© Alejandro Escamilla. Image from Unsplash. CC-BY-2.0

In part one of this series of articles, I looked at the meaning of the term ‘mode’ within communication theory. 
In this article, I introduce Gunther Kress's three fundamental assumptions about communication.

We must consider an important question before we go any further: what is communication? Gunther Kress says that communication is more complex than we imagine. The classic model of communication goes like this:

Original image from Crestock.com

Person A has an idea in their mind and speaks it to person B. B hears the words and the same idea forms in B’s mind exactly as it is in A’s mind.


B then replies, A hears it and has B’s idea formed in his or her mind exactly as it is in B’s mind.


 This would be perfect communication. But reality is never like this. This very simplistic model focuses only on speech, and doesn’t allow for the complexity of real-life communication. It also puts the emphasis entirely on the sender of communication. If the communication fails, it suggests that the speaker is at fault for not expressing the idea clearly enough. But communication can fail for many reasons, some of which are nothing to do with the one trying to communicate.


Three fundamental assumptions

Gunther Kress has three fundamental assumptions about communication:1

1. Communication happens as a response to a prompt

Imagine the communication taking place in a hospital operating theatre.2 Several people are in the room, focusing on different aspects of the operation and communicating with each other constantly. Some of their communication will be verbal, but much of it will not be – especially in a team which has worked together on many occasions. It will include gestures, glances, and tone of voice. The senior surgeon in the operating theatre could attempt to communicate in any way he likes – he could say something or make a gesture – but if nobody else in the room pays any attention to him, he has not communicated anything. His attempt to communicate is a prompt. © Andy G. Used under a Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA-2.0) licence. Someone else needs to respond to that prompt for there to be any communication. In order to respond to the prompt, they first need to recognise that it is a prompt. A surgeon may put out a hand for a scalpel: that’s the prompt. But if the scrub nurse is looking away at that moment, the prompt goes unnoticed and no communication takes place. If the scrub nurse sees the surgeon’s hand go out, but fails to recognise that it is a prompt, no communication takes place. A good scrub nurse plays close attention to the surgeon and is constantly alert for prompts. When the communication in a context like this is really effective, the team becomes like a well-oiled machine. You are reading this because you recognised the article as a prompt, and paid attention to it. But something else needs to happen for communication to take place.

2. Communication happens when there is an interpretation

It is not enough for the scrub nurse simply to recognise the prompt. The prompt must also be interpreted. A good scrub nurse interprets correctly and quickly. An incompetent nurse who wonders what the surgeon’s extended hand could possibly mean will soon be out of a job. When the scrub nurse has both recognised the prompt and interpreted it (whether correctly or not), communication has taken place. But until some interpretation has happened, there has been no communication. The communication is effective if the interpretation fits with what the surgeon wanted to communicate. It is ineffective if the prompt is misinterpreted. Instagram has 75 million daily users who, between them, upload 95 million photos and videos. The vast majority of these people never communicate anything to me because I never see these prompts – I only follow a few hundred Instagram users. Even those Instagram users I do follow only communicate with me some of the time, because they inevitably post many of their photographs at times when I’m not on Instagram. When I do see someone’s post in my feed, there is a prompt for communication. But if I do not pause to pay attention to the image (I recognise the prompt but don’t bother to interpret it), there has still been no communication. Another Instagram user only communicates something to me when I see her photograph, pay attention to it, and interpret it. Interpretation is a vital aspect of social semiotic theory, which

‘includes study of how communicators create texts3 (including the role of technology) and how people interpret texts.’4

We will return to this shortly.

3. Communication is always multimodal

There are not many – if any – contexts in which we use only a single mode at a time. Many text messages are still just text, but many now also include emojis, stickers, and GIFs. When we speak on the phone, we only use our voices, but now we might prefer to FaceTime or Skype people instead. We like to include additional modes when we can because it gives us the benefit of extra affordances. Text, for example, has some affordances (clarity, precision, and low ambiguity). However, it is very difficult to communicate emotion easily. So drawing on the semiotic resources of another mode enables us to make use of more affordances, which can make up for those which text lacks. An emoji or a GIF brings in the ability to quickly communicate some emotion (whether we are making a joke, feeling frustrated, or confused, etc.).

via GIPHY Any website that only makes use of the mode of tex is incredibly dull. As visitors to the site, we want a richer experience so we expect a website creator to use additional modes such as image, layout, colour, video, audio, and dynamic elements. Verbal communication over the phone has some affordances which written text doesn’t have – because of what we can communicate through tone of voice – but sometimes it’s still not enough. We then need the additional affordances of a second mode, such as gesture or facial expression, by making a FaceTime or Skype video call. We might need to add in even more modes by meeting someone face-to-face, which would enable us to draw on the affordances of a handshake or a gift. Most of our communication, therefore, is multimodal rather than unimodal. That is, we use a combination of modes rather than just one. Gunther Kress argues that all communication is multimodal. Even a plain text message is likely to have punctuation, which adds to the affordances of the text. Or it may have line breaks in order to change the layout. Text needs a medium, too, whether electronic, paper, skin, or something else. The medium becomes another mode. Similarly, voice communication does not happen in a monotone, but includes at least a second mode – tone of voice.

In the next article, I discuss the roles of initiator and recipient in communication


  1. Gunther Kress, Multimodality: a Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication (London: Routledge, 2009), p. 36. ↩︎
  2. This example is derived from Kress, Multimodality, p. 32. ↩︎
  3. In semiotics, ‘texts’ are not simply written texts, but ‘includes units of meaning in any media’ (Martin Irvine, ‘Media Theory and Semiotics: Key Terms and Concepts‘, 2004–2005.) ↩︎
  4. Glossary of Multimodal Terms, MODE (2012). ↩︎

Image credits (from top)

© Alejandro Escamilla (Unsplash), used under a Creative Commons licence.
© Andy G. Used under a Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA-2.0) licence.