The ultimate goal of rhetoric is to persuade a general audience, but do artists ever consider human perception? Artists are not just those who paint, speak, photograph, write, design, and produce, but those who convey an important message to their audience. Every human has a different brain, which means that every human perceives what they see in a unique way. Each of these unique perceptions provides a challenge to the artist. To create effective visual rhetoric, an artist must acknowledge the process in which the human body sees, the complex concept of perception and how specific visual aspects impact their work.
Sight is the most important sense and is the way that humans begin to interact with the surrounding world. The objects that the human eye sees are mirror images of the light reflected off of those specific objects. The reflections of light enter through the cornea, where the cornea then refracts the waves that will eventually enter the pupil (American Optometric Association). Since every human is unique, each and every cornea is unique, which means that no two people see an object in the exact same way. After traveling through the cornea, the light then travels further through the eye until it reaches the retina, which is full of nerve cells that detect specific amounts of light. The American Optometric Association explains that when light reaches the nerve cells within the retina, it is converted into electrical impulses that eventually reach the brain via the optic nerve. Detecting light is just the first stage in the path to fully seeing and comprehending the surrounding world.
Sight does not end in the eyes but instead continues to the brain. An important part of sight is being able to identify the object. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, the area of the brain where light is converted to a visual image is the occipital lobe, and the temporal lobe plays a role in visual memory. The brain allows humans to pull from their visual memory to form connections between the current object they are viewing and past objects they have seen and recognized. If humans were not able to store visual information, they would have to relearn the identities of objects, including other humans, every time those objects entered the visual field. The process in which the brain recognizes visual stimuli and the process of perception are similar.
Perception is the process of becoming aware of a concept through the senses. This process depends on both social and biological factors. Socially, our perception depends on our past experiences, peer groups, interests, languages, and expectations. Biologically, perception is influenced by our heredity and our drive to satisfy our inner human needs. One example of a type of perception that is impacted by a social factor is color. Benson said that even language has a small, but important impact on the perception of color (28). This would be due to the fact that not all languages have a complex array of names for colors that are blended hues, such as blue-green. The same article gives an example wherein those who spoke a New Guinean language only associated color with two words, one for cold colors and one for warm colors (Benson 28). It is important to recognize that perception is driven by a combination of any of these factors at any given moment. People have been trained to associate certain colors and symbols with specific meanings and connotations. One of the most complex topics when it comes to perception and visual rhetoric is color.
Color allows humans to see the world in many dimensions. John K. Courtis says, “Colour is fundamental to sight, identification, interpretation, perceptions, and senses” (265). Specific colors can bring out emotions and remind humans of past experiences. For instance, yellow can be reminiscent of the sun and its radiant rays, but it can also be a sign of caution. The same logic would also apply for symbols and objects. A common example would be a thumbs up gesture. Most people perceive this as “yes” while in many other cultures this sign is seen as an insult. When it comes to artists sharing their ideas, they must take into consideration how people may view a certain color or symbol.
There are many ways that color is used in visual rhetoric within modern society. One example would be in business flyers and presentations. Courtis explains that many businesses use color in yearly statements, to either draw attention to the positives or to stress a needed change because of a downfall (270). Now, take a moment and think, what if not all colors were necessarily helpful to the persuasion of a piece? Although it may seem appealing for an artist to add color to their work, it might cause confusion and act as a distraction. Courtis wanted to determine if color played a role in the way the profit trended for a certain company. He conducted a study and found that out of 88 companies, only 14 who increased their color application also increased in profitability, whereas 38 companies who increased their color application decreased in profitability (Courtis 275). Courtis’ study shows that adding extra color does not always provide a benefit, as sometimes too many colors are a distraction. Color can greatly impact an artist’s piece, but it is not the only factor to consider.
There are many other aspects that play a part in successful visual rhetoric. Thinking back to around the middle school age, students often demonstrate their rhetoric through posters, at events such as a science fair. Diane L. Matthews said, “In any visual display of information, the arrangement of elements, typography, design, and color all contribute to the visual appeal and the effectiveness with which poster information is communicated” (230). In classes, students learn how to effectively place pictures, graphics, and words to create a visual masterpiece. For instance, students may use a graph or a chart to communicate data instead of writing a paragraph about the data, as most people would be motivated to look at a picture rather than read a paragraph. When students do not use the correct arrangement of visuals, their presentations do not capture their audience or convey their intended message. This enforces the claim that there are many aspects other than color that an artist should take into consideration when using visual rhetoric.
One way that an artist can determine what visual aspects they should add to their work is by determining the purpose of their message. The message an artist is trying to communicate is the most important part of their piece. By understanding their purpose at a deeper level, artists can more adequately use visuals that will not be as affected by changes in human perception. According to Manning and Amare, there are three types of visual rhetoric goals as determined by C.S. Peirce, which are decoratives, indicatives, and informatives (195, 200-201). Artists that use all three strategies are able to manipulate human perception for their own benefit.
Decoratives help artists evoke feelings in the audience, but human perception is going to be crucial in an artist’s success. For example, a church may want to inform an audience about an upcoming barbeque available to the whole town. If someone who was not a churchgoer saw the sign decorated with a bunch of religious symbols, they might become skeptical and not be as inclined to go if they feel that the event is going to be very religious. To avoid this perception, the church might want to refrain from overpowering the flyer with religious signs, but still include a symbol that informs the audience that it is a church hosting the barbeque. This would alleviate people’s worries about being pushed into religion and would encourage the general public to attend.
Indicatives have the goal of provoking action. For instance, a teacher sharing a lesson with students may have a slide that includes instructions. If the slide includes a paragraph full of long sentences, the students may perceive the task as a drawn-out activity and will be inclined to just skim through the paragraph, possibly missing directions, instead of completely reading the paragraph. Teachers could avoid this negative perception by putting the task steps into short, clear bulleted points. Students would perceive bullet points as high-priority and would be more likely to read all of the instructions and successfully complete the task.
Informatives have the goal of advocating an understanding of a topic through visuals. An example of this would be a mosquito net company creating a graphic that claims mosquitos are the deadliest animal in the world. This could lead to the company being perceived as biased and greedy, which would not inform the audience of the dangers of mosquitos, but instead persuade them to avoid buying mosquito repelling supplies from the company. To avoid this possible negative perception, the mosquito net company should back up their claims with research so that they are more believable and their graphics are perceived in a way that allows people to understand more about mosquito dangers.
Artists must not only take into account human perception but also ethics when it comes to using rhetoric. Sharing media that may be slightly unethical is a danger that is faced in today’s society as the country is becoming more diverse culturally, politically and religiously. Rivera explains Aristotle’s golden mean as a center point between overload and absence (79). This could also be described as reaching a happy medium. Although Rivera’s article is based on discovering the golden mean in social justice and academic excellence, the golden mean can definitely be applied to visual rhetoric. It has started to become a common theme for a person or group to use visual rhetoric to paint a painfully negative image of their enemy or competitor. Although there is a strategy for making the competitor look inferior, such as in election races, a group must work to criticize the actions and policies of the person instead of ridiculing the person themselves. Artists must be committed to producing images that bring together the country instead of tearing it apart.
Acknowledging the many critical visual aspects, the process of human sight and the intricate concept of perception allows artists to be successful in using visual rhetoric. Visual perception is the most significant aspect that artists need to recognize because this impacts how the audience perceives their message. Sharing the same ideas with all people is a very difficult task as every human brain is unique. Artists who are passionate about persuading an audience will accurately determine the effects of human perception and use it to their advantage.
- American Association of Neurological Surgeons. “Anatomy of the Brain.” American Association of Neurological Surgeons, 2019, www.aans.org/Patients/Neurosurgical-Conditions-and-Treatments/Anatomy-of-the-Brain.
- Benson, Etienne. “Different Shades of Perception.” Monitor on Psychology, vol. 33, no. 11, Dec. 2002, p. 28., www.apa.org/monitor/dec02/perception.
- Courtis, John K. “Colour as Visual Rhetoric in Financial Reporting.” Accounting Forum, vol. 28, no. 3, Sept. 2004, pp. 265–281., doi:10.1016/j.accfor.2004.07.003.
- American Optometric Association. “How Your Eyes Work.” American Optometric Association, 2019, www.aoa.org/patients-and-public/resources-for-teachers/how-your-eyes-work.
- Manning, Alan, and Nicole Amare. “Visual-Rhetoric Ethics: Beyond Accuracy and Injury .” Technical Communication, vol. 53, no. 2, May 2006, pp. 195–211., www.jstor.org/stable/43090716?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.
- Matthews, Diane L. “The Scientific Poster: Guidelines for Effective Visual Communication.” Technical Communication, vol. 37, no. 3, Aug. 1990, pp. 225–232., www.jstor.org/stable/43094875?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.
- Rivera, John. “Finding Aristotle’s Golden Mean: Social Justice and Academic Excellence.” Journal of Education, vol. 186, no. 1, 1 Jan. 2006, pp. 79–85., journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/002205740618600108.