Multimodal Mondays: What You See is What You Get: Understanding Visual and Image Rhetorics

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323432_pastedImage_6.pngToday's guest blogger is Kim Haimes-Korn‌, a Professor in the English Department at Kennesaw State University. Kim’s teaching philosophy encourages dynamic learning, critical digital literacies and focuses on students’ powers to create their own knowledge through language and various “acts of composition.” She likes to have fun every day, return to nature when things get too crazy and think deeply about way too many things. She loves teaching. It has helped her understand the value of amazing relationships and boundless creativity. You can reach Kim at or visit her website Acts of Composition.

Multimodal composition relies heavily on the relationship between text and image. As teachers in this context we can emphasize to students that composing images takes the same kind of thought and energy as composing written texts. We consider our audience, purpose, subject matter, and context and make rhetorical choices that communicate meaning. Of course, students can just snap pictures and capture strong images by happenstance, but I try to get them to understand that composing images involves rhetorical strategies and an understanding of visual rhetoric.

Kenneth Louis Smith in the Handbook of Visual Communications (Routledge, 2005), helps make that distinction. 

Not every visual object is visual rhetoric. What turns a visual object into a communicative artifact--a symbol that communicates and can be studied as rhetoric--is the presence of three characteristics. . . . The image must be symbolic, involve human intervention, and be presented to an audience for the purpose of communicating with that audience.

This definition is a good place to start our conversation. How do we symbolize? What is the difference between literal and representative images? How can we use visuals to move beyond pretty pictures and create persuasive communication?

I use this and other sources to introduce students to the idea of image rhetorics and discuss particular rhetorical strategies to consider while composing visuals. I find it useful for students to think about metaphors and their relationship to designing visual content. and other online sources offer glossaries and definitions for rhetorical devices and visual metaphors. I also use Sean Morey’s discussion of Image Rhetorics (The Digital Writer) to investigate terms and to help initiate students into learning the language of visual composition. He discusses the following rhetorical lenses and image categories: Analogy, Metaphor, Metonomy, Synecdoche, Enthymeme and provides detailed visual examples of each.

Morey also talks about the importance of text and image relationships and suggests terms like Anchorage and Relay, Juxtaposition and the distinction between Denotation and Connotation. Students learn the language of visual composition and start to see ways to change and enhance their visual composing practices through this assignment. 

Background Resources:

The St. Martin’s Handbook: Ch. 16, Design for Print and Digital Writing; Ch. 17, Presentations

The Everyday Writer (also available with exercises😞 Ch.22, Making Design Decisions; Ch. 23, Presentations

 EasyWriter (also available with exercises😞 Ch.3, Making Design Decisions; Ch. 11, Creating Presentations

Steps of the assignment:

  1. Have students study and learn image rhetoric terms and strategies.
  2. Look online for examples that demonstrate the principles of visual rhetoric.
  3. Gather students into teams and have each team compose a collaborative Image Rhetoric Slide show through Google Slides.
  4. Each student is responsible for a single slide that features a different rhetorical term in which they 1) Define the term, 2) Compose an original visual example, and 3) Provide an explanation of the meaning they are trying to communicate (and what makes it effective).
  5. Students present the slide shows in class and discuss examples.


It is one thing to understand a definition and repeat its characteristics on a test. It is another to apply that knowledge through this kind of exercise. Students found interesting connections and creative ways of presenting persuasive visual communication. Students come to see larger connections between cultural concepts and learn how images can bring complicated ideas together in impactful ways.

For example, Aiden’s slide provides an analysis of metaphors, creatively combines two concepts, and draws a “comparison between unhealthy fried foods known to be carcinogenic like fries and tobacco products.”


This assignment helps students understand that many of the messages around them are composed through these lenses and that they can actively compose persuasive visual images of their own.  I have included two of the team presentations below:

Let me know what you think in the comments.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.