Textual Impact in a Visual World

by Rachel Neuman

From the writer: The assignment was to find an object in which printed text and graphic images work together to convey a message. The object I chose was an anti-hate poster which illustrated its message through words, colors, font types and sizes only. I felt that this poster was a great example of how printed text alone can create an image as powerful as one with graphic illustrations.

From the teacher, Joddy Murray: Rachel Neuman’s paper was in response to the third major assignment in my WRT 105 class dealing with the relationship between image and print in composition. Rachel analyzed the visual and print relationship by selecting a popular poster seen on doors and in hallways throughout the University, and she created an argument that text itself is also a type of image—that it carries with it connotations and a kind of visual impact. Her close analysis of the poster and the primary research she conducted, as well as her use of images in the final product, combine to provide a convincing argument as to how printed text and image text are, sometimes, difficult to separate.

From the editor, Alaina Potrikus: In her piece, the author picks apart images we see on a daily basis with the eye of a critical theorist and the heart of a writer. Her willingness to approach topics tinged with taboo and her ability to articulate the issues that face the next generation impressed the editors. This analysis clearly illustrates the concepts professors target in first-year writing studios.

Many of the texts that seek to capture your attention have both verbal and visual components.

Donald McQuade

(Figure 1)

  The visual world and the textual world work together to create messages in a bimodal way. More than one sense is called upon when viewing a poster or reading a poem. Therefore, text can be considered an image in the same way that an image can portray information like text. The poster that I researched and investigated (seen in Figure 1) is a prime example of text that can be considered an image. Through the layout, font and display of the "Words Hurt" poster, the presentation and message of the text actually creates an image itself.

 Visual images can easily portray a picture to the viewer; however, they do not provide an outlet for thought provocation as much as an image combined with text. When someone sees a poster of a cigarette pack behind a circle bisected by a diagonally placed diameter, the message that you shouldn’t smoke is clear. However, a poster of five different cigarette cartons with various negative health effects of smoking written sarcastically at the bottom of the cigarette boxes conveys a different message. You must be stupid to smoke because all of these negative effects are going to ruin your health. In this example, the written text at the bottom of the cigarette box engages the reader of the poster by displaying both an image and text so that "the verbal text restates the meanings of the image or vice-versa. In other words, the same meanings are communicated by the verbal code and the visual code. . . . The verbal text extends the meanings of the image "with word and image in a complementary relation" (Astorga 212). This same concept is portrayed in the "Words Hurt" poster. Although a traditional image isn’t present, the text itself is used to create an image. A deliberate choice not to add any pictures was made by the designer. In the presence of a picture, the text formats and colors in the poster would lose their ability to create their own image.

  One of the goals of the "Words Hurt" poster is to capture a person’s attention by providing so many hateful words that a reader cannot help but identify with at least one listed. Tom Boisvert, president of Pride Union, an on-campus organization that addresses issues of homosexuality, thought that if pictures intended to capture each stereotype were added to the poster, the message would have been "counterproductive." Stereotypes would be furthered, he said, by visually displaying "a masculine looking female that is supposed to be a lesbian." In his opinion, instead of demonstrating the no-hate message, the inclusion of the pictures would have encouraged the stereotypes. Moreover, even without a picture, the text provides both images and verbal messages. The poster creates its own visual sense through the layout of words, the font used and the contrasts of colors.

 There are two different fonts on the "Words Hurt" poster that help create its image. Seventy-nine percent of the text is written in a box-like font. The words written in this font are presented in a bold, formal way. These words are read first, as they catch the viewer by surprise because ordinarily these words are not publicly displayed. After the reader peruses through the box-like words, he will eventually discover the message written in the other font—"In a perfect world, you wouldn’t even think them." Using two different fonts draws the reader’s attention first to the slander words and then to the intended message. The message is constructed so viewer is shocked by the poster and then realizes that in a perfect world, people would not even have these words as ideas. Because the size of the text draws attention first to the large image and then to the smaller one, the poster purposefully moves the reader to confront issues in the order chosen by the designers.

  Color is also important. Boisvert considered "in a perfect world you wouldn’t even think them" to be the passive statement in this message. The green words set in the background are of hatred and aggressiveness while the purple ones are more passive, aiming at universal tolerance. David Hellstrom, one of the creators of the "Words Hurt" poster and Director of Education for Real World Productions, said green was used so that a dull color creates a "backdrop or wallpaper effect." Thus, the principal message of the poster, that words hurt, is written in purple. This causes it to stand out from the words of hate, which are written in green. When examining the poster in more detail, I noticed that Boisvert’s passive statement is written from right to left, rather than the traditional way from left to right. I noted that it is formatted this way to show that there is no one correct way of life—that you can be homosexual, heterosexual, or transsexual, and you will be recognized. In addition, other languages are written in different directions, so everyone is targeted by this unusual format. Boisvert said that if the authors had formatted this poster in the standard left to right fashion, the green words would have been overlooked. I agree that if it was written from left to right, people would read that message and overlook the words of hatred. When I asked Hellstrom why it is formatted this way, he was frank when telling me that the message could be read either way and that he really hadn’t really thought of that as an issue. As can be seen, the format of this poster is very important to the visual message.

(Figure 2)

  This same concept is often seen in advertising. The disparity between large and small text is used to differentiate important information from the less important. In the advertisement in Figure 2, the largest word, "enjoyable," is the main point of the advertisement. Nestle wants the consumer to see that a Butterfinger bar is "enjoyable." The word is in a unique color and is centered on the page in contrast with the other text. The publishers, Bacchus and Gamma, want to get across the main idea that "words hurt." These two words are in the larger font, in a dramatic purple color and appear centered on the page in an obvious way. There is no distinction among the hateful words. They are all connected in the same "nondescript font" so the contrast of "Words Hurt" is striking. Hellstrom agrees that "Words Hurt" is supposed to "pop out" as he begins to read the poster and again as he finishes, reinforcing the central theme of the poster.

(Figure 3)

  The use of color has another role in the poster. Because the poster appears in only two colors, the message seems to be more serious. In a different poster made by the same company, as seen in Figure 3, an array of colors was used to bring out its message of individuality. The content of that poster, however, is more upbeat than the one of hatred. Printed text is used as an image to establish the gravity of the message. If the printed text is in a fun, colorful font, the text will be interpreted as fun and happy. On the other hand, if the message is written in a more formal font, as is in the case with the "Words Hurt" poster, the message probably has a more serious content. Therefore, the choice to have two colors instead of a whole rainbow of colors makes the poster more formal and brings out the serious anti-hate message.

  During one interview, I asked Hellstrom why the poster is not in the shape of any symbol and why the words continue off the page. The main reason for the rectangular, standard poster sized paper is the knowledge of the typical setting where the piece would be displayed. Hellstrom understood Bacchus and Gamma’s audience of college students and therefore planned his poster around the way his audience would read it. Because poster space is limited in a university student center, Bacchus and Gamma chose to use the standard size paper so that the most of their poster was showing.

(Figure 4)

  In other examples, the targeted population is the main force behind decisions regarding the use of text. The message in Figure 4 is targeted at people walking up these steps. The best way to grab the viewer’s attention is to make the message unavoidable. "In today’s world where texts compete insistently for everyone’s attention, being memorable has a great advantage. Much of today’s public language functions at a level comparable to that of a single image: an immediately digestible bite" (McQuade xxx). In other words, the goal of companies is to construct their message in as few and concise terms as possible in order to get the audience to grasp the message before forgetting it. When walking up the stairs, one cannot avoid reading "Is there lipstick on your teeth?" Likewise, one cannot pass the "Words Hurt" poster without noticing. The visual images created in and by the "Words Hurt" poster are as important to the creator’s message as the text that contains the message. Together they are a powerful communicative tool.

  One important question that I tried to answer was whether a picture would help or hinder the message that the poster delivers. Because the text makes its own visual image, I wanted to know if other people agreed with my assumption that a picture was not necessary and in fact would take away from the message. Thus, I asked many questions about a potential accompanying picture to both Boisvert and Hellstrom, and I distributed a questionnaire regarding the issue to thirty freshmen living in Boland Residence Hall. The exact question I asked of Boisvert and Hellstrom was, "How do you think the poster would have been different had it had an image on it instead? For example, if there was a swastika and a similar message was written, how would the poster be different?" The response I received from Hellstrom was that he actually had thought about the idea while creating the poster. The disadvantage in adding a picture was that he didn’t want the poster to concentrate on one area—like homophobia or racism. He wanted it to be universally understood. Thus, he felt that with a picture, this objective would be restrained. In addition, he said that he wanted his viewers to "focus on the words themselves." Words have a great impact on people, and he felt that this poster would provoke a discussion on violence and oppressive violent acts. To further his point, he told me that derogatory words can hurt as much as someone being discriminated against by having his tires slashed.

  Boisvert agreed that there isn’t one symbol or picture that could capture as much as the written words. The majority of the students polled, 70%, also thought that a picture would have hindered the message of tolerance and anti-hate. Visual images conjured up from text allow for a vast variety of interpretations. I think that people agree that pictures would take away from this open interpretation because the image would already be set in their minds. Thus, people "attend to the written text . . . so that they develop the capacity to make connections between image and printed word and an understanding of the meanings conveyed by both" (Astorga 213).

  I gathered a lot of additional data from the questionnaire. Many of the people responded to the poster by saying they felt "shocked, disgusted, and violated" because of the hatred exposed through the poster. One student even commented that she felt "sad because it shows the cruelty of this world." Clearly, Bacchus and Gamma’s intention of making the viewers perceive this poster as disturbing and shocking was confirmed. According to Hellstrom, the message would not have been the same if the same text was written on loose-leaf paper. The visual images built into the text of the poster make its point, thus furthering the idea that verbal and visual messages, even those created exclusively by text, work together to intensify the underlying message. The poster provokes an emotional charge, too. This was amply demonstrated by the reaction of the student in my poll who became truly upset by the poster because hatred is prevalent and because the anti-hate message is so strong. She also thought that "the message would have been hindered if an actual picture was on it because sometimes words are the only way to explain something as complex as hate."

  Visual images are reflected through text. Because of the layout, font, and color design of the "Words Hurt" poster, the central message of tolerance is portrayed. "Visual images restate what is in the verbal text and vice-versa" (Astorga 215). From this research, I have gained an understanding that words alone can create as much of a visual message and image as pictures alone. Graphic artists put a lot of thought into the design of words to achieve the greatest impact with a poster. Through this work, they actually create messages that work together so well that the text actually creates an image in the eye of the viewer.

Works Cited

Astorga, Maria Cristina. "The text-image interaction and second language learning." Australian Journal of Language and Literacy 22 (1999): 212-226.

"Be the person you always wanted to be. Of course maybe you already are!" Poster. The Bacchus and Gamma Peer Education Network.

Butterfinger. Advertisement. Entertainment Weekly. August 24/31 2001: 38.

Hellstrom, David. Telephone interview. 29 Oct. 2001.

"Is there lipstick on your teeth? Is there something stuck to your shoes?" Graffiti: Messages While You Were Out. Ed. David R. Johnson. 2001. 8 Oct. 2001. http://graffitiint.com/pages/doorone_jpg.htm.

McQuade, Donald, and Christine McQuade. Seeing and Writing. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martinís. 2001

Questionnaire on Impressions of "Words Hurt" poster. Syracuse University, Syracuse. 27-29 Oct. 2001.

"Words Hurt." Poster. The Bacchus and Gamma Peer Education Network.


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