Text and Image

Explores the dynamics of text and image, how they combine to create narratives and meanings, the ways in which visual communicators author such content, and the role an audience has in reading it.

Combining text and image brings two different language systems into play: telling and showing. Sometimes they are communicating the same thing but in different ways. At other times, these languages operate on different levels, for example a text prviding detailed content with an illustration providing a broad impression, or text set in a particular typeface indicating the tone of voice the text should be read in. Sometimes the messages are contradictory, each working on their own terms and not in relationship to one another.

Design decisions affecting the tone of the communication:

  • what to prioritise
  • where to place it
  • how to handle layout, colour and typography choices

Types of content:

  • closed/narrow content: targeted to inform, persuade or signpost attention.
  • open/rich content: operates beyond the immediate need to communicate including broader questions like why and how and provide a depth of meaning through they overall narrative.

Medium is the message


Authorship represents both a responsibility and a challenge: a responsibility to understand how design decisions have an impact on viewers’ experiences and a challenge to make work that is interesting, meaningful and engaging, both personally and socially.

Christian Lloyd 2015 OCA VCAP Coursebook p65

Following on from Ken Garland’s First Things First Manifesto visual communicators started to explore their role as journalists, social commentators, agitators and innovators. Roland Barthes ‘Death of an Author’ 1969 emphasises ‘the birth of the reader’ as the one who ultimately generates meaning and Michel Foucault 1971 ‘What is an Author?’ points to the responsibility for blasphemous or contentious material.

See Rick Poynor ‘First Things Next’

Jan van Toorn: critiques or reveals social relations through design

Olivier Kugler: observes through drawing locations

Constructing Meaning

Members of a community continually construct a shared language shaped by collective values, ideas and beliefs. Meaning isn’t an inherent quality of any of the images, words or typefaces used but in how they are combined and read within this shared language. In international terms there are important questions about what is a ‘community’? at what levels and by whom are languages ‘shared’ and/or ‘created’? what does this imply for the role of designer/illustrator wishing to communicate voices of people who are marginalised in ways that can make an impact on those in power. These are questions I am researching in detail in relation to my professional consultancy work in Visual Research Module : See Translation Bricolage . But they are also important for my personal and political work for a Western audience.

Visual storytelling through graphic narratives

Single image narratives may employ alternative strategies for conveying time, for example composite images that combine multiple scenes of viewpoints. See for example:

Comics have established conventions: thought bubbles, captions and staging of illustrations. Some illustrators have rethought what is possible within this structure:

Text and image in art

Text and image has been combined in artistic traditions in many cultures, notably Persian, Chinese and Japanese. Given the potential contradictions, juxtapositions and complexities of combining text and image, modernist and contemporary artists have used this as a strategy to create new meanings or to challenge orthodoxies:

  • the impressionists, inspired by Japanese art traditions, started to document the proliferation of billboards and hoardings
  • Dadaists (eg El Lissitsky) and Futurists (eg Filippo Marinetti) tested the phonetic possibilities of typography, leading to later developments around concrete poetry
  • Constructivist graphic design
  • Surrealists eg Magritte ‘The Treachery of Images’
  • Pop Art

See particularly:

Illustration 2 Notes

Narrative fiction

Within narrative fiction, illustrations work alongside text in a responsive way, helping to visualise characters, moods and locations. Illustrations can be more imaginative than many other types of illustration – they’re there to communicate ideas, emotions, moods, drama and contexts as much as characters, actions and plots. Trying to focus on the overall mood, direction, genre and feel of the book will give an impression of the novel without getting too hung up on the specific content.

Key questions for illustrators when reading the text:

  • What is the overall mood, genre and feel?
  • What is the plot?
  • Who are the important characters and what is their relationship?
  • Who are the readers?
  • What is the purpose of the illustration?
  • Do you create an image that visualises the beginning, middle or end, or try to create a piece that suggests all three?

The answers are likely to differ depending on the type of book and its purpose, the age of the reader and the purpose of the illustration.

Research point: Kafka Metamorphosis

Linking images with text

There is a physical connection between image and text, defining where the images go on the page and how they interact with the written word. There are lots of different ways of working image and text together, including:

  • whole page illustrations that sit alongside the text, headers, footers or as vignettes that the text wraps around.
  • typography continuing over the top of an illustration or the illustration extending over the type (space needs to be allowed for this)
  • digitally compositing the text as part of the image (see my work on Image and Text for Book Design 1, particularly Jabberwocky)
  • ‘visual word’ illustrative treatment of the typography itself (see my posts for Book Design 1: Experimental Typography,  Concrete Poetry). Some calligraphic traditions, particularly Islamic calligraphy use the expressive forms of type see post: Islamic calligraphy on Book Design 1 and Hassan Massoudy (forthcoming)

Book covers

Book covers need a bold visual statement to draw people in, but also need to present key information such as the author, title or publisher. Book covers are most successful when the illustration and the typography have a sympathetic relationship – they’re both pulling in the same direction.

Research point: book and magazine covers (to be updated and completed for illustration building on my work for Book Design 1 See: Book Covers and links therefrom on my Book Design blog)


“In fairy tales, internal processes are translated into visual images. When the hero is confronted by difficult inner problems which seem to defy solution, his psychological state is not described; the fairy story shows him lost in a dense, impenetrable wood, not knowing which way to turn, despairing of finding the way out. To everybody who has heard fairy tales, the image and feeling of being lost in a deep, dark forest are unforgettable…“Telling a fairy tale with a particular purpose other than that of enriching the child’s experience turns the fairy story into a cautionary tale, a fable, or some other didactic experience. which at best speaks to the child’s conscious mind, while reaching the child’s unconscious directly also is one of the greatest merits of literature.” Bruno Bettelheim 1975 quoted course text pp 83-84

In illustrated children’s books there’s often a more obvious conversation taking place between text and image. The relationship between image and text varies depending on the target age of the children, and their assumed level of reading skill. Illustrations are often there to facilitate reading of the text, but also to stimulate imagination.

Key questions:

  • How do you visually help tell a story without giving too much away? The illustrations need to support the text without being too dominant, stealing the storytelling away, but at the same time they shouldn’t be too distant from the action.
  • Where along the course of the narrative should the images be placed? At what point in the action would an image be best suited – just before something has happened, during, or at the end?
  • What should the images focus on? should they be character-driven, bringing identities, expressions and gestures to life, or focused on location and landscape.

In some cases illustrations set the blueprint for future interpretations.

In some cases the book’s creator is both author and illustrator:

  • The Cat in the Hat (1954) created and illustrated by Theodor Geisel writing as Dr Seuss, Der Struwwelpeter
  • Shockheaded Peter (1845) by Heinrich Hoffmann
  • Where The Wild Things Are (1963) by Maurice Sendak
  • Beatrix Potter (1866–1943).

There are also many examples of illustrators who have defined a story visually by being the first or best illustrator to respond to it. In other cases the illustration style becomes inseparable from the reader’s interpretation.

  • Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass and Jabberwocky.
  • Winnie The Pooh (1926) written by A A Milne and illustrated by E H Shepard
  • The Gruffalo (1999) written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated
    by Axel Scheffler
  • Little Red Riding Hood (1812) as defined by the Brothers Grimm and
    illustrated by Arthur Rackham.
  • Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake

Research point: Image and text in children’s books


Within comics and graphic novels, the line between what’s written and what’s visual, between the image and the text, becomes increasingly blurred, with written elements taking on the form of illustrations and the whole existing within a carefully constructed visual narrative of frames, bubbles, and drawings. See Sequential Illustration.