Analysing visual language

Analysing visual language

This week, Insight writer and English Teacher Kate Macdonell shows us what you need to look for when analysing visual language for Area of Study 2.

Many students find the analysis of images an accessible and enjoyable part of Year 12 English. It is important, however, to prepare for a variety of visual elements that may appear on your Unit 3 SAC task on analysing argument, as well as on Section C of the end-of-year examination. Below are some elements to keep an eye out for.


Context and position

In order to fully understand the meaning of the visual elements in a text, you need to understand the context. Be sure to read any background information accompanying the task so that you know what the main issue is. Both the background information and the written material will help give you a sense of the visual’s purpose.

Remember that the focus of Area of Study 2 in the Unit 3 SAC and in Section C of the exam is on the analysis of argument. Noticing where and why a visual element is placed in the written piece can help you to tackle the idea of how the argument is structured.

  • Is the visual at the start of the article to elicit empathy or shock?
  • Is it in the middle to reinforce a particular piece of evidence or reason?
  • Is it at the end to consolidate the argument as a whole?
  • Is it a frame or border to the written piece that contributes to the overall approach and tone?
  • Alternatively, if the visual is a completely separate text from the written piece, does it present the same or a different point of view on the issue?

 Ask yourself: where is the visual positioned and why does it matter?


Colour and design elements

Although the task material for Section C of the exam will be printed in black and white, your Unit 3 SAC might well contain colour images. If this is the case, you can certainly explore the mood that is created by the use of colour, as well as any relevant connotations of the colour scheme. In a black-and-white image it is possible to discuss degrees of shading and how these affect meaning.

It is important to remember that visual language can pertain to design elements in the text you are analysing. For example, in the task material for Section C of the VCAA sample exam the speaker’s first slide has illustrations incorporated into the year ‘2010’. The embedded images of fish, a flamingo, waves, a tree, and an adult and child holding hands help to promote the speaker’s arguments about the beauty of biodiversity and humanity’s central involvement in its protection.

You can see the sample exam paper here:

Also be alert to the design elements of internet text types such as web pages and blogs. You can, for example, discuss the use of icons, how they position the viewer and the symbolism embedded in them.

Ask yourself: how do design elements, colour and/or shading of the visual contribute to its meaning?



Cartoons often accompany an opinion piece; they can also be stand-alone texts offering a viewpoint on a current issue – especially one that involves politicians or high-profile figures. To understand a cartoon it can be important to have an understanding of the issues circulating in the media in any given week. As I write, there are two quite different cartoons in The Age and The Australian that contain an image of a whiteboard, among other elements. To make sense of both cartoons, a reader would need to know that earlier in the week security guards in Parliament House used a whiteboard to shield a politician from photographers and journalists. Without this knowledge it would be difficult, if not impossible, to interpret the cartoons. Try to stay informed about current affairs as you practise analysing media texts, so that you can grasp their full meanings.

Cartoons tend to exaggerate the features of those they represent and use minimal – often quite pithy – text. Be mindful of where this text is: does it appear in a speech bubble or balloon and therefore represent a person’s thoughts or speech? Or is the text elsewhere – on a sign, say, or framed as a caption – providing additional context or comment?

The tone of a cartoon is an important feature to note. Political cartoons in particular are often sarcastic and position the reader to be critical of politicians and/or their views and policies.

Ask yourself: how does the cartoon make me feel? Your response will give you a guide to the tone of this visual.



Photographs can provide a wealth of material for analysis. Look for a range of elements, including:

  • whether the shot is low-angle (looking up at the subject), high-angle (looking down on the subject) or straight-on – for example, a low-angle shot of a child might give the impression that they have been able to overcome adversity and achieve success, whereas a high-angle shot might suggest that a person is vulnerable or remorseful
  • whether the subject is in the foreground (making them very prominent) or background (emphasising their context)
  • whether elements of the photograph are blurred or in soft focus
  • whether a filter (e.g. warm or cool) is used
  • where the horizon is placed in a landscape shot (e.g. far away can signal isolation or opportunity)
  • what is actually in the frame (mise en scène) and what might have been left out
  • whether a text overlay has been used and how that frames your reading of the photograph.

Ask yourself: what would the impact be if I changed an element of the photograph (e.g. camera angle or focus)? Answering this question will give you better insight into what the photograph is intending to achieve.


Charts and diagrams

Charts and diagrams containing numerical information can be used to present evidence. Although you are not in a position to question the data, you can explore how the information and its visual presentation are used to strengthen and develop an argument. It is good to watch for:

  • what the visual elements suggest and how they connect to each other
  • whether a background image can be seen beneath a written overlay (e.g. an image of a gun beneath statistics about the number of deaths caused by shooting)
  • whether data is attributed to an authority (such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics).

Sometimes charts and diagrams can look dry and intimidating.

Ask yourself: how does the information relate to the written text or texts? Does it support or contradict a written text and, if so, how?


And lastly …

For the SAC it is imperative that you compare the written and visual material supplied. It is also wise to compare the written and visual texts in the examination. Comparing written and visual material in terms of the arguments they present and the ways in which they position the audience will give your analysis more depth and cohesion, and demonstrate a stronger understanding of each.



Not sure how to approach Area of Study 2? Insight’s Argument & Persuasive Language by Melanie Napthine provides comprehensive coverage of Area of Study 2, and features explanations, activities and practical support showing how to write analytically about argument and persuasive language, as well as strategies and guidelines for presenting a point of view.

Argument & Persuasive Language is produced by Insight Publications, an independent Australian publisher.

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