How to Read an Image

Now, this seems confusing. I thought the reason we as humans liked images and graphics was because more images equaled less reading. I guess that’s true in a traditional sense, but Gunther Kress and Thed van Leeuwen offer a new definition of reading in their book, Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design.

Reading an image or a graphic obviously differs from reading a page of a novel, because sometimes graphics don’t even contain words! However, its still extremely important to read, or decode the meaning and the elements built into the image or graphic, when viewing it. Its even more important to learn how to do this if you’re thinking about going into the field of graphic design!

Kress and van Leeuwen lay out some key components of reading an image, or any multimodal task. Before they give us specific guidelines for learning to read images, they first emphasize that all elements in a graphic (or anything really) must be compatible. All elements must work together, they cannot exist independently!

After learning that our graphics must have compatibility, we can learn some specifics. Kress and van Leeuwen give us the following principles present in conventional designs:

  • Given vs New
  • Ideal vs Real
  • Centre and Margins

Given vs New

Kress and Leeuwen first describe the component of design called Given vs New. The Given is usually represented on the left of the graphic, while the New is represented on the right side. The Given, as its name implies, is an element already known by the reader/observer. On the other hand, the New depicts something shocking that readers have not yet realized.

Ideal vs Real


Image via


Image via

Both of these Kate Spade ads showcase the idea of Ideal vs. Real. Kress and van Leeuwen explain that the Ideal, or the top element, represents the key idealized essence of something. The Real, the bottom element, contrastingly presents more detailed and practical information. Notice how in both ads a striking image is presented at the top of the page and more specific information is then placed at the bottom of the page. Perhaps these ads suggest that consumers of their product can achieve the happiness, or the ideal displayed in these photos, through buying the product described in the bottom half of the ads.

Centre and Margins


Image via

This final ad depicts the principal of centre and margins. The “life colorfully quote” is clearly the Centre, or the focal point of the piece visually centered. The squares surrounding the quote form the Margins. Notice how all these squares are equally sized and proportionally distanced from each other and from the quote. This sizing and placing gives all the Margins a lesser, equal weighting to emphasize the greater weight of the quote.

They also provide some ways to improve visual balance:

  • Salience
  • Framing
  • Linear and Non-Linear Compositions

Until next blog,



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