The spirit of a picture: the style of a fiction picture in the context of multimodality


The study seeks to find out where an illustrator’s visual style originates from and how it adapts to and varies in different contexts. The doctoral thesis includes two published scientific articles, an art exhibition, and a Valentine’s Day postal stamp collection made for a client as a graphic design assignment. Artistic activity and design work are carried out methodically in the study, whereby research is created through art and design.
The theoretical frame is formed by research on multimodality, especially the Grammar of Visual Design by Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen and the associated multimodal social semiotic approach that has a linguistic basis: Visual presentations are seen as a system that resembles language and has its own grammar. For instance, colour, typography, and layout are visual modes, semiotic resources of meaning. In a layout or the composition of a picture, the relationship between the presentation and the viewer is guided through vectors, cropping, the direction of the gaze of the illustrated subjects, etc. Modes and resources create meanings in two ways: through cultural connotations and experiential metaphors. Therefore, the cultural history of a given resource – where we have culturally grown accustomed to connecting a certain colour or typography – has a strong effect on interpretation. On the other hand, our experience of, say, boldface as something heavy or orange as a warm colour can be regarded as a more universal meaning.

In the summarizing report, the definition of visual style is brought to the fore: It may be interpreted as a multimodal overall quality or meaning. Style affects the immediate atmosphere created by a visual representation. The article Mysterious Mood: Overall Design as Conveyer of Meaning in Maurice Sendak’s Picturebook Dear Mili (2019) contains a multimodal analysis of the way in which a picture book as a whole produces moods and meanings. Together with the typography, layout, and illustrations, the material characteristics of the book artefact create a multimodal, stylistic fusion of meanings.

The art exhibition Satumetsä/Fantasy Forest (2016) tests through artistic practice various modes and resources in the creation of an overall atmosphere. Essentially realistic natural materials yield a presentation of the author’s personal experience of nature that is characterised by mysteriousness and fantasy. Style can be regarded as magical realism. In this case, personal style leans to a great extent on memories and nostalgia, where cultural connotations of art history and old book illustrations function as stylistic models. The artistic experiments of the exhibition led to a visual style that was applied further in the stamp collection graphic design assignment Ystävyys on valo/The Light of Friendship (2018).

The project investigates how a personal style created freely in artistic activity is shaped according to the requirements of the genre and media in the commercial context. The design process is analysed in the summarising report and in the article Happy hearts do not hang down: the design process for the 2018 Valentine’s Day postage stamps of Finland (2020). The research setting makes it possible to observe not only the concept of multimodal style and its concrete development, but also the similarities and differences between an art picture and an applied art picture, or between art and design. Taken as institutions, the worlds of art and design differ from each other and have their own criteria concerning the definition of the value of a representation. The theoretical frame of the study builds on social constructionism: the meanings of art and design are created in a given time and place and are thereby subject to social formation and transformation. Within the fields of conceptual art and graphic design, for instance, professionals engage in similar visual discussions on the nature of art and design. An applied picture, on the other hand, has an expressly commercial function and its purpose is to appeal to the public. This creates a politics of style and an intriguing friction, where the graphic designer also works.



Doctorate type


Year of completion


Case study type

Research through design

Institution details

Faculty of Art and Design /Graphic Design Department

Graphic Design