Where visual

Context refers to the location or situation where a visual communication will be seen or used. This page will explain contexts and the relationships between place, purpose and presentation format of visual communications.


The term context in Visual Communication Design refers to the location or place a visual communication is shown or read. Together with designing for a target audience, a purpose, the context helps shape the way a design is made. Examples of contexts for visual communications are; a design studio table, a client board-room, a classroom wall, a supermarket front, a supermarket shelf, on a TV or computer screen, the side of a tram, beside a road, the side of a cardboard package, a magazine.

Students need to take care not to confuse context with presentation format when analysing design. For example a billboard is a presentation format, whereas its context is beside a freeway.

Examples of contexts

A wall is the context for a poster.
A supermarket shel is the context for a package design.
Beside a road is the context for a billboard.
An iPhone screen is the context for an app design.
A client board-room table is the context for a branding presentation.
A magazine is the context for an advertisement.

model analysis

Sportsgirl window promotion. Melbourne Central, 2008.

sample question

Identify the context for the visual communication at left. Discuss how it has been designed to suit that context. Then suggest an alternative presentation format and new context. Explain at least two changes that might need to be made to the design to suit its new context.

sample answer

The context for the 'Sportsgirl' window display shown at left is the window of a store in a city shopping centre. The visual communication consists of an oversize photographic portrait, some samples of fashion on mannequins and large red type across the width of the window.

To engage an audience walking past the shop the designer has used large, broad components. The big, red type stands out from the background and creates a sense of depth beyond the window. It unites the whole composition with a horizontal band. The large portrait leaps forward from the installation. It is so much larger than life so attracts attention from afar. The mannequins, clothed in actual fashion items bookend the composition, again emphasising the width of display.

An alternative presentation format and context within the store, could be a large format brochure for that season's line. The context for the booklet would be on the sales counter inside. The format for the brochure would be portrait so the content would need to be re-arranged to suit. A full-length portrait photo would be needed to fill the cover. The large red type could be moved up to the top to resemble a fashion magazine. The mannequins wearing examples of fashion would not be required on the cover as those garments would be pictured inside.


Context influencers

There are several additional factors besides the purpose of a visual communication that influences the aesthetics and function of a design. These include;

  • The activity of the target audience and the time they have to read a visual communication
  • The distance the viewer is from the visual communication
  • The immediate visual surroundings of the visual communication
  • The physical environment for the visual communication


What a viewer is doing influences the design of visual communications. People reading visual communications might be standing, seated on a train, walking, driving, eating, or playing sport. Their activity affects the time available understand messages.
National Gallery Victoria advertising poster for a Sidney Nolan exhibition. 2009.


Different members of an audience are at different distance from visual communications. Presentations nearby can have intricate detail, yet those seen from a distance have large type and less detail. Examples of graphics seen from a distance include billboards, road signs and names on aircraft.
Bus shelter poster, Templestowe, Victoria.


Designers understand how visual communications interact with a background. Signs contrast with natural environments. Other visual communications are more sympathetic with their backgrounds. For example; signs used for naming restaurants may be made in similar colours as their backgrounds to develop a theme. Designers of printed visual communications are also aware of possible surroundings. They think about the way a visual communication might look with other elements in magazine spread.
An energy ad, bottom left has been placed so its colour complements the pictures on the page. Herald Sun 11 November, 2009.

Physical environment

The choice of materials and methods of construction are very much influenced by the environment in which the presentation is found. For example, a road sign needs to be durable and the type and graphics need to be made from weatherproof paints and vinyls.
Road work promotion sign. Lorne, Victoria.