Carnegie Mellon University

Visual/Verbal Meaning Collaboration: A Conceptual Framework for the Study of Communication Design

Author: Susan Hagan
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2003

Building a discipline for visual/verbal design has been problematic because the profession thus far rests on assumptions that make verbal elements reducible to visual elements and vise versa. Visual elements are recast as objects that can be "read." Verbal elements are recast as "context" or spatial "filler" for an otherwise complete design. These assumptions of reducibility ignore the status of visual and verbal elements as sui generis, making the interaction of these elements a matter of careful exploration rather than casual fact. Despite their inadequacies, describing visual/verbal interaction based on reductibility assumptions can nonetheless appear to handle a wide variety of visual/verbal interactions. This fact explains both the persistence and popularity of reducibility assumptions in light of their limitations

What is needed is a framework that can account not only for cases where reducibility approaches seem to apply, but also can handle cases where such approaches fail. To construct a more adequate theory, I collected and analyzed a variety of visual/verbal examples, limiting my analysis to best practices that encourage audiences to both look and read.

I discovered six fundamental kinds of visual/verbal collaboration which I call types of play - a synonym for collaboration. These types are Identity Play, Parallel Play, Sequenced Play, Reflecting Interplay, Contradicting Interplay, and Redefining Interplay. Each type has compositional elements that are particular to its category. Each of these collaborative types is an inventional resource that I found serves specific rhetorical situations. Theories of visual/verbal composition need to account for all of these types of collaboration.

I see my work as a way to begin considering visual/verbal design as a discipline with a shared set of assumptions rather than as a profession that writers and visual designers view from different perspectives. From that new paradigm, theorists, writers, and designers can better consider the situations in which we should fully connect and interweave one way of knowing with another.