Revisiting “visual language”

I’ve now had this website for over 10 years, and have been blogging for almost 6 years, so it may be worth revisiting the fundamental ideas of my research over the next few posts. Hopefully by this time next year my book, The Visual Language of Comics, will be out and describing these ideas in even more detail. Until then…

Let’s start with the obvious: What is “visual language“?

There are several ways that the term “visual language” can be used. Sometimes it is used to talk about general visual information or visual culture. It might be used as a broad term for visual culture, or for any combination of text and images. Some people use it to describe creative ways to use writing in pictorial ways.

None of of these are what I mean by “visual language.”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. These and other applications of the term use “language” in a very metaphorical sense, usually by extension to mean “communication.”

My meaning of “language” is actually very literal, based on the scientific definitions of language. By extension, my definition of “visual language” is also very specific.

So, what do I mean by “visual language”?

Human beings as a species can only convey our thoughts in three ways: we can 1) create sounds with our mouths, 2) move our bodies (especially hands and faces), and 3) draw things. That’s it.

When any of these channels is put into a sequence, such that some sequences are good and others are bad, then the result is a “language.” Thus, sequential sounds (words) become spoken languages, sequential body movements become sign languages (as opposed to gestures) and sequential images literally become visual languages.

Given this, individual images are similar to single expressions (which have their own rich structure), while sequential images form a visual language.

So, what is writing? Writing is the learned importation of the spoken form into the visual form (essentially a learned synesthesia). This is not natural, which is why it’s so hard to learn to read and write, and why most of the world’s languages use no writing systems.

By contrast, the ability to draw sequential images is a natural ability that is accessible to anyone who receives the proper exposure and practice at it.

Given all that, now what about “comics”? Well, comics are the place that we predominantly find these visual languages used. Just like novels are written in English, comics in America are written in American Visual Language. Or, manga in Japan are written in Japanese Visual Language.

And, of course, comics are not just written in the visual language of sequential images, they also use written language. So, technically, comics use two languages that combine to make a larger whole of communication. This is actually similar to the way we communicate generally. We constantly combine modalities: we gesture when we speak, text and image often come together, etc.

From this basic idea, that sequential images literally create a natural visual modality of language,  innumerable other questions emerge about the nature of graphic communication, it’s cognition, and how it can be used in society.


  • Hi Neil,

    I'm a filmmaker so I'm always looking for ways to become better at using images to tell stories. I see that you primarily focus on comics but from the little I've been able to glean there's still a lot useful info that i can translate into film use.

    i look forward to reading the rest of your articles.


  • Thanks for checking out my website KDK! I have a friend who is a director and we frequently discuss the application of my theories for film.

    Fairly soon I should have a paper out that discusses the structure of visual narrative that should have clear connections with film, so stay tuned!

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