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Multimodal meaning-making

Multimodal meaning-making refers to the processes and outcomes of semiotic production. It is a key term in social semiotics and multimodality, since it focuses on situated meaning, not meaning as an abstract, structural phenomenon. Multimodal meaning-making is what people do with resources available, when they communicate and interact in everyday life and, as such, includes all types and levels of semiotic production, from the creation of fine art to trivial activities like walking down the street or styling one’s hair in the morning.

In the literature multimodal meaning-making has been described in a number of ways, three of these will been singled out: Multimodal meaning-making as 1) practice, 2) instantiation, and 3) choice.

  1. Multimodal meaning-making refers to the processes by which people use semiotic resources to make meaning in social settings. Meaning-making is inherently linked to the different practices that people as social actors engage in. From this perspective, Kress & van Leeuwen (2001) describe how meaning is made in four (interrelated) domains of practices: discourse, design, production, and distribution (see entry on multimodal articulation). As a heuristic, these four domains of practice are a useful way to learn social practices, e.g. teaching, web design and other professional activities.A practice perspective on meaning-making also underscores that meaning is subject to ongoing change and negotiation within social interactions of people, and is not to be thought of as a fixed, stable entity.
  2. Multimodal meaning-making as instantiation (Boeriis 2009), see figure 1. Drawing on Kress & van Leeuwen (2001) and others, Boeriis introduces the concept of a cloud of resources as a way to describe all potential resources available to people for multimodal meaning-making, and from which people select resources in communicative contexts. The cloud of resources suggests that resources are embedded not in multiple modes but in one overall mode. Mode registers mediate between the multimodal potential and the instantiated mode: “Mode registers become […] a potential register resource in relation to the overall resources, and a kind of selection filter potential in relation to the local instantiation” (Boeriis 2009: 107) (see also entry on multimodal register). 

    Figure 1: Multimodal instantiation model (Boeriis 2009: 107)

  3. Multimodal meaning-making may also be described as [a set of] choice(s). Making meaning concerns the ongoing process of construing meaning through choices of semiotic resources among alternatives in available semiotic systems. The resources for meaning-making organized in networks as any set of alternatives, together with its conditions for selection and combinations, constitutes a semiotic system. The outcome of multimodal meaning-making is a semiotic artefact or text: “a text is the product of ongoing selection in a very large network of systems” (Halliday & Matthiessen 2004: 23).  For a critique of meaning-as-selection, see Kress (2010).

Citing this entry

Poulsen, Søren Vigild. 2015.  “Multimodal meaning-making.” In Key Terms in Multimodality: Definitions, Issues, Discussions, edited by Nina Nørgaard. Retrieved


Boeriis, M. (2009). Multimodal socialsemiotik & levende billeder. PhD Thesis. Odense: University of Southern Denmark.

Halliday, M.A.K. & Matthiessen, C.M.I.M. (2004). An introduction to functional grammar. 4. Edition. London: Hodder Education.

Kress, G. & Leeuwen, T. v. (2001). Multimodal discourse: the modes and media of contemporary communication. London: Arnold.