This thesis studies web homepages to understand the complex social practice of organizational identity communication on a digital medium. It examines how designs of web homepages realize discourses of identity through the mobilization and orchestration of various semiotic resources into multimodal ensembles, addressing critical organizational visual identity elements (‘logo,’ ‘corporate name,’ ‘color,’ ‘typography,’ ‘graphic shapes,’ and ‘images’), communicative content of the page, and navigation structures. By examining these three ‘strata’ of organizational identity communication, it investigates how a homepage uses formal design elements and more abstract principles of composition, such as spatial positioning and content ordering, as resources for making meaning.
The data consists of three complementary sets drawn from thirty-nine web homepages of Australian university websites in 2020. Data set #1 includes four homepages for an in-depth study of organizational identity designs; data set #2 consists of 400 images from the ‘above the fold’ web area as the most strategic space on four homepages between the years 2015 and 2021; data set #3 is comprised of eight historical versions of a selected web homepage between the years 2000 and 2021, with three most representative designs for an in-depth investigation. Grounded in the discourse-analytic approach informed by multimodal social semiotics, the thesis adopts a mixed-method approach to data analysis. It applies multimodal discourse analysis combining the Genre and Multimodality model (Bateman, 2008; Bateman et al., 2017) to document the structural design patterns and social semiotic (metafunctional) approach to address the meaning potentials of the identified patterns; (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2021); content analysis (Bell, 2001; Rose, 2016) and visual social actor framework (van Leeuwen, 2008) to identify key representational tropes and visual personae.
The study reveals the role of design as a mediating tool between the participants of discourse – the rhetor-institution/designer and envisaged audiences – and offers systematic insights into the uses of semiotic resources, both material (e.g., formal design elements and navigation structures) and nonmaterial (e.g., spatial considerations and content structuring), all contributing to the production of meanings and fostering identification with such meanings in the form of association with the university’s identity. Addressing the subtle differences and shifts in the form and function of key layout structures and strategies of viewer engagement, the study concludes that is plural – each university constantly revises semiotic choices and their multimodal composition to achieve specific rhetorical purposes. Together with several visual design choices, five identified strategies of viewer engagement – proximation, alignment, equalization, objectivation, and subjectivation – promote the university as a place of opportunity, achievement, sociality, and intellectual growth for a student as an individual and as a member of the community.
The current research contributes to the emerging collaboration between multimodality, organization studies, and branding, recognizing the complexities and importance of multimodal communication in web-mediated texts amidst the critically increased roles of marketization and social presence in the current higher education landscape.