|dc.description.abstract||Print materials for audiences with low levels of literacy usually include illustrations. This is
particularly true of health education materials designed to raise awareness of serious diseases
like the Human Immuno-deficiency Virus/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS)
and Tuberculosis (TB). When people cannot read well, it is often assumed illustrations will
communicate information more clearly than written text. Theories of visual communication,
however, suggest that visuals are ambiguous and more likely to be misinterpreted than written
text, especially by under-educated viewers in environments where visuals and print materials are
scarce. Moreover, the traditional guidelines on illustrating educational materials for adults with
limited literacy are dated and often anecdotal. Due to South Africa’s high HIV/AIDS and TB
infection rates, effective health education is important. The lack of basic literacy skills among
millions of adults presents a challenge. It is important to understand the communicative potential
and limitations of illustrations in health education materials in order to maximise their success.
This qualitative research analyses how visual meaning is structured in illustrations from health
education print materials from a semiotic perspective. A mixed method approach known as
hybridised semiotics (Penn, 2000) is used, which in this case combines the semiotic analysis of
the illustrations with data collected through interviews. Audience interpretations of the
illustrations are contrasted with the producer’s intended meanings.
23 individual interviews were conducted with Zulu-speaking adult participants from ABET
Level 1 Zulu literacy classes in two rural and two urban literacy centres in KwaZulu-Natal. The
research instrument for the interviews included illustrations in different illustrating styles and
with different approaches to content. The content of the illustrations included HIV/AIDS; the
digestive system, safety for caregivers, and TB. The illustration styles included artistic
techniques, levels of stylization, pictorial depth and background detail.
The participants frequently misinterpreted the illustrations, or were able to describe the basic
appearance of what was depicted without interpreting the complexities of the intended messages.
Reported education levels seemed to influence participants’ abilities to interpret pictures, but not
as significantly as expected. Findings suggest that rural participants were more likely to misinterpret illustrations containing symbols and unfamiliar objects, and tended to focus on
describing surface details. Even though urban participants were more likely to discuss the
connotations of illustrations, they often misinterpreted the intended message. Previous
background knowledge and experience of the subject matter of the illustrations seemed to be the
factor that enabled participants to infer the intended meanings of illustrations.
This study demonstrates the use of a semiotic approach to analysing illustrations, which may
help to predict and avoid sources of confusion for audiences with low literacy. It also confirms
that certain guidelines remain relevant while others do not, and provides specific
recommendations on how to enhance the effectiveness of visual communication in this context.
Illustrations have many beneficial roles, and remain essential components of reading material for
audiences with low levels of literacy. It is therefore important to understand their complexity,
and the reasons why they may be misinterpreted, so that their educational potential can be