Decoding editorial cartoons

An image is famously said to be worth a thousand words. But in reality, it may be worth a lot more because when studying non-verbal communication, such investigation could include an analysis of a variety of visual forms and media.

At least five different codes may be formulated to give an image its overall meaning.

The categories are codes of content, codes of form, field forces, signs and interpersonal communication.

Under codes of content, style investigates the manner in which the codes are created. Style is a deliberate action by the creator of the image to form and place images within the frame.

Many cartoonists, photographers and other visual artists have developed a specific, consistent style that makes their creations exclusive only to them.

Style affects content and by extension, meaning. Lighting is another code of content. There are two way of looking at lighting. In one, it does not refer to external light sources such as electronic light beam, but deals specifically with the light captured by the camera lens. Another way of looking at lighting is identifying variance in shades within the composition.

Codes of content also include depth and volume factors, namely volume duality and graphic depth factors. Volume duality refers to positive and negative space, and how these are used to create the illusion of depth.

The use of colour or shading, or the existence of white spaces may delineate spaces, and these may contribute to the overall meaning of an image. The positioning of elements in a composition so that they overlap, or the differing of sizes of components relative to one another may create the illusion of depth. The lack of clarity of elements in the background also creates depth illusions. These factors are collectively called graphic depth factors.

Under codes of form, size of objects is solely based on a comparison of prior knowledge an object and the size it is depicted in a composition in relation to other objects also known to the viewer in real life. The code is particularly important in editorial cartoon analysis where distortion of objects is employed as a tool for emphasis, comic effect, or various other outcomes. Lenses and focus as well as basic camera shots in photographs are part of codes of form.

Analysis of non-photographic imagery may replace lenses and focus with perspective and basic camera shots with angle of view. Aspect ratio investigates the form or shape of the frame.

There are six field forces that either clarify and/or intensify meaning, namely main directions; magnetism of the fame and attraction of mass; the asymmetry of the frame; figure-ground perception; psychological closure, and vectors.

Two main directions, horizontal (x-axis) and vertical (y-axis) may be identified within an image. An image conveys a certain ‘‘feeling’’ if it emphasises one direct, such as calmness if horizontal and high energy if vertical. The corners, top and side edges of any image’s frame has the ability to at times exert a magnetic pull on elements that are positioned close to them.

An editorial cartoon for example may suggest emphasis or lead the viewer’s eyes to a particular point if elements such as direction signs or eyes all point or refer to a certain direction. The ability is a visual code of content called magnetism of the frame and attraction of mass. Figure-ground perception reviews the relationship between the background and the foreground. The background may shed light on the meaning of components in the foreground and vice-versa.

Psychological closure is based on the Gestalt principle that argues that eyes naturally tend to fill in the missing parts to obtain a complete image. Based on principles of proximity, similarity and continuity, the principle says if we combine elements which appear closer to one another (proximity), we will group similarly shaped elements together (similarity), and we will see a dominant line or shape, rather than detached sections.

Vectors are directional forces, such as objects, people or lines that are placed within a composition in such a way that, when viewing it, one’s eyes are led from one point to another or to some directional orientation, inside or outside the frame.

Two types of vectors — graphic and index can be found in a still image. Graphic vectors are lines or objects leading one’s attention from one object to another, while index vectors are created by something or someone pointing or looking in a specific direction. A sub-group determining if index vectors’ general direction continue, converge or diverge may be identified.

Continuing vectors are when at least two people or two signs or a combination of any of these look or point in the same direction. Converging vectors are index vectors facing each other and are best illustrated when created least two components of the editorial cartoon face each other while conversing. Depending on the context of the image, converging vectors can contribute to closure or conflict being heightened.

Field forces contribute significantly to the overall balance of the composition. Balance is categorised into three groups — stabile, natural and labile. Stabile refers to symmetrical balance, natural is when components are arranged asymmetrically in a composition, while labile balance points to extremely tilted and unbalanced elements within an image.

A sign is something physical, perceivable by our senses; it refers to something other than itself; and depends upon recognition by its users that it is a sign. There are three types of signs, namely iconic, indexical and symbolic. An iconic sign resembles the object it represents in some way, it looks or sounds like it, while an indexical sign, such as smoke representing a fire, offers a direct link between it and its object.

Symbols are signs with no logical connection to the meaning. They rely exclusively on the reader having learned the connection between the sign and its meaning.

Interpersonal communication refers investigates the relationship between the depiction of the body, its parts, clothing or physical structures and the overall meaning of the composition. While six different types of interpersonal communication can be identified, only three are appropriate for image analysis.

The other three variables refer to video and audio analysis. Kinesics deals with communicating by means of movements of hands, face, legs, eyes and/or the posture or movement of the body as a whole. Within Kinesics, five, categories may be identified. They are emblems, illustrators, affect displays, regulators and adaptors.

The second type of interpersonal communication suitable for image analysis is proxemics. It relates to how space is utilised as part of communication behaviour. There are four types of spatial zones, namely intimate, personal, social and public.

The last interpersonal communication code for image analysis is artefacts. Artefacts refer to and include fixed features, such as static architectural structures, semi-fixed objects, such as furniture and clothing.

By investigating the various codes within an image, there is no telling how many words it may worth, but a thousand may prove to be too little.

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