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What Is a Visual Language?

By Pablo Garcia
Updated May 23, 2024
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Visual language is a form of communication that uses visual elements as opposed to formal written language to convey meaning or an idea. Graphicacy, the ability to communicate visually, is considered as important as literacy and numeracy, the abilities to read and count. Some people are visual thinkers, literally thinking in pictures, using that part of the brain that is emotional and creative to process and give meaning to information. Visual communication can find expression in paintings, drawings, symbols, or simply lines and shapes arranged for a specific effect.

Art is an example of visual language. A painting or sculpture can convey ideas or evoke specific kinds of emotional responses. It may also express ideas about historical events, abstract concepts, or simply be about the way certain shapes or forms “work” together or create a certain effect on the mind. Some researchers believe that different parts of the brain respond in unique ways to colors and shapes.

Pictograms and ideograms are types of visual language. Pictograms are pictures that resemble what they signify. They are still used today to communicate information. Many people around the world are familiar with the pictograms indicating such things as airports, public facilities, and non-smoking areas indicated by a cigarette in a circle with a diagonal line across it. Ideograms are pictures that represent ideas and can often be understood without the aid of written language.

Many of the ancient pictographs that still survive are considered art forms. These include rock paintings depicting events like a hunt, a battle, or forms of worship. Pictographs and ideograms are still in use in parts of the world that do not have an alphabet-based written script.

Visual thinking is considered a right brain activity, and is distinguished from left brain activity, which is thought to be linear and analytical. Visual thinkers tend to base conclusions about information on intuition as opposed to reason or language.

Some scholars trace modern alphabets to pictures. Letters are actually ancient pictures, and words are a series of pictures. Modern alphabet letters are not only phonetic symbols but are based on ancient religious images and symbols.

Musivisual communication is also a part of visual language. The term refers to music created specifically to enhance the visual experience of film. It corresponds to the images being seen on the screen, and the music may evoke a sense of dread, fear, or other emotions. Most movie goers understand the language of musical cues indicating that something dramatic or important is about to happen.

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Discussion Comments
By JimmyT — On Feb 28, 2012

I wonder if there is a sort of balance struck between the left and right side of the brain. Overall, I'd say I'm more of a left brain person, since I am very much a logical, calculating person. On the other hand, I am not much of an artist, but I am very musical. I have also found that I am very much a visual learner. I could read the same explanation of a new concept 3-4 times and not fully grasp it, but if I can find a way to put it into pictures, I remember it right away.

The other interesting thing is how I use visual images with math. I am able to do a lot of math problems in my head just by visualizing how all of the numbers will relate to each other in the result. The same goes for the tests where you are given a shape that has been unfolded and have to imagine what it would look like put together.

By Izzy78 — On Feb 27, 2012

@jcraig - I think that is a good example. That being said, don't drive around in Russia, since their stop signs are just white with the word "stop" written in Russian.

I know there has been a lot of push toward getting a universal system of pictorial signs that every country can use. I guess it arose from the fact that people have died in the US and other English speaking countries during fires, because they don't understand the word "Exit." The sign I have seen that is gaining a lot of popularity in other countries is a green sign with a picture of a man running toward a door.

The main argument I have heard against doing this in most places is the cost. I am pretty sure in the US, at least, that laws require emergency exits to be the ubiquitous "EXIT" signs. Changing the law would mean everyone had to buy new signs.

By jcraig — On Feb 27, 2012

@TreeMan - That is an interesting thought. At least according to the definition given in the article, I don't see why sign language couldn't be a type of visual language. You aren't writing out words and having to read them.

I think a good analogy might be the color red on a road sign. I don't know anything about the Chinese language, but if I were driving around in China and came across a red sign, I would immediately associate it with some type of warning, either to stop or at least slow down. The sign doesn't say to stop (at least in a language that I can understand), but I still get the message, because I understand the meaning of red signs.

Of course, if I go somewhere that doesn't use red signs to mean "stop," I might be in trouble.

By TreeMan — On Feb 26, 2012

I have always thought visual language was an interesting topic. Personally, I am not very artistically gifted as far as drawing and visualizing things goes, so I am usually impressed by people who do those types of things.

I am curious, though, whether or not something like sign language would fall into the category of being a visual language. You are basically using hand signals to depict certain words. On the other hand, though, you still have to have some sort of a language for those signal to represent.

In other words, the word "dog" in sign language might not necessarily look like a dog. Those who can communicate through sign language have just learned to associate that certain hand gesture with a dog. I would be interested to get others' thought on this and what exactly constitutes a visual language.

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