What is visual communication?

Rosanna Thwaites
Published: 18 July 2023
London Piccadilly during night evening

Visual Communication is all around us. We are exposed to it virtually all-day, every-day, from our morning cup of coffee and email-check, until our book at bedtime. To say it’s important would be an understatement.

If you want to learn how to create these types of images, designs, and layouts, then you need to investigate studying a form of Visual Communication.

Some everyday examples of Visual Communication

Look around you. If you’re somewhere inside, the chances are you’re surrounded by logos, colour-schemes, patterns, and layouts. Each of these was designed by someone; someone who works in the field of Visual Communication.

Can’t see anything? Take a closer look; what’s on your coffee cup, or chocolate wrapper? There’s surely a logotype or logomark there; a stylised word or simple image, designed to enable rapid identification of a brand. This is referred to as a ‘brand identity’.

Are there any books, magazines or newspapers in your vicinity? Look at the covers. The shape, weight, and spacing of the letters in the titles was designed by someone; a typographer. If there’s artwork on the front, that was likely created by an Illustrator. And someone else, a graphic designer, brought that particular combination of type and image together. 

And the website you’re reading this blog post on; it was designed by a web designer. Even the page you used to search for the website was designed by someone.

Is visual communication just ‘Advertising’, then?

Whilst it’s true that visual communication is closely associated with the advertising industry, there’s much more to it than just selling stuff. 

If you’re devoted to a particular cause, the chances are it has a logo and colour-scheme, which is used to communicate what it stands for, and to distinguish it from other causes.

Some of the most radical visual communications throughout history were created in the service of ground-breaking social movements (think the American civil-rights movement, or the Silence=Death AIDS awareness campaign of the 1980’s).

An example of the 1987 Silence=Death poster from the AIDS crisis, illustrating the use of the inverted pink triangle from the HolocaustAn example of the 1987 Silence=Death poster from the AIDS crisis, illustrating the use of the inverted pink triangle from the Holocaust
An example of the 1987 Silence=Death poster from the AIDS crisis, illustrating the use of the inverted pink triangle from the Holocaust

Arguably, the powerful visual designs associated with these causes helped them to gain enough traction to re-shape aspects of society.

Music also often inspires designers to break new ground (think Factory Records’ ‘Madchester’ album covers, or Jamie Reid’s designs for the Sex Pistols) – with the result that social norms are altered alongside record sales. 

Perhaps you have a sticker on your laptop, or a stencil on your bag, which helps associate you with a cause, a band, or musical genre. Maybe all three. Their visual identity has become a part of your visual identity. 

So, visual communication is actually two different subjects?!

Broadly speaking, Visual Communication is divided into two sub-areas: Graphic Design and illustration. 

What is graphic design?

Graphic Design involves bringing type and image together to create designs for print media (your coffee cup and wrapper, or those books, mags and newspapers you just looked at) and digital media (for example, the website or social media channel you’re reading this on). Some graphic designers only work with type (as mentioned) and these are called ‘typographers’. 

What is illustration?

Illustration involves creating the powerful images that graphic designers use in their print and digital designs. Illustrators also create images for books (often children’s books, which are more pictorial), and character and background designs for animations and computer games.

What would a job in ‘Vis Comms’ look like?

Graphic designers and illustrators can either work ‘in house’ for a company, at an agency, or freelance. In-house designers and illustrators create designs for that company only, while agency workers and freelance workers are hired to create designs for lots of different companies. 

You’re probably getting the picture (pun intended) that graphic designers and illustrators can work for almost any type of company under the sun; from companies that create products which need packaging (food, clothes, books - the list is virtually endless), to any company that has a brand identity (who doesn’t?) or a web or social media presence (again, who doesn’t?)

These companies need Visual Communication specialists to brand, package, and market their products, services, and causes.

If you work in-house at a company, it’s likely there’ll be a hierarchy of roles from Junior Designer all the way up to Chief Design Officer (CDO) – who’s responsible for the entire visual identity of a company.

Working freelance or at an agency in Visual Communications means that you ‘become’ the brand, marketing your personal style, skills and services to companies. These companies might commission you to design a single logo, or an entire brand identity. Perhaps a single character design, or the whole ‘look’ of an animation. What you get commissioned for very much depends on what your personal style lends itself to, and how effective you are at self-marketing.

What are the principles of good visual communication?

That’s easy – your work must communicate with its audience!

If only it were so easy to achieve in practice.

Thankfully, City Lit has expert Visual Communication tutors ready to initiate you in all the ways you can create images, designs, and layouts which say what you want them to say; be that to pick up and purchase a certain product from a shelf, or to change the world. 

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What is visual communication?