Museum exhibition figure

Exploring visual narratives within arts and design across cultures and societies

Module details

  • Offered to 2nd Years
  • Mondays 16.00-18.00
  • 2-term module worth 5 ECTS
  • Available to eligible students as part of I-Explore
  • Extra Credit or Degree Credit where your department allows
Degree credit module options by departmentHow to enrol

We are surrounded by visual iconography everywhere, and the way we understand visual texts are clearly shaped and influenced by our socio-historical backgrounds. However, as we become a borderless world especially through social media, we need to recognise that borderlines are blurred and not clearly defined. Thus, it is impossible to avoid visual and cultural overlappings, interlockings and repetitions altogether.

This module attempts to explore the different social, cultural and political dynamics at stake within the arts and design. It recognises that our contemporary moment demands an urgent and rigorous reassessment of the radically different visual paradigms that govern our perception and assimilation of visual texts.

The aim of this module is to help students recognise instances of symbolic renamings and help them identify the histories behind them. By exploring and delving into the cultural and social contexts of visual representation, students will gain a better understanding of the pictorial, iconic and notational meanings that make up the dynamic nature of visual representation.

Finally, the module will allow students to better understand the role of our cultural imagination as a way to influence in the capacity for argumentation, creativity, discovery and curiosity within visual enquiry.

Information blocks

Learning outcomes

By the end of this module you will be able to:

• Appreciate the historical development of cultural theories within arts and design thinking across culture and society;
• Apply key cultural studies and social science theories underpinning visual texts’ outputs;
• Develop dynamic new cultural and social perspectives on established artistic and visual media positions;
• Articulate informed opinions about the different cultural and social dynamics in arts and design through presentation and peer feedback of class projects;
• Develop appropriate vocabulary to discuss parallels, overlaps and distinctions in the fields of arts and design through research, field trips and class discussion;
• Apply key concepts, research, and feedback to produce a cultural analysis, as well as an analytical essay or video essay."

Indicative core content

1. Dynamics of visual imageries in arts and design: aesthetics and beauty as philosophy and praxis. The building blocks of composition in arts and design: line, shape, colour, tone, texture, pattern and form. Reading visual imageries within cultural, historical and social contexts: reading in the past versus reading in the present (ambivalences and tensions).

2. Theories of the avant-garde. Cultural theory. Adorno, Burger, Benjamin, Jameson, Baudelaire, Levi-Strauss, Mallarme. European tradition (Greek, Wilde, etc). Global manifestations of cultural theory (i.e. non-European).

3. Dynamics of iconography and semiotics I: Contexts: Formalism and examination of key thinkers who shaped structuralist and post-structuralist thinking. Barthes’ Mythologies, Saussure’s Semiotics and Derrida’s Difference.

4. Dynamics of iconography and semiotics II: Contemporary Mythologies. Introduction to cinematic language. Semiotics in cinema. Ways of reading cinema.

5. Postmodernism and its influence/legacy in arts and design: Early postmodernism. Postmodernism in art. Postmodernism in design and architecture. Postmodernism theory: Leotard and Jameson. Postmodernism in contemporary culture. Popular culture. Links to globalisation. Implications. Primary institutions and texts: Al-Jazeera, global media. Globalisation theory: Naomi Klein, Manuel Castells.

6. Punk and postpunk. Alternative and independent culture. Zines. Outsider art. Reality TV. Gender politics. Contemporary literature and art. Tabloid culture. Texts: Reynolds, Savage, Klein, Collings, Perloff, Franzen.

7. Dynamics of fiction and metafiction: sci-fi, futurism and the transhuman. Futurism as contemporary reality. What do we mean by “the future”?

8. Gender dynamics in arts and design: gender as a social construction, gender in the design processes of new technologies, reflecting on (un)equal conditions for participation.

9. Racial dynamics in arts and design I: Tropes of Empire (The West and The Rest). Documenting race relations and race supremacy in contemporary culture in arts, film and the media. Postcolonialism and postcolonial identity in arts and design.

10. Racial dynamics in arts and design II: Diaspora and hybrid identities. The ambiguities of representation: the new ghetto aesthetics, racial re-assimilation as white supremacy.

11. Visual dynamics in advertising culture I: Visual devices in advertising: exaggeration, innuendo and humour. Cultural, social and historical approaches to advertising. Key thinkers: Freud, Perloff, Naomi Klein, Adam Curtis.

12. Visual dynamics in advertising culture II: Advertising as ideology: branding and social causes. Advertising as news. Advertising as political agenda.

13. Dynamics of radical politics in arts and design: bioethics, biopolitics, health activism.

14. Imageries of health: The role of disability in the arts (a historical and social perspective). Arts therapy, mental health and disability.

15. Dynamics of mind, body and culture: Cognition in science. Science in entertainment (hypnosis, magic and the occult). The place of bodily awareness in emotion experience.

16. Designing futures: Autonomous systems (AI, cybernetics and robotics) in arts and design.

17. Transcultural dynamics of ecology and nature: Environmental arts. Ecological art (Ecoart). The impact of global warming within the arts. Landscape and art.

18. Dynamics of dance: Neurological and biological responses to dance. Dance as a way of knowing. Dance and movement therapy.

19. Dynamics of death imagery in art and design: Death as discourse. Death as pathology. The dark web and death. Death as visual pathos."


The module will be assessed as follows:

  1. A 700-word analysis of a film: This must include a semiotic analysis, as well as references to avant-garde, fiction or metafiction, postmodernism, punk and post-punk, as cultural ideologies (Autumn Term)
  2. A 5-minute presentation of and advertising campaign analysed from both a semiotic and socio-ideological perspective.
  3. A ten-minute video essay on one of the themes from the course in the Spring Term.
  4. Class participation: Students keep a reflective diary with comments and observations from discussions in class. This diary must be submitted via Blackboard wiki. Students must submit at least 15 out of 20 entries to get full marks.

Key information

  • Requirements: You are expected to attend all classes and undertake approximately 85 hours of independent study in total during the module. Independent study includes reading and preparation for classes, researching and writing coursework assignments and preparing for other assessments.
  • This module is designed as an undergraduate Level 5 course. See Imperial Horizons level descriptors [pdf]