Visualizing Culture: Analyzing the Cultural Aesthetics of the Web

Visual Communication Series, Peter Lang, USA
Series Editor: Susan B. Barnes

Available at

Roxanne M. O’connell, Ph.D.
Professor of Communication – Visual and Digital Media
Roger Williams University, Bristol, RI

Central Idea:
In an increasingly global society, being able to identify a culture’s visual aesthetics helps us localize messages for better understanding and resonance with targeted audiences. But how do we identify the visual cues that specific cultures respond to? Based on web design ‘best practices’ and data collected from close to 1000 websites in more than 30 countries over a period of eight years, this book defines a methodology for identifying patterns—a ‘pattern language’—by which one can analyze the cultural aesthetics of a web site to: 1) learn more about the visual communication patterns of a particular culture, 2) apply what is learned to the creation of new web communications, and 3) identify trends in visual communication on the web as influenced by emerging technologies.

web design, cultural aesthetics, usability, pattern language, new media, international, intercultural, global, contextual design, anthropology.

About the Author

Roxanne O’Connell is Professor of Communication at Roger Williams University (retired 2019). While at RWU, she taught visual communication and digital media. Her professional life has fallen into two areas: visual media and music. As a teacher and publishing consultant with more than 20 years of experience in design, e-commerce, and marketing, she specializes in information design, audience research and website usability. Media research interests include digital media, particularly blogging and podcasting, perception and visual rhetoric. A musician since age 12, she has performed with her husband Robbie O’Connell on stages large and small, from coffeehouses to International music festivals, in village pubs and on outdoor stages. Before she started teaching at university, she had recorded backup vocals on five CDs. She used what she knows about media and sound to teach her students how to create multi-modal narratives and Soundslide essays. She holds a Master of Science in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley University and a Ph.D. from Salve Regina University. Her dissertation, The Golden Age of Irish Music: The cultural impact of 78 rpm recordings on Ireland and Irish America examines the role media has played in the creation, transmission, transformation, preservation and reclamation of Irish music.

In addition to Visualizing Culture, she is the editor of the two-volume series, Teaching With Multimedia on Hampton Press.

Course Outline for Visual Media in a Cultural Context

I have always conceived this course, Visual Media in a Cultural Context, as both a journey within and a journey without. Unless one can accept that we are all influenced by the cultures in which we live and that we, in turn, shape those cultures, it is difficult for us to recognize our own cultural milieu. Not being aware of our own culture makes it difficult for us to identify beliefs, values and behaviors we experience in others as part of their cultures. To this end, I have used Lester Faigley’s Picturing Texts as a tool for the ‘journey within’ and for exercises that help students reflect, compare and contrast as they make their journey outside of their cultural milieu. The readings and assignments selected from Faigley are designed to support the learning objectives of the course and to foster critical thinking about representation and cultural diversity.

At the same time, I have used exercises from my own practice and invention to help them discover the patterns that I have now collected in this book. The films I use in the course are from all over the world and the students are instructed to try to see what the cinematographer and the director have done to give the viewer a sense of place—to discover how they set the cultural aesthetic so that we can suspend disbelief and immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of the film. I have found it particularly helpful if the film has, as its narrative, a conflict of cultures. Especially powerful are narratives where a traditional regional culture is being challenged by a modern culture, as in Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (Ang Lee) or Urga [Close to Eden] (Nikita Mikhalkov). The term-long paper the students write is a critical analysis of their assigned culture’s aesthetic. Their final creative project is a poster and review of a film from their assigned culture that is borrowed from Faigley’s last “Picture This” assignment. In essence, the assignments, paper and project combine to have the students engage with texts, reflect on readings, conduct independent research, and then produce an in depth critical analysis and a creative application of all they have learned in the course of the semester. Assignments borrowed from Faigley (2004) that have been customized for examining cultural aesthetics are bolded in the syllabus and outlined at the end.

Course outline for a 15-week semester


Visual media takes the form of films, paintings, photographs, architecture, clothing, web sites, interactive media, video and advertising. By exploring visual media in a cultural context we can examine visual cues and patterns and their significance as we try to identify a society’s cultural aesthetic: what is visually unique to a culture and what is seemingly universal. As we try to identify our own cultural filters and increase our awareness of other filters and their underlying values, we ask, “What is cultural reality?” and examine how cultural collisions act as a catalyst in shaping the self, family, community, and the culture at large.

Week 1: Introduction to the course

  • Readings: Visualizing Culture: Ch. 1; Faigley: Introduction
  • Paper Activity: Cultural Lottery
  • Assignment: Create Assignment Blog in WordPress
  • Film: Baraka (Ron Fricke, 1992)

Week 2: Pattern Language: Culture, Technology & Design

  • Readings: VC: Chapter 2; Faigley: pp. 22-55
  • Paper Activity: Cultural Aesthetic Hunt (Web, print, film)
  • Assignment: Faigley, Snapshot p. 55
  • Film: Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)

Week 3: Color palettes

  • Readings: VC: Part 2, Ch. 3; Faigley: pp. 84-89
  • Paper Activity: Color Mood Board
  • Assignment: Faigley, Picture This p. 94-95
  • Film: Eat Drink Man Woman (Ang Lee, 1994)

Week 4: Content Modality, Ratio, Density & Flow

  • Readings: VC: Chapter 4; Faigley: pp. 98-113
  • Paper Activity: Thirds Grids
  • Assignment: Faigley, Snapshot p. 113
  • Film: Whale Rider (Niki Caro, 2002)

Week 5: Time – Mode and Tempo

  • Readings: VC: Chapter 5; Faigley: pp. 116-125
  • Paper Activity: Homepage Montage
  • Assignment: Faigley, Picture This p. 143
  • Film: Mr. & Mrs. Iyer (Aparna Sen, 2002)

Week 6: Audience Interaction, Information Density

  • Readings: VC: Chapter 6; Faigley: pp. 152-168
  • Paper Activity: Literature Review
  • Assignment: Faigley, Snapshot p. 168, based on you and on your assigned culture
  • Film: Close to Eden [Urga] (Nikita Mikhalkov, 1991)

Week 7: Attitudes & Values: Context & Attitude

  • Readings: VC: Chapter 7; Faigley: pp. 209-215
  • Paper Activity: (presentations of cultural web hunts*)
  • Assignment: Faigley, Picture This p. 219 – “A Day in the Life of My Cultural Twin”
  • Film: Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1987)

Week 8: Attitudes & Values: Affect & Orientation

  • Readings: VC: Chapter 7; Faigley: pp. 230-246
  • Paper Activity: (presentations of cultural web hunts*)
  • Assignment: Faigley, Snapshot p. 247, based on your assigned culture
  • Film: Once (John Carney, 2006)

Week 9: Lifestyle; Representing others

  • Readings: VC: Chapter 7; Faigley: pp. 270-275; pp. 281-286
  • Paper Activity: Analysis
  • Assignment: Faigley, Picture This p. 304
  • Film: Zelary (Ondrej Trohan, 2003)

Week 10: Usability & Navigation

  • Readings: VC: Chapter 8; Faigley: pp. 318-331
  • Paper Activity: (presentations of cultural web hunts*)
  • Assignment: Faigley, Snapshot p. 331
  • Film: Children of Heaven (Majid Majidi, 1997)

Week 11: Uncertainty Avoidance & “Face”

  • Readings: VC: Chapter 8; Faigley: pp. 366-372
  • Paper Activity: Synthesizing findings and sources
  • Assignment: Faigley, Picture This p. 373, based on your assigned culture
  • Film: Yesterday (Darrell Roodt, 2004)

Week 12: Constructing Realities, Framing Arguments

  • Readings: Faigley: pp. 384-396
  • Paper Activity: Top & Tail – Introduction, Review of Literature, Conclusion
  • Assignment: Faigley, Snapshot p. 396 Based on you – Based on your assigned culture
  • Film: Invictus (Clint Eastwood, 2009)

Week 13: Pulling it together

  • Readings: Faigley: pp. 397-421
  • Paper Activity: Peer Review
  • Assignment: Faigley, Picture This p. 422-423, Based on your assigned culture
  • Film: Like Water for Chocolate (Alfonso Arau, 1992)

Week 14: Designing Messages

  • Readings: Faigley: pp. 468-493
  • Paper Activity: Final Edits
  • FINAL PROJECT Assignment: Faigley, Picture This p. 494-495, Based FILM from your assigned culture
  • Film: Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997) – or Spirited Away, Ponyo or Howl’s Moving Castle

Week 15: Final Project Presentations

  • Paper Activity: Final Paper due on last day of Finals

Assignments borrowed from Faigley, customized to the course:

Week 6: “Yearbooks, birthdays, weddings, proms: these are just some of the events that many of us see as photo ops, occasions to take pictures of friends and family. In Japan, November 15 is one such day. It is a holiday known as shichi-go-san, 3-5-7 day, when parents take 3-, 5-, and 7-year old children to Shinto shrines to pray for their happiness and good health….” What are some similar photo ops from your life, and what kinds of stories do they tell about you? Find a similar “composed” family photo from your assigned culture and write about the cultural cues that tell you that 1) this is a special day, 2) this is composed and 3) how the composition affects the story the image is telling. (Faigley, 2004, p. 168)

Week 8: “Travel photography calls upon us to represent othes Whether we’re taking pictures of people we know or don’t know, we’re representing them in a context that is meaningful to us….” Find a candid snapshot of a person from your assignment culture. Think about what decisions the photographer had to make in composing the photo and in representing the person or the place in which they are situated. What is the context? What does the photo say about the values of the subject? What does the photo say about the values of the photographer? Create a caption for the snapshot. Reflect in your blog post on the challenges associated with representing other cultures. (Faigley, 2004, p. 247)

Week 11: Create an advertisement for an organization based in your assigned culture. “Start by thinking about how you want to portray the group. In other words, what reality do you want to construct? You might think in terms of adjectives: Is it a serious group? creative? something else?” Is there a concern for uncertainty avoidance or saving face? Include an image or symbol that is appropriate. Try to do the ad in the language of your assigned culture, using their typography. Provide a translation. (Faigley, 2004, p. 373)

Week 12: “Although you might not think of them in this way, the photographs in real estate ads function as visual arguments. They argue that this is a place you will want to buy—a good place to raise a family, perhaps, or to entertain, to retire, or something else.” Look for real estate ads on the Internet, with photographs, that come from both your own neighborhood and from your assigned culture. How are they similar? How are they different? Create your own ad for your assigned culture in which you make an argument that would be persuasive for someone from that culture. What does the visual have to convey? What do the words have to convey? Try to write the ad in the language and typography of the culture. (Faigley, 2004, p. 396)

Week 13: Holiday greeting cards are also visual arguments. Find some greeting cards on the Internet that come from your assigned culture for their particular special holiday, e.g. Chinese New Year, Tet, St. Patrick’s Day. “What argument is being made? What details in the images help create the argument? How do the words in the greetings reinforce or make the argument clear?” Make a digital greeting card for your assigned culture. Post it in your blog. (Faigley, 2004, p. 422-423)

Week 14: (This is the Final Project Assignment wherein students demonstrate communicating to a culture not their own.)
This assignment requires two blog posts: a Film Review and a Film Poster. 1) Find a film that was created by and for your assigned culture. Write a film review describing the film suitable for submission to The Hawk’s Herald (local audience). Include an action screenshot that helps your reader get the aesthetic sense of the film.
2) Design a poster for the film based on what you know about the aesthetic expectations of the audience in your assigned culture. Use the language and typography appropriate to the audience. In your poster blog post talk about the differences and similarities between the two types of writing—a text that is meant to be read and a poster that is meant to be seen. (Faigley, 2004, pp. 494-495)

The Critical Analysis Term Paper:

I have long been of the opinion that final or term papers assigned within the last two or three weeks of the semester do not accomplish a great deal. The timing encourages students to wait until the last minute to write their papers, They do NOT:

  • do drafts
  • see feedback
  • incorporate what feedback they do get into a final product, and
  • look at or learn from the notes you write all over their submissions once their papers have been graded.

In an effort to increase the quality of the papers I was getting in this and other courses, and increase the learning students would get from both the subject matter and the process of writing, I developed a “failing forward” strategy wherein students earned passes on STEPS of their term paper by meeting certain milestones in the paper writing process from the very beginning of the semester. Half the points are determined by two criteria: 1) did the student do what was asked for each milestone? and 2) did the student meet the task deadlines? The other half of the points are based on the quality of the content when the paper is complete. Essentially, someone who does not do the steps all along the semester, completing each milestone, cannot get a passing grade on the final paper, not even if he or she were F. Scott Fitzgerald.

It is digital technology that makes this system possible. All the work is done in a Google Doc shared between the student and the instructor (I set these up myself so that they cannot be accidentally deleted by the student). No draft is printed off, no trees harmed, no dogs eating what is clearly not good for them. The Google Doc paper is a living document, accessible by both author and instructor at any time.

At each step, on the deadline date, I take a look at the work in progress and make helpful suggestions, or critiques, and reminders of what is still needed to complete each step. Toward the end of the process, peer review is made possible by sharing the paper with one other student in the class for comments and suggestions. I find that this step makes students more reflective of their own writing when they get to look at what their peers write, regardless of which student is the more skilled. When the final deadline for the paper arrives, I turn off the student’s editing privileges and begin grading.

Critical to the success of this term paper process is having the students publicly accountable. This happens twice. The first public sharing of their work happens about a third of the way through the semester when they do their Cultural Web Hunt presentation. Student must research and find ten excellent web site examples that illustrate the aesthetics of their assigned culture. This may mean researching 100 sites to find those ten. I usually ask for a distribution that reflects various types of sites: three each of multinational, national, and local sites and one wild card site. The most important criterion is that the targeted user must clearly be someone from that culture. Students present their ten websites and outline, based on the Cultural Grid, what they have learned about their assigned culture’s aesthetic preferences. The presentations are grouped in geographic areas and some discussion centers on the similarities and differences we can observe from the evidence in the presentation.

The analysis done for the Cultural Web Hunt presentation becomes the backbone of the Analysis portion of the paper wherein the student fleshes out all of the dynamics observed and recorded in their Cultural Grid. Supporting material is gathered from the sources in the review of the literature, which might also include examples from film and space ads. All the while students are finding websites and viewing films, they are also being asked to make and reflect on observations about their own culture through the assignments from Picturing Texts (Lester Faigley et al) and to create small examples of targeted visual messages.

The second public sharing is the peer review. I know I learn a great deal when I edit a journal or proceedings article for publication. While I don’t expect the peer reviewer to make actual edits, I do expect him or her to highlight spelling and grammar errors and to comment if the author has clearly lost the reader or made a dubious claim or assumption. Because Google Docs sends me an email when the file has been edited or commented, I see how the peer review is going and I find it heart-warming to see the frankness and the support and encouragement students share with each other. Many students have told me that, while they were dubious at the outset, this process for writing their paper helped them feel more in control, more prepared and, less stressed, especially when all the other final papers were being assigned in the last few weeks of the term.