Visual Language and Why it Matters

‘Visual language’ is any communication method which relies on visual elements over other sensory input. Traffic lights could be one example of visual language – red means ‘stop’ and green means ‘go’ in the UK and many other countries. Visual language can be seen in picture books, where it is used to communicate a story or an idea through imagery.

The visual language of Dutch author Dick Bruna (full name the rather magnificent Hendrick Magdalenus Bruna, 1927 – 2017) is a good example. Bruna produced the beloved Miffy books using a very clear graphic style, giving the images wide appeal. Bruna, who also worked as a graphic designer, understood the visual impact of bold lines and primary colours. Known as Nijntje in the original Dutch, the Miffy books were influenced by their creator’s interest in Matisse, and the Dutch Stijl design movement, in which items were reduced to their essential elements. Miffy was originally drawn as more lifelike sketches, which were then reduced to their essential forms. The series’ popularity led to the publication of over 120 books, and their enduring fame around the world today. (1)

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Consistency of visual language helps the reader to quickly parse the images they are viewing. A consistent visual language helps us to understand concepts better it because it provides a visual shorthand. Visual language can be very subtle through the use of motifs, or more explicit. An example of explicit visual language might be the characterisation of classic Disney villains. The villains have more extreme proportions and expressions than those of the traditionally beautiful heroes of the story. They have exaggerated makeup or movements, and perhaps their voices are sly or otherwise off putting. They often wear purple, yellow, red or black, as opposed to the pastel or golden tones often favoured by the heroes. Their designs are calculated to represent them as unlikable and dangerous. (2)

Sometimes it is important that a visual language be instantly understandable even by those not familiar with it, who may come from a different cultural context. In this instance, such as when dealing with signage for dangerous places or hazardous waste, the existence of a universally understandable visual language becomes key. Visual language when used for signs has to consider whether or not it is understandable by a wide range of people from diverse backgrounds. An interesting example is nuclear semiotics. These are messages, generally conveyed as pictograms, which have to be understandable by anyone. They must convey that a place or substance is dangerous, and must not be tampered with.

In creative professions like illustration, each creator normally develops their own visual language and their style evolves as they work. For illustrators, our own visual language can become our calling card. It is how people recognize our work, and becomes the style that we are known for. Our visual language may take time to establish itself. An interdisciplinary visual artist who works as both a graphic designer and an illustrator may have a toolbox of working styles that they apply to each job at hand. However, an illustrator may benefit from having a distinct style and visual language. Whatever kind of art you decide to create, confidently and consistently applying a visual language can be helpful in building your brand image and maintaining a consistent style.

1.   Bruna, Dick. (2018). In P. Lagasse, & Columbia University, The Columbia encyclopedia (8th ed.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press. Retrieved May 2019 from

2.   Davis, Amy M. (2015). Handsome Heroes & Vile Villains: Masculinity in Disney’s Feature Films. Herts, United Kingdom, John Libbey Publishing Ltd. Retrieved May 2019 from