Exploring the Boundaries Between Visual Anthropology and Visual Communication Design Research


  • Ann Bessemans
  • María Pérez Mena




Researchers and/or designers in visual anthropology and visual communication share the visual aspect or visual study as a common interest. However, their views are different. Visual anthropologists consider the social impact and/or meaning of the visual communication within a culture. They are also interested in ways to present anthropological data by means of visual techniques.

Visual communication design researchers create visual communication, and are interested in how participants respond to visual matter in order to enhance the human experience. In a way, they are (partly) producing the visual culture visual anthropologists are reflecting upon.

In order to find out how and whether such disciplinary exploration might be fruitful, we were assigned three articles from Visual Anthropology Review within the category “Deaf Visual Culture.” As typographic legibility researchers within READSEARCH this felt familiar, since we have conducted several design studies (published and in preparation)—more specifically, practical legibility research—for the deaf and hard of hearing community.

As design researchers in legibility studies, we do see possibilities to build bridges among the disciplines of visual anthropology and visual communication. A remarkable resemblance between the different fields of study within a deaf culture, in our eyes, is the approach of trying to capture legibility/illegibility within language (spoken, signed, and/or written) by means of visual properties. Therefore, we would like to highlight differences and similarities between anthropology versus visual communication, drawing conclusions about why both disciplines should keep a close eye on each other. Implementing insights into their research practices and/or visual communication design artifacts may open horizons within innovative or even collaborative research projects. Both fields, visual anthropology and visual communication, are trying to contribute to a specific common concern in deaf education—namely, the educational context of language practice.