The Meaning of Composition

Composition involves 3 things: 1) Information Value, 2) Salience, and 3) Framing. However, you might be, like me, thinking, “What the heck do any of those words mean?” Well, isn’t it convenient then that Kress and van Leeuwen wrote a chapter called The Meaning of Composition. Composition, in the simplest form, “relates the representational and interactive meanings of the image to each other.”

The authors explain that composition is important because the theory of language is not enough anymore. The principles of this new “language,” including the visual aspect, is what makes the text successful. Understanding the Three Principles are central to understanding this concept as a whole.

1.   INFORMATION VALUE: the placement of elements on the page gives them a certain value

Given vs. New, Right vs. Left:

  • Given= elements placed on the left, presented as something the reader already knows
  • New= elements placed on right, presented as something which is not yet known
  • Interesting social effects: what is taken for granted or known by one group may not be taken for granted or known by another
  • Also used in film, television, writing, and speech

Ideal vs. Real, Top vs. Bottom:

  • Ideal= presented as idealized or generalized essence of the information, usually on top
  • Real= presented as more specific information, more down to earth/ practical, usually on bottom

Centre vs. Margin

  • Centre means that it is presented as nucleus of information, pivot around which everything turns
  • Less important information is displayed on the outside

2.   SALIENCE: the elements prominence on the page effects the attention it is paid

  • Creates a hierarchy of importance among elements
  • Factors: size, shape, focus, tonal contrast, color contrast, placement in visual field, perspective

3.   FRAMING: connects elements of the image, signifying that they belong

  • Strong framing = separate unit of information
  • Absence of framing = group identity

Linear and Non-Linear

  • Linear= readers have no choice but to view text in an order already decided for them, like a movie
  • Non-Linear= readers can select their own pieces of text and view them in whatever order they choose

I decided to write this post in an outline style so that you, the reader, can better understand the various points Kress and van Leeuwen are attempting to make. However, I think the point that stuck out to me the most was maybe not supposed to be a main focus of the article. While top vs. bottom and right vs. left and center vs. margins are all vastly important, I could have told you that before reading the article.

An important point Kress and van Leeuwen make is somewhat hidden in the given verses new section. He gives the example of a Mercedes-Benz ad, but then points out the fact that this advertisement is only effective to certain people. In this case, it still works because only a very select number of people will be buying this type of car. But, by putting Mercedes on the left as an already known, given symbol of status, you eliminate many of the people who do not take these types of cars for granted.

While this may not matter for a car commercial because you are advertising for a certain audience that can afford this car, it would matter greatly in other scenarios. If you are making a movie that you want a broad range of people to watch or an advertisement for a new brand of toothpaste you want everyone to use, you cannot assume much information to be known or widely accepted as true.

This will definitely inform the way I design and write from now on, especially as I begin my Infographic, which I will want to appeal to a wide variety of people.


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