Visual Techniques - Guidelines for Visual Essays

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What is a Visual Essay?

A visual essay is a text that aims to communicate the ideas from another (source) text by using visual and verbal language. They will often also have written elements which are integrated and linked with the visual elements of the text. Visual essays aim to communicate a selection of ideas from a source text in enough detail to be interesting and informative for the viewers or audience. These ideas are usually surface and deeper / literal, inferred and thematic and are derived from a comprehensive knowledge of the source text.

Visual essays can be produced in a variety of styles and tools and often have a series of images and panels (compositions of other images and text). They can also include auditory elements such as speech, sound effects and music. The visual language techniques in a visual essay are used to engage the audience and communicate the ideas from the source text as effectively as possible. [This] is an example of a visual essay.

Techniques Guidelines

These are intended as additions to the work around visual language and static images - most of the techniques and the way they are used are directly applicable to visual essays. It would also be excellent to see this resource continue to develop so feel free to contribute or edit!

Thematic/stylistic consistency (coherence and commanding attention)

Establishing a strong visual style across all slides in a visual essay is essential if the text is to "command attention." Styles can range from cut and paste "South Park style" to graphic novel style and right through to photo-realistic. Through deliberate and planned use of fonts, the choosing and creating of images, consistent use of colour and filters and repetition of visual elements across panels, ideas can be detailed, linked to other ideas and all contribute to a coherent visual essay.

Images as symbols (as in symbolism)

Choosing the best (or just really good) image(s) to represent a theme(s) can be an excellent way of communicating meaning in a visual essay. Ideally, an image should link closely with the theme or ideas it is meant to represent while also retaining a literal link with the source text. As the visual essay progresses, symbolic images can also change to indicate how themes are developed in the course of the source text (and then the visual text itself) and/or how reader/audience understandings might change as the text progresses. Transparency and opacity, various filters, proportion changes, colour changes and different textures can all be used to add progressively add detail to symbols in the course of a visual essay.

Transparency and opacity

Both these techniques can be used to illustrate a one-off idea and changing or developing ideas really well. Transparency and opacity are also really easy to do with electronic media. A visual symbol might become more or less transparent to illustrate its increasing or decreasing influence or effect while a character could become more of less transparent to illustrate their relative importance to the text, to another character or influence over them. An opaque image could suggest falsity or lack of substance (metaphorically and/or literally) or even confusion. Opaque colours over an image or part of an image is a really quick way of changing and setting mood or suggesting something else about the image. Particularly at higher curriculum levels, it's important to ensure that the effects of opacity and transparency are convincing and not too much a stretch of logic. The meaning shouldn't be overly ambiguous for the intended audience of the text.

Font, titles and text

While maintaining a recognisable visual style across panels, changing fonts can also link to ideas. Awesome fonts are really easy to find on the internet ( is great for creative fonts) and are often underused in static images to create meaning. In visual essays there’s even more potential as fonts can be altered to illustrate some kind of change.

Colour as a motif

Colour can be an effective linking element for ideas and themes. Particularly when combined with symbols. It can be used to:

  • link text to visual elements.
  • track multiple themes across a visual essay
  • to illustrate areas within a theme or across themes
  • emphasise important images repeated across panels
  • developing detail as the text progresses

Given the fact that visual essays aren’t limited to single panels, students have a degree of freedom in developing ideas as the text progresses. Themes can be introduced in a simple fashion and then developed as the visual essay progresses. Panels can also be used for a single important purpose (such as emotional impact or emphasising important moments in a text) instead of jamming all ideas into a single composition as a student may have to do with a single static image.

Voice over

Some initial ideas are how it can be used effectively by:

  • speaking as a character from the text who can offer a critical perspective and analysis.
  • speaking as multiple characters from the text that can offer varying perspectives and analysis.
  • a character the students have created themselves to offer perspective and analysis.

Voiceover could also be used to outline important events, analyse them, explain themes and create/develop mood. Obviously, as with textual elements it should link clearly with the visual elements.

Sounds effects and Music

Both sound effects and music can be used to:

  • create mood
  • enhance visual elements.
  • highlight visual elements.
  • highlight change across a visual essay.
  • a musical motif might emphasise or trace a theme as it develops across slides.
  • engage the audience through affect and emotional impact


These can be done really easily in video editing apps and even more easily in powerpoint, Libre Office Impress etc. Fade ins, appears, flashes etc can all highlight important visual elements and illustrate change really well. Varying transitions between panels could also be used to illustrate different moods and ideas in particular parts of texts.

Animations can also be created effectively be saving/exporting multiple versions of the same panel with minor variations. As particular parts of single panels are changed they can then be strung together in a video editing app or electronic presentation. Eg: the green light at the end of Daisy's dock in "The Great Gatsby" might pulse to indicate its importance to Gatsby and of dreams to the text.

Multiple visual threads of meaning

Panels can be divided into separate areas and ideas developed consistently in these areas throughout the text. EG: using the background consistently across panels to illustrate a changing mood, the middle ground to develop ideas around setting and the foreground to illustrate the action and characters. As structural conventions like these are established in a visual essay, they can also be abandoned in particular panels for various reasons, eg: the climax or emotional impact panel where composition may be totally different.

Tools for Creating Visual Essays (and any visual/verbal text really)

There are heaps of different applications (open source, free(ish) and browser-based) that can help with creating really good visual essays. Some have a slightly steeper learning curve than others but they all have readily available tutorials on the internet. It's worth asking students what they're already skilled in too, you might be surprised what crazy skills they have that could lend themselves well to some part of creating a visual text. And remember, we (teachers) don't need to know anything about the tool ourselves!!!

A quick explanation of terminology:

  • Open source software: software that is free to download and use and needs to be installed on a computer to work. If you're particularly nerdy you can get hold of the source code and make changes to the apps themselves.
  • Free software: Same as above but without access to the source code. Sometimes free software is only semi-free though, ie: you'll only be able to get a hamstrung version of something unless you pay for it. In the worst-case scenario, free software will sometimes install other annoying applications in your computer with or without telling you. Free software needs to be installed on a computer to work.
  • Commercial software: You need to pay for it and install it on a computer to work.
  • Browser-based apps: You don't need to install these on a computer, all you need is a browser to use them! Eg: chrome, firefox, internet explorer etc. Sometimes totally free but usually with a range of subscription options that give you more usability. Browser based apps have got very powerful in the last few years.

Manipulating and Creating Images

Gimp - open source software

An open source piece of software that can be used for manipulating images. It can be used to cut out particular things from larger images, compose and layer different images to create full panels and apply all kinds of awesome filters and effects to all or parts parts of panels. There are a number of GIMP tutorials designed specifically for visual essays [here.]

Inkscape - open source software

Inkscape is also open source and provides much of the functionality as GIMP. Minus some of the more exciting filters it's much better at creating images from scratch and changing the edges and form of shapes. Users can create simple shapes (or convert the outlines of imported shapes) and adjust these at will. While it takes a bit more time to get proficient with than GIMP, there are a bunch of great basic and advanced tutorials out there to help.

Browser-based apps

Splashup has all of the basic stuff of GIMP and Photoshop and uses the same user interface conventions so people who are used to photoshop and/or GIMP will be right at home here. It also doesn't need a subscription and can import and export to and from your desktop.

Video editing - Compiling and Linking Panels

Commercial software

Windows Movie Maker and Imovie are free if you have a licensed copies of the respective OSs (Windows and MacOS).

Open source

Open source video editing apps are a bit trickier to use (and sometimes buggier) - Openshot is a goody here.

Free software

Lightworks is amazing but pretty full on to use - it's a fully fledged video editing app and was used to edit all kinds of famous films! Great if you've got students who have the inclination to get right into video editing.

Lotek options

It's also worth keeping in mind the lotek options like MS Powerpoint, Libre Office Impress (open source) and online tools like voicethread and even prezi.



An open source app for recording, mixing and altering sounds. It is quite intuitive to use and is an excellent option if students want to use voiceover in visual essays. It's also easy to use for mixing in other tracks - sound-effects and music.


Effective and affective music for visual essays (or anything for that matter) doesn't need to be complex or masterful. For visual essays soundtracks, effectively creating meaning can be as simple as creating different tracks for each panel to set mood and link with themes and other important ideas. Sometimes a simple, recognisable melody that is even irregularly timed can enhance visual meanings already in a text. Combining music with other sound effects can also be an effective technique.

Free Synthesisers and mixers!

Students don't even need musical skill to create their own awesome tracks these days, although perhaps it does help a little. As with any ICT, there's a little bit of initial learning but both of the below synthesisers take very little time to knock out a few simple melodies with some rhythms to go with them. Both tools could be used in conjunction with Audacity to combine sounds and samples from other sources.

Linux MultiMedia Studio is available in Windoze and Linux flavours and has a fairly comprehensive wiki if students want to really get into it.

Aviary has an awesome browser-based synthesiser and is even easier to use than LMMS. It can export to .wav and .mp3 but is unfortunately only around until late September. Aviary also have a bunch of image editing tools which will disappear at the same time as the synthesiser app. I'm sure there's other browser-based options out there somewhere though...

Royalty Free Music

Students don't need to compose their own music of course, there's plenty of totally free stuff out there they can use. Always attributing authors is a good practice here, even if it's not required.

  • Jamendo now has over 350 000 free tracks! Ridiculous!
  • Kevin Macleod on Incompetech has also made his stuff helpfully searchable by mood. Awesome.
  • Audiofarm is also divided in categories such as game music, doco, film, soundtracks and various musical genres.
  • FMA searchable by music genre.
  • Opsound has a massive pool of tags and artists contributing all kinds of music. Really good for ambient stuff too.
  • ccMixter is all about remixing. It has all kinds of samples and remixes to use in other remixing projects or potentially in a visual text.
  • Freeloops has lots of music clips to use in larger projects.

Sound Effects

  • Sound bible has heaps of sound effects searchable by tags.
  • freesound has a large collections of sound effects and some music samples.