14 Design Elements
To be effective, visual messages have to use the design elements to create and communicate their messages to their audience. Therefore, when you analyze an image you will want to look at these elements or features closely in order to determine how they contribute to the overall message. The main design elements to consider are below:
Layout is how the various elements are arranged in a visual and how the space is being used. Placement and size of features within the visual can help to imply meaning within those features. For example, if something is particularly large and noticeable, we can assume that it is important because it is being emphasized.
The height of an object or character on the page can be representative of its status in the visual. If it is high on the page, it may have wealth/power or a positive image. Similarly, if it is low on the page, it may be showing the object or character to be in low spirits and of an unfavorable social status.
If the object or character is centered in the page or is shown as large, this can be seen as strengthening the figure’s status, or showing them as advantaged in some way. If they are on the fringe or small, however, this does the opposite. It weakens their status and shows that they have fewer disadvantages. If the object is on the left, it is in a secure or confined space, while the right is showing that they are in a place of risk or adventure.
Some visuals will have frames around them, like a picture frame around a photo that you hang in your house. The frame is spatial as well as temporal. This means that it is representative of both physical space and time. It has a beginning and an end. The way the frame is used can help to explain what is happening in the visual.
Meaning can be shown through color by using the common, symbolic associations of the color to tell a story. We associate certain colors with certain emotions. For example, yellow is a happy and energetic color, blue may be sad or calming, and red can be an angry color, or the color of love, depending on context. Bright colors could bring a sense of exhilaration or discovery, and darker colors can bring on a spooky setting or dismal setting.
An author could also emphasize particular sections of a visual by utilizing color in order to create contrast between the features. If everything is different shades of light blue and you suddenly have a pink object on one side it makes that pink object more noticeable doesn’t it? Similarly, an author could choose to use the same color on multiple features within the visual in order to show that they are in some way related to one another.
The structure of the lines within a visual can suggest emotion, mobility, language, or perception. Thin, spare lines may mean mobility and speed, while thick or puffy lines may show paralysis, or perhaps comfort. For example, in Scooby doo when the words are squiggly and say “boo” you’re going to be afraid, or in a love story when the words are very cute, or bubbly the feeling is love and compassion.
Capillarity is the presence or absence of squiggles or bundles. If there are a lot of squiggles or bundles, then this shows that there is a lot of energy, which can show that something is crowded, or nervous, or busy. If there is a lack of squiggles and you see larger blocks of color, this can show a relative calmness and stability.
The shape of different elements within the visual can make a difference. It can lead your eye different places on the page or it can make you feel certain things. For instance, squares and rectangles may feel sturdy and stable, while circles can be a bit more comforting, as well as portraying movement. Triangles or arrow shapes can lead you to look toward the points and continue on to see what they are pointing at. More randomized shapes, particularly those that are pointy, can make a visual feel chaotic or dangerous.
While text is frequently used in visual messages to connect the visual with the message, an author can also use the typography, or style and appearance of the text, in order to get their message across. What the text actually looks like can convey meaning too. Consider whether the text is serif or sans serif, large or small, etc. How is it being displayed and why?
To see an example of how to analyze an advertisement using the rhetorical appeals and design elements, check out this pdf.
To practice analyzing images yourself, use this Analyzing Images worksheet.