Language and design

Author: Theo van Leeuwen


Linguistic approaches to the fusion of language and visual design in document design.

Table of contents


Visual design plays an increasingly important role in many socially crucial types of text, including educational materials, the print media, corporate communications and websites. Wordprocessing, desktop publishing and website design programmes introduce visual design into the linguistic productions of many who are not professional designers, both at the level of layout design and at the level of typography.

In other words, a new mode of semiotic production, sometimes called 'document design', has come about, combining writing ('authoring') and design. But with few exceptions (e.g. Goodman and Graddol, 1996, Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996, and cf the journal Visual Communication) few linguists have so far engaged systematically with the problems this poses for linguistic text analysis, although typographers have been interested for longer (e.g. Walker, 2001, and see the journal Visible Language).

Visual text design can fulfil a number of communicative functions:

  • It can create a hierarchy of salience, drawing attention to the headings that organise a text, or to other items singled out as key items of information
  • It can display the overall structure of a text, by visible segmenting the text into distinct sections, e.g. by means of colour and framing. Electronic communication often provides such overall visual structures ready-made, as 'templates'.
  • It can create cohesion between different elements within a text, for instance by repeating the same colour in semantically related items in the linguistic text and the images
  • It can add specific information values to the various zones of a page or screen (top versus bottom, left versus right, and centre versus margin). If, for instance, a composition uses the horizontal axis to create difference, items placed on the left will be interpreted as 'given' information, and items placed on the right as 'new' information (Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996)
  • It can provide an overall 'key' for a text or some part of it, for instance through the affective meanings attached to colours and/or textures used as background for a text, or in the lettering, or through the associations (e.g. 'classic' or 'contemporary') that may cling to certain fonts.

Systemic-functional linguists have devised methods of analysing the grammatical structure of designs (cf Kress and Van Leeuwen, 1996). They argue that many verbal and visual structures have common communicative functions, even though these are of course expressed differently. The 'demand', for instance is linguistically realised by an imperative, and may be visually realised by an image of someone looking at the viewer and making some kind of gesture (e.g. to summon, plea, or surrender). Syntagmatic structures may even combine the visual and the verbal. In diagrams language may supply the lexis (words in boxes, say 'high conservation value' and low recreational capacity') and visual design the syntax (the boxes that contain the words, and the arrow that connects them in order to supply the 'verb' needed to create the proposition 'high conservation value leads to low recreational capacity').

As the analysis of visual design in art and design theory has by and large been formalistic and aesthetic, the experience of linguists in analysing the communicative structure of texts is likely to play a key role in the development of the new discipline of document design analysis.


Goodman, S. and D. Graddol (1996) Redesigning English: new texts, new identities. London: Routledge/Open University

Kress, G. and T. Van Leeuwen (1996) Reading Images - The Grammar of Visual Design. London: Routledge

Walker, S. (2001) Language and Typography London: Longman

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