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The "Language" of Images

We normally think of languages in terms of words being spoken or written. So, what do we mean by the “language” of images? Words are essentially symbols. They are a visual form that represents a sound or series of sounds. The visual form of a word is basically a type of image or a series of small images that we recognise as conveying meaning. This meaning is something that is conventional – it is accepted and perpetuated by a community of people. So, we can think of a language as a set of symbols that are used by communities to communicate. 

There are many different alphabets and a huge variety of spoken languages. For them to function as a means of communication we need to learn these shared symbols and then use them ourselves in ways that are meaningful to others. When learning new symbols or decoding sets of images (such as a page of text) that we may never have seen before we rely on our knowledge and experience of these symbols up to now. We draw on and then build on our stock of symbols (or sounds) to give us ways to convey meaning.

Red Circle with White Background
Lydia Makeup Brush with CGI background

Shapes in the Language of Images

When we come across images we refer back to what we have seen before. This helps us to interpret what we are looking at now. From a simple shape to a complex scene with many interacting elements, our brains form an interpretation in a fraction of a second. It is mainly a sub-conscious process, although occasionally we may have to work a bit more consciously at something new or less familiar. Visual symbols – the language of images – is an extremely fast and effective form of communication (read more in my article about the power of images for communicating).

Shapes in the language of images - Face

Most people will quickly see a face in the picture above. Despite the fact that we won’t have seen any humans with triangles for eyes or a pentagon for a nose, we still can’t help but see a face. The unusual shapes might make us think there is something abnormal about the face, but it doesn’t become unrecognisable. We are so used to seeing and looking for faces that anything that looks even remotely similar will trigger this interpretation.

Stick Man made of black shapes

What do you see in the above picture? Is it just a set of rectangles and a circle or does arranging them like this create some new meaning? For symbols that are very familiar it can be hard to break them down into their parts. We might easily see a person and have to work to remind ourselves that this is actually just a series of shapes.  The context of these shapes together in close proximity and our frequent experiences and memories of this kind of symbol and what it looks like steer us in a particular direction. 

Even the most basic of shapes can be enough to stir our brains into action and conjure up a variety of interpretations. As we start to combine symbols, we can begin telling stories. This is just as true as when we combine words (sounds) to tell a story. 

Shapes Telling Stories

Height & sharp simple shapes

What is going on in this image? What leads you to that conclusion? The tall thin triangles tend to make us think of something sharp. The large rectangle suggests height with something at the top and something down below. Having a horizontal triangle top left suggests that our circle is somehow being forced to the right. From a simple set of the most basic shapes we draw on our memories to create meaning. It doesn’t matter whether we have seen this exact image before or not. We start to tell a story based on our common understanding of the language of images.

Familiar shapes - House

This image may contain elements that you feel need clarification. Although you might be starting to make sense of some shapes, others might not be so obvious. The context might help, but you might benefit from some more information, such as colour. 

Images as Language - Colour

Shape isn’t the only part of our vocabulary in the language of images. Colour can make a big difference too. In the final scene above, we may struggle to interpret some elements using only the shapes. However, once we add colour, the picture becomes clearer.

Recognising from simple shapes & colours - house on grass by river

Colour can make things more easily recognisable. It can also carry connotations, such as a mood or feeling. For example, many of us associate red with things such as danger, anger, warning, etc. This is how it is often used in signage that needs to be quickly and easily understood. Patterns of colour together can remind us of everyday objects such as traffic lights (see below). I go into more detail on the effects and uses of  colour in my article on communicating with colour.

Easily recognised coloured shapes

Colour is a key part of the language of images. When advertising our products and services, how we use colour can affect how people feel about our brand. It can start to tell a story to the viewer that is hard for them to ignore. Combining shapes and colour together, we are well on our way to telling visual stories.

Whatever is in a scene contributes to our interpretation of it. Each element can remind us of past experiences and the communal understanding that our culture has for those symbols. So, when we create images we can communicate more effectively if we have a good understanding of those symbols and treat images more like languages. Pictures enable us to communicate. But, that communication can be hindered if we use  symbols that our viewer is not familiar with. Some scenes or symbols might require more inside knowledge and speak less easily to a wide audience. For example, does the image below remind you of anything? Do you need more information to make an interpretation? 

Football teams aerial view as basic shapes

If you could work out what you think the image is referring to, what memories did you rely on to do so? 

This is just a brief look at a big topic. So, if you would like to read more please take a look at my article on communicating with pictures.

As an advertising photographer, I work hard to understand and use the language of images. I can help you speak more effectively to your target audience through carefully crafted photos. If you would like help telling your story to make more sales please do get in touch.

© Joe Lenton, January 2022 – no reproduction of images or words without permission

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