Beyond Words: The Signs of Visual Language

Thursday, October 72 min read

If you have something important to say, you might write it down, or just shout it out loud. But, sometimes, instead of putting our thoughts into words, we need to communicate them in a visual medium — think signs, paintings, pictures, maps, or diagrams.

What Is Visual Language?

Visual language is a system of communication made up of visual elements. While linguistics studies words and language, semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their use and interpretation.

Every word is associated with a meaning. The word “dog” might call to mind a fluffy animal that loves to chew on bones. The letters "D-O-G" are a commonly recognized sign indicating that furry creature.

The same is true of visual language. For it to work well, the symbols need to have a broad cultural acceptance or understanding.

For example, a person might like the color pink, but that style preference doesn’t communicate any larger cultural meaning. However, that same person could wear a pink ribbon to show they support breast cancer research charities. The pink ribbon is visual language sending a message to society about who the person is and what they support.

Types of Visual Language

The world is filled with examples of visual media that communicate complex ideas.

Sign Language

Sign language uses movements of the hands and face to communicate. It's a way for many deaf and hard of hearing people to be understood without using spoken words. Just like spoken language, sign language is a complete communication system. It has its own rules for grammar, pronunciation, word formation, and word order. Also like spoken language, there are different dialects of sign language. American Sign Language (ASL) is widely used in the United States and Canada, and users combine facial expressions along with hand movements to communicate.


Who ever said texting was a lower form of communication? Emojis are often added to written messages to add extra meaning, or sent all on their own. Often, a simple emoji can convey hidden emotion — such as the “loudly crying face” 😭 and the “pleading face” 🥺. As emoji communication has become more popular, shifts in meaning have occurred, just like with spoken language. While the two hands touching emoji 🙏 might have been originally developed as praying, it’s commonly used to indicate thanks or even a high five. These nuances, while easy with a robust written language vocabulary, are still developing in the emoji visual language.

Traffic Signs

While some traffic and street signs do have words, others communicate solely through pictures. Many of the most iconic road signs are exclusively symbolic. A yellow sign with a leaping deer shows that deer cross the road at this location. A yellow sign with a parent and child walking conveys a school crossing zone. Colors add an additional meaning: Yellow means warning and white is informational. Again, these signs and symbols only work with standardized usage and widely accepted understanding of the meaning. Driver’s license tests include a section quizzing applicants on their understanding of the visual language of the road.


Visual language can convey such direct and strong messaging that sometimes no words are needed. In marketing and advertising, brands often use a visual shorthand to project a specific image to consumers. The message can be conveyed through the use of particular fonts, designs, logos, or colors. Think of the simplicity of the Apple logo, or the elegance of the robin’s-egg blue associated with Tiffany & Co. Trademark and copyright laws acknowledge the power of visual language by protecting certain symbols and colors.

Featured image credit: rneumi/ iStock

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