvious examples are bar charts and circuit diagrams but portraits might also be structured in this way. The attributes might also have relevant meanings as signs and can then be designated 'symbolic attributes'.

Representation and Interaction:

The first direct gaze from the representation of a human out to a viewer is attributed to Van Eyck (1433). This is powerful way of hailing the viewer. Other directions of gaze are important and symbolic. If the represented subject is looking up, the subject is inferior. If the subject is looking down, she is superior. A level gaze denotes equality.


Modality is the reliability, veracity and authority of an image. We immediately prioritise an image by the modality markers which are embedded within it. In the West high modality is signified by the broad category of realism, when it is equated with truth. In other cultures it might be the sacred. Markers of realism may be such things as detail (especially background detail), depth, quality of material, illumination, colour and craft skill.

Visual modality rests on culturally and historically determined standards of what is real and what is not, and not of the objective correspondence of the visual image to a reality defined in same ways independently of it. (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996, p168)

Different areas of culture may have different coding orientations of modality. In areas of science, technology and architectural design the modality code is the blueprint whereas in food advertising the modality codes may require bright colours.

In Art, modality and its markers becomes part of the play of signifiers. An image may contain several levels of modality signified by different markers creating a modality dynamic. Complex, abstract, esoteric, dissonant or innovatory relations between modality markers may in themselves give a high modality to a work of art.

I would also like to suggest that modality is also conveyed by authenticity - as an unmediated and direct expression. The collages of the Exploding Cinema programmes are such expressions - they show an alternate reality that underlies the authority of either glossy realism or of the functional minimalism of blueprints.


Composition provides an overarching logic of integration through the symbolic meanings of relative position, weight and framing.

1a. Left and right denote the 'given' and the 'new'. E.g. A Television interviewer typically sits of the left whilst the guest sits on the right. A broad convention in the West that probably relates to our custom of reading left to right. The eye tends to start at the left of an image and move right. In a triptych the central panel is often the mediator between left and right and so between 'given' and 'new'.

1b. Top and bottom denote ideal and real; Promise and product; Emotive and practical; Head and foot.

1c. The centre is the place of the divine ruler, of harmony and symmetry. In Western art and graphic design the use of a geometrically centred image is usually considered naive.

2. Weight includes a consideration of relative size, focus, contrast and foregrounding. The relative weightings of these aspects of the image have a centre of gravity, which either balances or gives a dynamic to the composition.

3. Framing may be explicit or be implied by line breaks in the image. Lack of framing suggests a group identity to the 'participants' whilst framing unitizes or individuates. Although not discussed by Kress & Van Leeuwen framing may be also be implied in the alignments of participants.[3]


With composition, rhythm is the other overarching pattern of integration. It is usually related to a time-based image such as film. But reading a book, flicking through the pages or carefully turning them one by one, is a time-based activity and is important in narrative. Books of images provide sequences in time and should be subject to considerations of rhythm.


Inscription is the focus of much attention in art theory particularly with regard to brush strokes. Kress and Van Leeuwen argue that this is just one of many semiotic variables. They suggest that technologies of inscription exist in the following metasemiotic zones, each of which has its own contextual cluster of associations.

1. Hand-made marks.

2. Marks recorded with technology.

3. Marks synthesized in technology.

Kress and Van Leeuwen have provided a toolkit for visual analysis that I will use, along with some of Barthe's ideas, to analyses a selection of page openings from the Exploding Cinema programmes.



[1] Kress and Van Leeuwen refer to Aborigine culture. See also Peter Worsley's Knowledges: what different peoples make of the world, (Profile, 2000)


[2] Examples given are from Reading Images.


[3] 'Old masters' have long been analysed in terms of their implied geometries, often with the idea of finding a mathematical basis for aesthetics. Brian Thomas's argues that these were compositional devices rather than exemplifications of contemporary mathematical theories. See Thomas's Geometry in Pictorial Composition (Oriel Press, 1969).