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What Is Visible Language?

Emily Daw
Emily Daw

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.

Sign language is an inherently visual form of communication.
Sign language is an inherently visual form of communication.

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.

Abstract art is a type of visual communication.
Abstract art is a type of visual communication.

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.

Discussion Comments


There are some good papers and books on this topic but I feel like, as a field of study and research, it deserves far more.

Visible language, especially if it is written, leaves more clues and artifacts about a group of people or a civilization than anything else. We can learn a lot about human civilizations and development by studying visible language and how it has transformed and changed over time. I feel that this field is not receiving as much care and attention as it should. I guess part of the problem is funding and finding ways to apply the findings to current concepts and studies.


We are learning about Egyptian symbols in school. Egyptian symbols were basically their alphabet. Most people believe that Egyptian and Mesopotamian symbols were the first form of visible language, that is, writing.

Of course, it's far different than modern writing because it mostly uses shapes and images to tell a story. Many of them straightforward but some are difficult to decipher. What's common to these earliest forms of writing is that animal and nature images were very popular. And this is understandable since people used symbols they were familiar with and saw all the time.


It's fairly difficult to learn alphabets of foreign languages when the alphabet system is different. And schools spend most of their time teaching reading and writing, rather than spending more time on conversational skills.

I think that most people who are interested in learning a second language as a hobby just want to be able to have conversations in that language. We may be wasting a lot of time and effort on the visible language.

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    • Sign language is an inherently visual form of communication.
      By: lawcain
      Sign language is an inherently visual form of communication.
    • Abstract art is a type of visual communication.
      By: diego cervo
      Abstract art is a type of visual communication.