Visual rhetoric, a form of visual literacy, involves the analysis and use of design elements (images, text, and the overall gestalt of a design) to communicate a message. Because we live in a highly image-based culture — thanks in large part to the proliferation of advertising — we have developed an acute sense of how to “read” images and design for their subtexts: the covert or underlying messages they communicate, whether on purpose or not. In fact, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The medium is the message”; meaning, the way in which we express an idea is just as important and influential as the idea itself.
Accordingly, it is imperative that any kind of multimedia format, like a PowerPoint presentation, be crafted so that its media enhance its content; otherwise, why use this kind of format to communicate ideas in the first place? So, there are several major considerations to take into account when creating a PowerPoint: the overt and covert messages it aims to communicate; how images, other graphics and media, and typography (i.e. font and the arrangement of text) may help deliver those messages; and, finally, the overall context and aesthetic of the presentation. Ultimately, the job of a PowerPoint is to act as a dynamic visual assistant for its presenter.
Overt and Covert Messages
The overt message is the content of any expressed idea. The covert message, on the other hand, usually lies in the form, the way in which the idea is expressed, which may either stress or contrast with the overt message. For example, take Nike’s “Find Your Greatness” ad campaign. One ad from this campaign features a small boy standing atop a diving platform, looking down at the pool far below him. The colors of the image are muted, and feature mostly tans, browns, and blues. Superimposed over this image is plain, all-white text that reads, “FIND YOUR GREATNESS.” The overt message of this ad, of course, is to “find your greatness.” The covert message, however, is that anyone can become great, even this small — and, based on his body language, nervous — boy. Further, th e boy is notably not Caucasian, but another ethnicity, perhaps African American or Hispanic. Although seemingly unimportant, the decision to use a child from a minority background was most certainly purposeful on Nike’s part. Thus, the ad does not just communicate that anyone can become great, but even people from minority or underprivileged backgrounds can. So, with this detail in mind, what do we make of the choice to use bright white text? Was the juxtaposition just for the purpose of contrasting with the darker colors in the image, or is there an underlying racial element or commentary in this ad?
As this example demonstrates, the relationship between form and content, in this case, text and image, generates certain messages. Therefore, it is extremely important to use design elements to communicate only the message you mean to communicate.
Images, Graphics, and Media
Any good PowerPoint presentation will involve multimedia elements. Slides, then, will not merely project text onto a screen, but will use media such as images, graphs, videos, and animations to highlight the message being delivered.
Say you are a business executive delivering a proposal to the CEO of your company. Your goal is to convince him to back a project you have developed. In your presentation, you will want to make two of the three kinds of persuasive appeals: ethos, the establishment of your credibility and character; and logos, reason. The media you choose to present in your PowerPoint will either enhance or detract from your attempts at persuasion by delivering a covert message.
So, what kinds of media should you use, business executive? Clipart? No, the cheap, hand-drawn style of Clipart seems childish and unprofessional in the context of an important business meeting. Professionally edited photos and illustrations are much more appropriate in this context. What about Youtube videos? Perhaps, but definitely not if they are made by amateurs. Charts and graphs? Yes, charts and graphs would be appropriate for this situation. They convey quantifiable information, and, when that information is relevant and from a reliable source, they can be incredibly effective for persuading using reason.
What about slide transitions and animations? Slide transitions should be used sparingly in serious presentations, since they are often busy and distracting. However, if there is information you want on a slide but do not want your audience to see immediately, animations may be useful. Again, though, you will not want to choose a distracting animation.
In addition, slide backgrounds and color schemes also convey subtle messages. In fact, color plays a very important role in the overall aesthetic appeal of a design; there are entire theories behind the rhetorical effects of color. For example, you would not want to use red text over a blue background; it is painful on the eyes because they lack harmony. Further, you may recall the episode of the TV comedy Scrubs in which Janitor receives a new robin’s egg blue jumpsuit. People begin to greet him with smiles, and he at first believes his jumpsuit to be “cursed” since he is no longer feared. However, as Dr. Kelso explains, there is a simple psychology behind the change: robin’s egg blue promotes calmness, whereas orange provokes anger. When choosing a background, then, color is an important consideration. If you are using an image as your background, on the other hand, you will want to choose one that will not be too busy, one that will not eclipse the foreground, the main content, of the slide.
Typography is another important consideration to take into account when designing a PowerPoint presentation. Usually when we think of text we think of its content; however, the font (size, weight, and style of a typeface) and arrangement of text on a screen also have a significant impact on its meaning. One golden rule of PowerPoint is to never create a presentation in which the presenter will only read off text from the screen. First, what is the point of the presenter’s presence if the audience could just be reading the slides themselves? Second, such presentations are monotonous, and make the presenter and his or her ideas seem contrived and boring.
Nevertheless, assuming you already follow this golden rule, the importance of arrangement of text and the font choice still applies. For example, if we return to the Nike ad previously discussed, we see the text centered in the middle of the image, which for our purposes I will call the “slide.” Because the text is the central point of focus of the slide, the text becomes the central point of focus for an audience. However, if you wanted to emphasize the image, you would likely place the text toward the top, like a title, or the bottom, like a caption. Moreover, font plays an important role in a text’s message. The font in the Nike ad is large, bolded, white, and sans-serif. These elements of the font, in contrast with the background, make the text seem clear and mild yet eye-catching.
For you, the hypothetical business executive, font will play an important role in establishing your ethos. For example, if you were to use a nontraditional font such as Comic Sans or Jokerman ITC, you and your ideas would likely seem childish or flippant. In this case, a serious typeface such as Times New Roman or Arial is most appropriate. Further, you will not want to use frivolous bolding, CAPITALIZATION, expressive punctuation!?!!, or italicization. When used too frequently or in the wrong place, these textual modifications seem not just childish, but completely ridiculous. Often, inexperienced people using computers will make the mistake of overusing these textual options (especially on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter), which detracts from what they are actually trying to say.
Overall Context and Aesthetic
The examples given in this blog demonstrate the effects of visual rhetoric in a business executive’s PowerPoint presentation and a company’s advertisement. However, there are infinite possibilities when it comes to rhetorical situations and visual rhetoric. In the end, after you have decided what is appropriate in the context of your presentation, you will need to bring together the overt and covert messages, images and other graphics and media, and typography to create a functional presentation with clear connections between the form and content. Overall, a PowerPoint should have an overarching aesthetic that blends all of its individual parts into a cohesive and thematically linked whole.