Composition: Up Down And All Around

Composing a message is hard work. There are countless incidents of situations where a message has been misunderstood or has given off a completely incorrect meaning. Here are just a few examples of ad campaigns that went terribly wrong: 

In chapter 6 of Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen’s Reading Images, Kress and Leeuwen begin discussing the layers of composition and what really goes into making a multimodal message. Multimodal messages refer to the use of images or text to create a composition that has a different, and usually stronger meaning than either of the components would have had alone. The combination of various images, various texts, or various images and texts all create a different meaning depending on where they are placed and arranged compared to one another. This is known as composition, or the relationship between representation and interactive meanings of an image. There are three ways that the Kress and Leeuwen explain this relationship.


This is an example of Given vs New being used in one composition. The given information is “Everyone Loses Games. Few Change Them” and the new information is that Oregon is the one changing the game with the help of Nike.

The first of these is Information Value. This is way images and elements are placed related to each other and thus the way the viewer sees and interprets them. There are three ways that we can explain Information Value. The first is Given versus New. Given information is information that is understood to be fact or “agreed upon” in a cultural context. New information adds different ideas or concepts to the conversation and challenges what we already know. In a composition, the Given information is placed on the left and the New information is placed on the right. This is a culturally created layout that allows viewers to gain a sense of comfort by beginning with the Given information before they are shown the New information. If the New information was presented first, there is a greater likelihood that the viewer would ignore it because it is so different from what they already know.

Ideal versus Real is the second way in which we can explain Information Value. This relationship describes the difference between material that is placed at the top of the page (Ideal) versus the content that is placed at the bottom of the page (Ideal). In this ad that Taylor Swift did for Covergirl, the tope 3/4 of the page are what I would consider Ideal. Swift looks flawless and we assume it is due to the fact that she has used Covergirl’s newest foundation. At the bottom of the page however, we see all the reality of the makeup aka we are told about how well it works for Swift and how well it will work for you too.

taylor_swift_covergirl_ad_revThe final way that Information Value can be shown is through the actual layout on a page. This system is known as Center versus Margin. In western culture, we tend to focus on uniformity. This means that we tend to put everything in the same format: margin to margin. When we want something to really stand out, we center it on our page (think of titles for papers or greetings on cards). Center versus Margin is a way to emphasize what we want to seem important or what we want to be shown, but not necessarily to be the most important.

Second way we can explain composition is Salience, the degree to which an element is made to attack the viewers attention. The example used in this chapter describes salience as the way Karen is much lighter skinned and seems to be covered in more light than other people in the picture. This draws the viewers attention toward her, making her the focal point of the image. The final system that Kress and Leeuwen use to explain composition is Framing. Framing pretty much describes it’s self. If you’ve ever used Instagram, you know how much a frame and change the picture you’re about to post. A frame can contain and disconnect elements or it can group them together depending on where it is used.

All three of these systems explain how different elements can be placed in the same composition yet can mean different things depending on how they are grouped, where they are placed in relation to one another, and also which elements attract the most viewer attention.

It’s important to pay attention to the composition of a message or advertisement. Even though the text and pictures may make sense and work with the topic, they way they are presented can have a significant impact on the way the reader understands what you’re trying to say.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s