Looking into Visual Literacy: Potential of Visual Representation in Communicating Emotions

On workshop day 2 Academic perspective, we ran a workshop “Tangible Emotion” which challenged participants to communicate about an emotion in playful and creative ways. Throughout the activity, they were encouraged to respond to one emotion by playing with different colours and materials in order to create different compositions and faces. At the end, we collected 25 boxes with the different stories and visual compositions. More details about the session can be found here. This post features some of the result from the workshop. Here below are each participants’ box. Each line features the five sides of the participant’s box and their comments about the activity.



Following the activity we scanned all the boxes, side by side and arranged them per category. Each box featured the following (here in the 6 different columns):

  1. A personal story about the emotion
  2. One drawing
  3. A colour composition
  4. A “texture” compostion looking at the material property: rought, smooth (…)
  5. A “face” composition where participants were encouraged to use all the previous activity on the last side where they would draw a face (abstract or realistic)
  6. Participants were also encouraged to leave notes about the activity (last column)

We led the workshop twice and gathered materials from 25 participants in total – a relatively small amount of data. However we looked into ways of analysing the data to show the potential of visual representation of emotion. The wide repertory of different compositions, materials, shapes and colours show how many ways there are to express how someone feels. There were also consistency for each emotion, for example the use of yellow for hapiness and smiles or rough texture for anger ect… Looking back to our initial research on pain scale and the use of smiley to help patient to express their emotion, this workshop emphasises multimodal aspects and that there is more than one way of understanding someone’s experience/emotion.

A start into visual literacy:

As design/art practitioners it was interesting for us to attempt to study the data collected from our workshop. We looked into multimodality and visual literacy in order to interpret meanings from the visual information collected. One highlight of our research was the book Primer of Visual Literacy (1973) where Dondis questions what from language analysis can be applied to visual information in order to understand and filter it. The author attempts to give a toolkit to help the reader in understanding visual information which is according to her too often underestimated. Dondis looks at how language is understood and what methodology is used as a frame for the study of visual information.

In order to study visual literacy, Dondis advices to break down the study into analysing what she calls ‘interacting parts’. By studying individual visual elements one at a time, she argues that we can better understand their unique qualities.

… “the system as a whole is made up of interacting parts, which can be isolated and viewed as completely independent and then reassembled into the whole… You can analyze any visual work from many points of view; one of the most revealing is to break it down into its constituent elements to better understand the whole”.

One thing we found useful is the list she gave of eight basic elements of visual communication which contribute to the expression of any visual statement:

  • dot: ‘minimal visual unit, pointer, marker of space’
  • line: ‘the fluid, restless articulator of form, in the probing looseness of the sketch and tighter technical plan’
  • shape: ‘the basic shapes, circle, square, triangle, and all their endless variatins, combinations, permutations, planal and dimensional’
  • direction: the thrust of movement that incorporates and reflects the character of the bacic shapes, circular, diagonal, perpendicular’
  • tone: ‘the presence or absence of light, by which we see’
  • color: ‘the coordinate of tone with the added component of chroma, the most emotional and expressive visual element’
  • texture: ‘optical or tactile, the surface character of visual materials’
  • scale/proportion: ‘the relative size and measurement’

Together with analising the techniques; how these basic elements are manipulated, and the materials/medium used, it gave us a start for studying visual data and to understand visual message-making. Below are more of the boxes.



disgust tire





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