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Volume 9, Number 5: January 28, 2003

Reading Images on the World Wide Web
by Marguerite Helmers,
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh


Listening to undergraduate student research presentations recently, it was apparent that students consult resources in the following order: the World Wide Web (WWW), articles on online databases (via the WWW), and books. The evening news, in short special features, will often show viewers a filmed image of the computer screen, a user scrolling lists of Google-based hits on subjects ranging from herbal supplements to chronic disease. The benefits of consulting the WWW are speed and variety. In both these cases, the web is the key medium for information. Researchers, whether professional broadcast journalists, interns, or students in the university can brief themselves on a subject in less time than it takes to walk or drive to the library.

Most information is coming to web users through a colorful, graphics-based medium. Yet teachers often pass over the design and the images when evaluating internet resources, taking advantage of the many Internet evaluation rubrics available online. The emphasis of these rubrics--such as Evaluating Web Resources by Jan Alexander and Marsha Ann Tate and Evaluating Information Found on the Internet by Elizabeth Kirk--is on text-based features, such as authorship, publishing body, and writing style. In fact, as Wendy Sutherland-Smith argues, "Visual elements can distract readers and cause difficulty finding written information on the Web."1 Furthermore, the ubiquity of images on the web seems to over-mediate our lives: their redundancy to print and televised images forms an intertextual network that relates one form of advertising and propaganda to another. In short, web users have learned to mentally "turn off" and "tune out" images on the web, at the same time as they have come to expect images as an integral design feature. It is even possible (although I have little more than the anecdotes of my students to support this) that colorful, animated images may persuade student researchers of the authority of the website simply because they relate technologically to the types of images that are available elsewhere in American culture: video games, film, and television.

In this article, I suggest that graphics, color, sequence, and placement--the elements of the interface itself--are significant to conveying information about the author, subject, and veritibility of the pages.

Traditionally, illustrated texts fall into three categories: 2

  • The emphasis of the text is on the picture, with the text providing explanation
  • The images were prepared to illustrate or augment a specific text
  • The images are decorative, with only a slight relationship to the text

In general, web graphics fall into this last category (see note). Although graphics are placed as the center of attention on many pages, they appear to do very little useful work. The images may associate one aspect of a product or service with the site's purpose (such as the happy family represented on the Amtrak website); however, they are placed within pages as elements of design and visual locators, rather than for instructional purposes. As a consequence, web users tend to overlook their most obvious persuasive qualities. In the case of Amtrak: taking the train makes people happy. In fact, often users click through the images in their haste to gather information.

Citing Sorapure, Inglesby, and Yatchisin (3), Sutherland-Smith suggests that web literacy involves "an attentiveness to the information conveyed in the source's non-textual features" (4). The question, then, is what kind of information is involved in non-textual features? What if users were to sacrifice speed in order to study the images that individuals, organizations, and companies use to introduce web users to their sites? What would they find? As examples I cite two websites devoted to the study of Philip Pullman's trilogy of novels His Dark Materials and the homepage of the National Park Service.

Pullman's books were published in the late 1990s, to both acclaim and excoriation. In the novels, the young heroine Lyra Belaqua attempts to right the universe from a rupture that is both atmospheric and philosophical. The novels allude to works by Milton and Dante and, because of their complexity, web users are consulting sites that explain some of the intertextual references (although there is some fan fiction available, as well). Focusing strictly on the visual appeal of the pages, what will users learn and what attitudes will they adopt?

At the official website of the publishers, Random House, web users will be aware of the background: silver stars set against a velvety, indigo night sky. This background relates to the content of the first book The Golden Compass because Lyra Belaqua spends at least half of the book wandering the frozen northern pole. The deep purplish blue invites readers to enter the site. There is one image, an alethiometer, which readers of the book recognize as the "compass" of the title, the symbol reader that Lyra consults to tell her of the future. In this representation, it looks old and at once familiar and unfamiliar: a burnished bronze cover surrounds hieroglyphics of which we can make out a bird, a tree, and the symbol for the Greek letter Omega. Together with the font design and color that announce the title of the website, His Dark Materials, we are invited into a site that is rich with allusions to history and the writers' craft.

By contrast, The Bridge Through the Aurora: A His Dark Materials Fan Site, assaults web browsers with relentless pop-up images on advertisements for Fox Sports,, and Needless to say, this site is sloppier, but not only because of the pop-up ads. Visitors can sense a fan's exuberance about this site, marked initially by a large graphic display with images of Lyra, her friend Will Parry, and a green-eyed cat, standing in front of a green-hued, arching series of images from the alethiometer, which curves like a rainbow over a lake at sunset. To the far right of this is a second image of Lyra in profile, hair streaming behind her, gazing at a glowing alethiometer. Below Lyra, on the left, is another representation of the alethiometer, this time with a clouded human face set in its center. As my verbal description should indicate, there is a fair amount of graphic repetition in this image: at least two Lyras (possibly three if the face in the golden compass is her) and three alethiometers. This urge to be comprehensive is visually overwhelming and is reinforced by the small burnt orange print of the links on the page, which scroll down two columns and promise to take the viewers to everything from interviews to computer wallpaper. The confusing array of images and links deter readers from considering this site as a point of clarification. Furthermore, in its mix of unattributed borrowed images from book covers, authoritative information, and fan fiction, the site's verifiability is difficult to immediately assess. As the banner graphic suggests, the information has to be taken piecemeal.

My third example comes from the National Park Service, an information gateway to areas that we expect to be visual: Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon. Given their jurisdiction over some of the most scenic areas of the United States, one would imagine that the Park Service site itself would feature some of the mountains, lakes, and shorelines of the country. Instead, the background is the tan of bark or parchment and the lettering is simple and brown. The appeal is to the past, to the parks as history, rather than to the parks as dynamic, ever-changing features of American life and culture. The site is clean and easily navigable; viewers are enjoined to gather information, but not to linger. In fact, the lack of images on the site as a whole goes a long way toward denying the potential of lingering and seeing, effectively pushing people out of the parks rather than persuading them to enter and enjoy.

While there are thousands more examples ranging from the beautiful to the putrid on the WWW, these three sites should serve as gateways to interpreting how the images work on the sites to locate viewers in virtual space and present them with an interpretive framework (or frame of mind and mood).

The term visual literacy and the emphasis on its importance in the global and networked age often refers to point and click abilities, to skills in navigating and retrieving information in an environment that contains graphic elements. In conclusion, I introduce the following questions as part of website evaluation in order to begin working with students to decode the images and symbols in that environment, so that we do not pass by them, but investigate their rhetorical strategies for persuasion:

  • Why is this graphic here? What is the motive or purpose for this graphic?
  • What size it is on the page?
  • What is first to appear on the page-an image, a graphic text, or text?
  • Does the graphic relate in some way to the content or theme of the page?
  • Are the graphics original?
  • Are they attributed to a creator?
  • How does color of the background and text affect the mood of the user? Does the user want to enter the site?
  • How does the size of the image on the page affect the desire to browse further?
  • How does the style of the image encourage further browsing?
  • Is the graphic file of good quality or is it pixilated, making it appear out of focus?
  • Do the images focus our attention on something that will be explicated later?


1 Breitenbach, Edgar. "The Bibliography of Illustrated Books: Notes with Two Examples from English Book Illustration of the 18th Century." A History of Book Illustration: 29 Points of View. Bill Katz, ed. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1994. 297-314.

2 Sorapure, M., Inglesby, P., & Yatchisin, G. "Web Literacy: Challenges and Opportunities for Research in a New Medium." Computers and Composition 15 (1998): 409-424.

3 Sutherland-Smith, Wendy. "Weaving the Literacy Web: Changes in Reading from Page to Screen." Reading Teacher 55.7 (2002) 662-70. EBSCO Academic Search Elite. 11 December 2002.


As web users realize, some graphics don't contribute to the sites. When I log into a fansite for His Dark Materials at, for example, the first graphic that appears on the screen is an advertisement for Netflix, an online rental company. Clicking the close box in the upper right corner of the screen eliminates the advertisement, but it has, in the meantime, performed a rhetorical function: announcing that this is a commercial site.


Marguerite Helmers is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. She received a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is the author of Writing Students (1995), editor of Intertexts: Reading Pedagogy in College Writing Classrooms (2002), and co-editor with Charles Hill of Defining Visual Rhetorics (forthcoming 2003). She has contributed articles to the scholarly journals College English, the Journal of Advanced Composition, and the electronic journals Enculturation and Kairos. She has received several awards inside and outside the university, the James Berlin Outstanding Dissertation Award from the National Council of Teachers of English, the Distinguished Teaching Award at UW Oshkosh, the Kimball Foundation Award for Excellence, and was a Fellow of the Center for Twentieth Century Studies in 1999-2000.


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