critically reading visual arguments

Tips For Critical Analysis of Visual Arguments
by Matt
The use of visual elements in an argument can make the author’s intended message much
more powerful, and more complicated. Just like a linguistic text, where the writer’s
language, tone, and examples contribute to the overall meaning, the analysis of images
requires specific skills and practice. Being a savvy reader of visual arguments requires
special consideration, and the following tips can get you started.
1. Think about how the visual component relates to the author’s overall claim. Is the
visual element the whole argument, or is it intended to work in conjunction with some
written language? Is this relationship explicitly stated, or do you need to be creative
in making this connection? How is any writing present juxtaposed with the image(s)?
2. Consider what kind of tone the visual aspects (eg. use of color, lighting, etc.) of the
argument evoke. How does that tone frame your thinking about the author’s
message? Are any assumptions about you as an audience being made regarding your
interests, values, or prior knowledge if the image(s)?
3. Ask yourself how the author is making one or more appeals by using the image(s).
Remember our discussions of ethos/logos/pathos. How rhetorically effective are the
appeals at work? Remember the following issues when analyzing visual appeals:
Ethos – In what ways do the visual elements affect the author’s credibility and
authority? How do they persuade you on an ethical level?
Logos – How do the visual components of the argument (eg. charts, graphs,
photographic evidence) support the author’s claim, or do they make
arguments of their own? Is this evidence reliable and indeed logical?
Pathos – What kind of emotional response do the visual aspects elicit? How
do specific images or parts of images achieve this effect?
4. Examine the ideology at work in the argument. What beliefs, values, and worldview
do the visual components perpetuate? Are certain binary opposites presented in a
way that privileges one over the other?
Of course, not every question listed above will be applicable to every visual argument,
but the important part is that you get used to questioning the texts (visual or linguistic)
that you encounter. In doing so, you will be better equipped to both make more informed
decisions about what arguments shape your thinking and craft more persuasive writing of
your own.