Understanding Visual Rhetoric and Website Design

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If your business has an online presence (or even if it doesn’t), visual rhetoric is something that will affect your bottom line.

You may have never heard of it, but the idea is one that informs every single piece of the visual presentation of your company. Visual rhetoric is the equivalent of persuading a user with your story through what they see.

Although each year design trends come and go, this concept is a timeless one. It can be traced back as far as the times of Greek philosophy.

Want to know how visual rhetoric relates to how your website design looks? Read on to find out.

What Is Visual Rhetoric Anyway?

It’s how the things we see communicate meaning to us.

Think about how rhetoric (verbal) is the spoken word used to persuade us.

A politician may use this to convince us to vote for them or to agree with their ideas. Now think about an image that persuades you in the same way.

That is visual rhetoric.

Another way to think about it is that it means people interpreting messages, based on what they see.

It’s a process of communication that affects everything we see. It breaks down to a number of parts that add up to the way we view the world.

What Affects Visual Rhetoric?

The way something is designed affects how someone views it, i.e., the visual rhetoric. They then make a judgment about that thing based on context.

These two sides of the coin, design, and context, work together to produce a judgment.

Here’s a real world example. You may be sitting in a room right now. Each item around you was designed, and you have your own personal interpretation of the item.

That laptop? Someone designed it be functional, yet beautiful. Maybe you bought it because you see it as a fun and cool way to show off your taste to others.

That phone? No doubt the design of it appeals to you in some way, and that’s why you purchased it over any other model.

Your judgment is affected by context.

Among these are your age, your life experience, and your education.

How Visual Rhetoric Works

How does visual rhetoric actually work?

Take an item like food. How it’s arranged on your plate in a 5-star restaurant vastly differs from the way it looks on an all-you-can-eat buffet plate you filled yourself.

That’s a real world scenario that you probably didn’t know involved visual rhetoric. The likely conclusion you draw from the fancier meal’s arrangement is that it’s of high value.

The process of visual rhetoric includes a chain reaction of sorts. First comes the seeing. An image hits our eyes, and in the case of a website, it involves the font used, the color, the layout and more.

Then comes the filtering. Context acts as a kind of “lens” that we see things through.

If you are an American, an image of a flag has a much different context to you than that of a person on a remote island in the South Pacific.

If you are educated, your perspective is different to someone with little to no formal education.

Your life experiences also shape your perception of the image input.

Then comes the filter of the “persuasion” channel. This is the rhetorical triangle detailed in the next item.

After this, you get your final meaning or conclusion from whatever it is you’ve seen.

The Rhetorical Triangle

After you’ve filtered the visual and are on your way to make your judgment, you get to the rhetorical triangle.

These are the three appeals to rhetoric as Aristotle defines them. They are made up of the following parts.

Logos, or logic. Ethos, which is credibility and authority. And pathos, or appealing to emotions.

Filtered through these three, your initial judgment becomes a conclusion and from that, you extract a meaning about what you see.

All of this happens in less than a measurable moment. For a designer, this means they’ve got a split second to make an impression on a website’s user.[fusion_menu_anchor name=”rhetoric” class=””][/fusion_menu_anchor]

Why Visual Rhetoric Is Important

Think about what your current website or your company logo and brand story. What does it say about your business?

Every choice, from font to color, makes a difference in how your users and clients view you and your company’s credibility.

Why not use every “available means” as Aristotle called it, to convince them with your rhetoric?

In a nutshell, visual rhetoric can seriously affect your bottom line. In the modern world people are bombarded with images all day long, and yours should stand out in order to make an impression.

How Visual Rhetoric Can Affect the Design of Your Website

Ever logged onto a website that was so confusing and badly designed that you closed the page?

Well, that’s not the look you want to go for.

A user’s aesthetic judgment is affected by their experience of seeing other websites, any training they might have on the technical aspects of user design, as well as the logic of how it’s laid out.

If in the final judgment your site falls short, they will judge it as not worth the time or effort.

Hiring a designer to do handle your web design makes sense. You want to give your site every competitive edge it can have.

Want to find out more for yourself? Here are the details.

What Elements Affect Your Website’s Visual Rhetoric

If you or your designer are creating a website, using your knowledge of visual rhetoric can make a world of difference when choosing elements of the site’s design.

Here are some of the things you should be paying attention to when designing a persuasive website.


Color is a well known element of customer psychology and design and can be used to attract the eye to a particular part of a webpage, indicate importance, and more.

The message that a red bar at the top of a site indicates is the same as the red Coca-Cola label. This successful brand uses its signature shade to suggest energy and excitement, and combining the red with a bright white font means its text is easy to read.


Think about websites that have a number of lines of normal sized text, then a stark contrast with a sudden switch to a larger font size.

Makes you sit up and pay attention right?

A larger typeface shows emphasis. Even in this article, the headings are larger than the rest of the text. Titles are always in a bigger font as well.

It also makes a page easier to skim, if a user doesn’t have time they can see what they should be paying attention to from the larger emphasized text.

Line Length and Spacing

A simple rule of thumb to follow with line length is short lengths are good, and long lengths are bad.

We will mention readability below.

Part of that is to make it easier for your reader to read something till the end.

Long line lengths with more than seven to ten words make it hard for them to get through the text.

The Significance of Fonts in Design

Really, a font?

Yes, even though to the average person they seem a minor element, they are important, believe it or not.

Typeface plays a huge part in design, yet it is often overlooked.

Even if you don’t know the difference between the default Times New Roman font in Microsoft Word and the infamous Comic Sans, you still draw a conclusion if you see text presented in either of these very dissimilar fonts.

Why is that?

Visual rhetoric, again. You make a judgment that you may not even consciously think about based on what font the designer chose for any website you are viewing.

Even in a letter typed in Microsoft Word, the choice of the default font like Times New Roman is interpreted as:

“I don’t really know much about design and I don’t have that much creativity, and I didn’t put too much effort into this.”

That’s probably not the message you want your users to go away with on your website.

Common Examples of Fonts and Their Use

Let’s look at some practical examples of how fonts can be used. A good designer knows that the combinations are endless, but these are the basics that even a non-expert can grasp quickly.

Serif fonts

The Times New Roman font as mentioned above is an example of the serif. A strong and authoritative indicator, use this type of font when you want your message to be interpreted as commanding or powerful.

The Bodoni, Courier, Palatino font are other serif fonts.

Palatino is a subset of a set called Garamond, based on calligraphy. Use this for traditional-looking and classy content, but beware, it’s not very exciting.

Sans serif

The other side of the coin, the sans serif, is easy to read and understand. It can be elegant and simple at the same time.

The LinkedIn logo is a perfect example of this, conveying a businesslike aura that fits the brand’s ethos.

Comic Sans

Not many designers use comic sans because of its childish air and the legacy of informality attached to it. It looks similar to the handwriting of a young person.

For a corporate business, this is a no-go.


The Script font imitates handwriting too but harks back to a more traditional, cursive type of writing. In doing so it implies elegance.

Common uses of Script are for music and the arts, creative types of websites, and those to do with film. It’s not exactly skimmable though, so keep that in mind if you want to use it for a page.


A striking example of the Modern or contemporary type of font is the Hulu logo. Looking at the logo gives you the impression that the company is both innovative and modern.

This font can also convey a sense of style, so a fashion blog may use it, or a corporate entity that wants to give its content a sleek look.

Other fonts

A universal font that makes for easy reading and comprehension is Arial.

This can be used for instructional material or in a description of your company. It is skimmable, so the user doesn’t need to spend more time than necessary analyzing a particular word.

Now that you know some fonts, here’s how to use them for your own benefit.

Influence the Mind with Specific Fonts

Font psychology means understanding how fonts affect the mind and the way people think.

Semantic memory, which is long-term memory of common information, helps you to associate a font with something from the past. This means that the same effect it had when you saw it before is triggered in your memory.

Keep these two basic points in mind when considering which fonts to use.

Firstly, readability is key. This means getting the message in context should be easy.

Make sure your site’s presentation is in a reader-friendly format. Long lines of text should also be avoided. Fonts should also not change suddenly as it’s jarring to the reader.

You can communicate a lot (intentionally or not) through things like the size of your font. Bigger implies the message is not authoritative or the designer is trying to fill space on the page. It can also indicate importance.

Secondly, Your font should catch the eye immediately. Choose an attractive font that meshes with the content and its format, keeping in mind the tips outlined above.

The Final Word

To sum things up, you should keep the following things in mind when thinking about visual rhetoric and its meaning. It is:

  • Persuasive
  • Part of a communication process
  • Uses visual input to interpret and draw a conclusion

If you’re interested in how we work and how we can help you with a design project, get in touch today.

Follow our blog for helpful design and branding hints, like the benefits of a great logo, or leave us a comment with your thoughts on visual rhetoric below!

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