All good communication is rooted in one principle: being optimally relevant to the target group.

This applies to both texts and visual communication.

But even though a picture says more than a thousand words, we don't just understand every picture.

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The target group must first recognize the genre and then the depicted persons, objects and events.

In addition, viewers must understand what evaluations and emotions the sender wants them to evoke.

A good communicator therefore assesses the background knowledge and the standards of the target group well.

The relevance theory of the French anthropologist Dan Sperber and the British linguist Deirdre Wilson provides an excellent model for visual and all other forms of mass communication.

People judge communication on two points: is it important, fun or useful for me?

"You've been broken into" is usually more relevant than "There's a crumb on your upper lip."

And how much effort does it take to understand the message.

High relevance = a lot of content for little effort.

And then the target group must also trust the messenger.

Background knowledge important for understanding pronunciation

Interpretation of a message is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon.

One person understands him completely, the other half, a third not at all.

This understanding partly depends on how explicit the information is and how much background knowledge and context are required.

"Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands" is more explicit than "He will be there in a minute."

'Who' will come soon?

How fast is 'like this'?

Where does 'he' go then?

In addition, the recipient must combine this sentence with background knowledge that the communicator and the person being addressed share ('… and you would set the table'; '… so get a beer quickly') to make the message relevant.

This was already largely known.

New is the application of relevance theory to visual mass communication.

The old adage 'A picture says more than a thousand words' is only partly true.

After all, an image has no grammar and always requires a lot of background knowledge, which is different in mass communication for different viewers.

Communication in Visual Language

Michelin pictogram for "eating at the bar" © Michelin

Anti-advertising: Criticism of MacDonalds for human rights violations © Reddit / usweetmonkeylove

Chinese cartoon (Tiejun Chang, China Daily 2/4/20).

Text reads: “Drive away the devil and pray for blessing” (courtesy of Cun Zhang) © Tiejun Chang, China Daily

Pictures 1 and 2 are explicit.

In the Chinese picture 3 it is crucial that we recognize it as a cartoon.

The kind of picture that critically comments on a problematic, usually political,


We also understand that a warrior strikes the coronavirus with a sword.

But Westerners don't know that this is the famous Zhong Kui, who, according to Chinese mythology, can chase away devils.

Thanks to genre understanding and knowledge of what the world looks like, we come a long way with our interpretation.

But symbols cause more problems.

These are sometimes international, such as the corona virus, the whip (= oppression), and sometimes culture-specific, such as Zhong Kui.

More responsibility for communicator with explicit messages

The more explicit the message, the more the communicator is responsible for its interpretation.

The more context-dependent a message becomes, the more that responsibility shifts to the viewer.

It is precisely in visual communication that the sender can secretly suggest certain meanings without wanting to be accountable for them.

For example with naughty sexual meanings in advertisements.

And then there is information that seems meaningful, but is not intended to be.

Suppose an advertiser wants to convey the concept of 'human being' and shows a white man-with-tie.

Some viewers may be irritated that 'human' is portrayed as 'white man-with-tie'.

Why not a colored woman with a headscarf?

In such a case, the viewer interprets something that is not intended.

Especially visual communicators who want to reach people in different (sub) cultures (eg government information officers) must carefully consider how they balance explicit and implicit meanings and avoid unintended meanings.