Visible language refers to the way in which writing systems communicate, such as by typography and graphic design. While emphasizing the visual aspect, however, the conceptual parts of the language are focused on more than the basic look of the layout. Communication arts specialists argue that reading and writing form a system of communication that is inherently different from spoken language. More broadly, visible language can also describe anything that communicates an idea through a visual medium with defined or implied structures.
The most familiar form of visible language is writing, in which spoken language is represented in a visual medium. Spoken and visual language, however, have a number of differing properties. Going beyond merely the words themselves, visible language encompasses all the factors that influence visual communication, including text size, typeface, color and relative placement of text. These elements of visible language do not correspond directly to anything in spoken language, just as volume and tone of voice have no direct equivalent to writing. There is a considerable amount of overlap between this field and the field of graphic design, although visible language deals generally with the abstract or academic areas of the field more than the practical application.
Another application of visual language is concrete poetry, also known as shape poetry or size poetry, in which a poem is laid out on the page in the shape of an object being described. One famous example is George Herbert's 1633 poem "Easter Wings," which forms the shape of two birds in flight when centered on the page as intended by the author. The emphasis remains on the words themselves, while the shape merely enhances the meaning. In some more modern poetry, however, the primary focus is on the visual design, sometimes to the point in which the poem cannot be read aloud.
The term visible language can also be applied broadly to forms of communication other than writing. One example of this is sign language, which is an inherently visual, rather than oral, form of communication. American Sign Language (ASL) expresses many language elements, including tense and directionality, through concrete spacial representations. For instance, someone using ASL may gesture behind to indicate that something happened in the past or forward to indicate that something will happen in the future. Visible language may also refer to communication such as abstract art, traffic signs, or charts and graphs. These may even be said to have their own form of "grammar," which govern their construction and interpretation.