Maureen Walters- What is Visual Literacy?

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Maureen Walters completed her graduate studies in English education at Appalachian State University in 2005.  She currently teaches online writing and literature classes at Vance-Granville Community College in Henderson, NC.

 

There is no simple definition of visual literacy. Since its beginning visual literacy has developed into a concept that is becoming increasingly more difficult to ignore. Many see visual literacy as yet another hurdle to have to clear in the classroom or workplace, but what they may not realize is that the beginnings of visual literacy are already part of almost everyone’s day to day life. Visual literacy is a skill that can be continually learned about and improved upon.


Introduction

In order to fully be able to understand visual literacy, one must understand the many definitions and background of this concept, be able to see it in his or her own life, and understand the relevance in daily interactions. It is also important to recognize that visual literacy extends beyond “what we consider ‘literacy’…of just being able to read and write.” 1  Visual literacy is not a new concept, but it is one that needs to be understood to be used effectively today and in the future.

Visual communication is not a new idea. In his documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, director Werner Herzog (2010) examined cave drawings in the Chauvet caves of France and pointed out how fires in the caves would have made the pictures come to life and portray a message of movement. In fact, Herzog even remarks how some of the drawings had animals painted with extra legs to suggest movement, creating even an early movie, a “proto-cinema,” as Herzog refers to it. 2

glyphs

The Egyptian hieroglyphics for “day” and “water” look as one might expect. “Day” looks like how many people interpret the sun, and “water” appears to be currents in a river.

Early Egyptian hieroglyphics used pictorial elements to convey a message and a written language. Simple images could stand for letters or words in a written language and were one of the earliest examples of being able to “read” and “compose” 3, which are important elements of visual literacy. In another discipline, “Phythagoras, Socrates, and Plato used visual images to teach geometry.” 4 In other places in the world, the ancient Native Americans used petroglyphs (rock art) to tell a story. Eventually, “rock art” and drawings became words and text. 5

Defining Visual Literacy
With thousands of years of history, visual literacy has had plenty of time to be defined and accepted, but even today, the definition for visual literacy is not clear or fully agreed upon, which has limited visual literacy from being taken more seriously, even though it is becoming more important with the advancements in visuals for visual literacy to be brought to and accepted by a larger audience. 6

The Beginning of Defining Visual Literacy
Visual literacy started to gain ground in the late 1960′s. It “gained considerable momentum in the USA based upon a growing concern in adults about the detrimental impact of television on children.”7 Most scholars of visual literacy agree that the term “Visual Literacy” was first used by John Debes, of Eastman Kodak, in 1969 when he defined visual literacy as:

…a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences. The development of these competencies is fundamental to normal human learning. When developed, they enable a visually literate person to discriminate and interpret the visible actions, objects, symbols, natural or man-made, that he encounters in his environment. Through the creative use of these competencies, he is able to communicate with others. Through the appreciative use of these competencies, he is able to comprehend and enjoy the masterworks of visual communication. 8

Avgerinou and Ericson (1997) pointed out that this definition was tentative and didn’t take into account what visual literacy actually is, just what a person who is visually literate is able to do.9   They further elaborate that Debes’ definition was too big and “misleading,” since it “emphasises the way (senses) the stimuli are received without mentioning anything about their form (symbolic).”10 Literacy is often confined to “just being able to read and write,” so it is important to definition that extends beyond this limitation. 11

Lida Cochran is considered by many to be one of the first to really push for an understanding of the importance of visual literacy. When trying to pin a definition on visual literacy, Cochran (1976) found that, “[u]nanimity as to the meaning of ‘visual’ is not only impossible, but actually unnecessary,” and that when a group at the 1976 Okoboji Conference was asked to define “visual literacy,” “analysis of the 63 definitions revealed 53 different phrases employed to define the adjective ‘visual.’ Meanings for the noun, ‘literacy’ were classified under three categories: 1. a group of competencies (40); 2. a process or method of teaching (11), and 3. a movement (8).” 12 These definitions continue to be “numerous” and “not entirely in agreement with one another.”13

Although the Okoboji Conference was not completely successful at defining visual literacy, Avgerinou and Ericson (1997) state that the conference did result in an agreement that the three categories that visual literacy refers to, “namely: human abilities, teaching strategies and the promotion of ideas.”14 These categories helped to narrow what visual literacy entails and that visual literacy is something that can be acquired, taught, and shown to others.

The International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA) would appear to be the organization that would have the closest thing to a universal definition for visual literacy.15 But not even the IVLA has a conclusive definition. IVLA simply agrees that there are too many definitions and that visual literacy is too fluid of a term to come up with a definition that will please everyone.

The Continuing Struggle of Defining Visual Literacy

One of the reasons that a definition for visual literacy has been hard to pin down is because individual researchers have tried to connect visual literacy with their own backgrounds and disciplines.16 Also, as Sosa (2009) mentions, “the term ‘visual’ is evolving and intuitive and has different meanings for different people so, too, ‘visual literacy’ also may have a variety of meanings.”17 Considering all of this, Avgerinou and Ericson’s (1997) remark of “it should be apparent that defining VL is far from an easy task” 18 rings very true.

When examining what creates a strong definition of visual literacy, the best definitions are thought to contain “both an interpretative and a productive component.”19 It’s not enough to simply receive a message in a passive manner; a truly visually literate person must be able to construct meaning out of the images that are shown.20 Visual literacy is not a static definition, and “some defined visual literacy as a scientific process based on visual perception. Others defined it as a cognitive process; still others in aesthetic terms.” 17

Chauvin (2003) sees terms like “creativity,” application,” and “expression” playing an important part in the definition of visual literacy 22, and Averginou and Pettersson (2011) point out that recent definitions take into account “the term ability,” in particular when thinking about the “ability to think visually..”23 Brill, Kim, and Branch (2007) found that “phrases such as ‘learned ability,’ ‘a group of competencies,’ and ‘acquired human abilities’ suggest that visual literacy should be defined as a group of ‘acquired competencies’.”24

Felten (2008) feels, “visual literacy involves the ability to understand, produce and use culturally significant images, objects, and visible actions.”25 This definition seems to hit on many of the same points that others have brought up. As I would define it, visual literacy is the ability to understand/evaluate and produce visual information. While many indicate that there can be other components to visual literacy (and many other ways to word the definition), at visual literacy’s foundation, almost everyone agrees upon a component of understanding and a component of creating. As Sosa (2009) explains, visual literacy requires “both the skills and abilities needed to generate meaningful visuals and those needed to interpret or “read” those visuals.”26

 As many visual literacy researchers have noted, visual literacy seems to be a cycle that needs to take into account that 1) a visual is seen by a viewer, 2) it is interpreted and understood, and 3) the viewer becomes the creator by creating visuals that can also be interpreted and understood. Visual literacy should be seen as “a concept in which particular skills, knowledge, and attitudes can be taught and learned which enhance our abilities to communicate in a variety of visual forms.”27

Because there has been a lot of “difficulty in arriving at a widely accepted definition” this has “contributed to the resistance to visual literacy.”28 Additionally they feel “advances in the field of visual literacy suffer due to an absence of an agreed-upon definition.”29 This has led to problems with teaching students to be visually literate. However, another problem with defining visual literacy is simply that there are “different visual literacies,” and it might be necessary to “concentrate on more limited concepts, such as computer literacy, film literacy, video literacy, and television literacy” in order to get a more concentrated idea of visual literacy.30

There are many different pieces that make up the definition of visual literacy (and many more that could be debated upon as being important), two of the most important, in my opinion, are interpreting and producing.

Interpreting

As the children who have grown up using technologies their whole lives (often termed “digital natives,”31 Brumberger (2011) points out that it is wrongly assumed that this group’s “interaction with visual material” through various technologies “somehow results in visual literacy.”32 Avgerinou (2009) agrees with this and wants to know how we can “guarantee that young people are not partial and passive receivers of visual messages; that they are able to make a critical selection between the necessary and the unnecessary; that they can recognize the different functions.33

Felten (2008) shows that “[r]esearch demonstrates that seeing is not simply a process of passive reception of stimuli but also involves active construction of meaning.” Felten also points out that “[p]roponents of visual literacy contend that if the physical act of seeing involves active construction, then the intellectual act of interpreting what is seen must require a critical viewer.”34 Interpretation is not a passive act and must have some degree of analytical thinking in order to effectively understand visual messages.

Part of understanding and being able to interpret visuals has to come from questioning the use of visuals and “not just how they are used but also, in those relevant cases where no visual evidence is offered, why they are not used.”35

Our ability to interpret visual information depends upon the culture we come from and the life experiences we may have. Avgerinou and Pettersson point out that, “[l]ike traditional literacy, VL is culturally specific, although there are universal symbols or visual images that are understood globally.”36

Chauvin (2003) likes using a definition of visual literacy that includes using “any variety of form that engages the cognitive processing of a visual image.” 37 If one is to agree with Chauvin, any number of visuals could be examined through visual literacy to be analyzed and created. This would seem to indicate that someone who is becoming literate would also become more aware of the visual world around him or her and start seeing meaning in visuals that were otherwise overlooked. Once this awareness is present, the individual would also start to want to apply this knowledge in producing visual images.

Producing

Felten (2008) sees producing as an essential step to becoming visually literate, for “just as writing is essential to textual literacy, the capacity to manipulate and make meaning with images is a core component of visual literacy.”34 Although understanding visuals is an important component of visual literacy, “learning to read and write using visuals- being visually literate, in other words- enables us to communicate accurately.”39

Brill, Kim, and Branch (2007) feel it is important to be able to compose as part of visual literacy, and “compose is defined here as a way to juxtapose so as to create a message communicating perception or expression” and that “visual literacy has been regarded as a language of imagery bound by the explicit juxtaposition of symbols in time and space.”40  Brill, Kim, and Branch also feel that, as with writing, “there remains a need to establish a common grammar for visual messages that is founded upon a definition of visual literacy.”41

Additionally, composition can be based on theoretical aspects such as 1) visual perception, 2) hemispheric processes, 3) visual imagery, 4) cognitive styles, and 5) visual language.6 These aspects allow for messages to be communicated in “a more efficient and effective way” while allowing the results to “become a life-skill.”43 Visual language is particularly important for one to be aware of since visuals “have their own vocabulary, grammar, and syntax” which would allow for the viewer to “be able to decode (interpret) visual messages successfully and to encode (compose) meaningful visual messages herself.”43

Pettersson (2013) sees that, just as with interpreting, it is important to take into account culture, and “…understand the types of issues that become relevant when designing information materials across cultures. Visuals must always be relevant to the intended audience.”45 Because, as previously mentioned, visuals have to be able to be interpreted within the viewer’s experiences and culture, so too does the creator of visuals have to consider the intended audience’s background and culture to convey a successful message. Even though the background of the viewer needs to be considered with visuals, the verbal implications need to be thought about as well, “we have to adopt verbal as well as visual messages to suit each group of receivers.” 46

Avgerinou and Ericson (1997) stress that visual literacy “is an all-encompassing concept which deals with all aspects of intentional visual communication.”47 In order for a visually literate person to be able to embrace the “all-encompassing” aspect and feel like part of the process, being able produce visual communication empowers a visually literate individual.

Becoming Visually Literate

Because defining visual literacy also seems to involve the idea of how one becomes visually literate if it is not simply “looking at pictures,” it seems important to understand what leads to a person becoming visually literate. As has already been discussed, interpretation and production are important parts of becoming visually literate, but, as Brill, Kim, and Branch (2007) suggest, “visual literacy comprises a hierarchy of learned knowledge and skills.”48  However, Felten (2008) thinks that, “[w]ith training and practice, people can develop the ability to recognize, interpret, and employ the distinct syntax and semantics of different visual forms.”25

Pettersson (2013) points out that a person does not have to be skilled in a field of art to be visually literate.16 The world has been setup as text-oriented for a long time, whether it be knowledge that comes from books, lectures notes, tests, etc., and this has not changed, but now the notion of “the world-as-a-text has been challenged by the world-as-a-picture,” and also, “understanding the world in purely linguistic terms is neither satisfactory nor adequate any longer.” 51

Becoming visually literate is also important since “learners in complex societies around the world take in information visually, imitating the actions and attitudes they see.”52 As Rezabek (2005) notices, being visually literate “helps us survive and grow in a visually overwhelming world.”39 Because we live in a “visually overwhelming world” full of information to interpret, Pettersson sees that living in “an information society will challenge the capacities of every person.”54

Avgerinou and Ericson (1997) note the visual sense as being the “most dominant and consequently the most important” so it makes sense that teacher “should concentrate an exploit the visual sense through the nurturing and development of visual literacy.”7   The visual sense has a lot of work to do in our very visual culture that Avgerinou (2009) refers to the over saturation of visuals as “the so-called ‘bain d’ images’ (image bath).”51  This is one of the reasons that Avgerinou and Ericson (1997) see it as being “difficult to understand why conventional education gives so little emphasis to teaching children to “read”/interpret and “understand” visual material when so much of what they are required to learn, can mostly be learned from visual sources.”57

Being surrounded by visuals at all times can lead to a part of visual literacy that many researchers recognize as visual thinking- another possible ability that comes from being visually literate. Petterson (2013) brings up this idea of thinking about visual thinking in terms of diagram where “the circles symbolize the idea that visual thinking is experienced to the fullest when seeing, imagining, and drawing merge into active interplay. The visual thinker utilizes seeing, imagining, and drawing in a fluid and dynamic way, moving from one kind of imagery to another.”58

Because visual literacy is a very active process, the skills of visual literacy need to be honed and understood. The way most people learn about skills is through the teaching of others, and this is most often seen in educational settings. Just as visual literacy can be seen to be part of a cycle of understanding and creation for others, visual literacy should also be seen in a cycle of learning and teaching; a person who learns to be visually literate can then eventually teach others about visual literacy.

Conclusion

Visual literacy is a skill that can be continually learned about and improved upon. Felten (2008) agrees with this and states that “the process of becoming visually literate continues through a lifetime of learning new and more sophisticated ways to produce, analyze, and use images.”25

Because of the emergence of so many digital technologies, some researchers suggest that it might be appropriate to look at “Digital Visual Literacy” in the future.60 But whether visual literacy will evolve further from its current state also seems to depend upon that acquisition of a definition, a problem that digital visual literacy would surely run into as well. Chauvin (2003) says it best when looking at the advancements that have come from technology as “finally catching up to ourselves” and that “technology has given everyone the ability to join the artists and craftsmen in using visual images to express ideas and understandings that have always been inside us in visual form.”61 We may see the “bain d’ images” as a burden, but ultimately, we are simply returning to the roots of our early ancestors and starting to realize the value in communication through visuals by being visually literate. As Bleed (2005) quoted Bill Gates, “It is time to embrace visual literacy.”62



Please start a discussion by leaving comments below.
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References

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