We are bombarded with visual messages and images every day via TV, internet, social media, billboards, and so on, but why do they affect us in certain ways? According to Barnet and Bedau (1999), authors of Critical Thinking: Reading & Writing a Brief Guide to Argument, visual arguments appeal to our emotions by using flattery, humor, threats, and pity (p. 137). Visuals can encourage viewers to act or think in a particular way. In other words, rhetoric is focused on the "how" and "why" something is persuading, and visual rhetoric, specifically, is focused on how images and visuals attempt to persuade.
Rhetoric is commonly defined as the “art of persuasion,” as it informs, motivates or entertains an audience through the means of written or verbal communication. It can present an argument to a specific audience with the goal of convincing them to think or act differently. Visual rhetoric, on the other hand, as described by OWL, Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab, “has been used to mean anything from the use of images as argument, to the arrangement of elements on a page for rhetorical effect, to the use of typography (fonts), and more (Visual Rhetoric). In other words, how a document is structured, i.e., font type, colors, layout, etc, can be meant to influence us. An ad for Coca-Cola sells soda, but it also might imply something about family values. A public service announcement about hand-washing might also imply a sense of fear about pathogens and the spread of viruses from abroad.
To understand a visual's intent of persuasion, we must consider the rhetorical situation, which is the audience, purpose, and context. Kostelnick and Roberts (1998), authors of Designing Visual Language: Strategies for Professional Communicators, suggest a few questions to consider:
As stated above, the components of a rhetorical situation are audience, purpose, and context. These considerations will directly affect the overall design of the project from the choice of typeface, the layout of a page, as well as the use of color and visuals (Kostelnick & Roberts).