Rune Pettersson—Views on Visual Literacy

Return to Issue 1 Table of Contents 

Rune Pettersson, Ph.D., is a retired professor of Information Design. He has also worked in publishing, in R&D, and in Technical Training. Rune is a Vice President of the International Visual Literacy Association, IVLA.

Although the term visual literacy may be modern, it is not a new idea. A historical view shows that discussions about the use of images have a long history. Several definitions reveal that visual literacy is an ability, a competency, or a skill. Visual literacy is an interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and multidimensional area of knowledge. Different kinds of visuals may be applied in almost all subject matter areas and in different media. From a theoretical view, visual literacy includes visual language, visual thinking, visual perception, visual communication, and visual learning. Seen from a communications view, presentation of an intended message involves a wide range of professional interest groups concerned with its design, production, distribution, and use.

Historical View

The concept of reading signs and symbols is prehistoric. Prehistoric rock art is art produced on rock surfaces by early non-literate individuals. Rock art is found in Europe and in many other parts of the world. Dating techniques based on analysis of the pigments used by the prehistoric artists have shown that the dates vary considerably. Some rock art in Europe may be at least 30,000 years old.

Rock art include images that are carved, engraved, or painted on the walls of rock shelters and on the walls in caves, and on open-air rocks. In some parts of the world images were also painted or engraved on bone, eggshell, ivory, leather, portable pieces of rock, and on wood. Human and animal figures were also modeled and sculptured from bone, clay, ivory, and stone.

(Caption: This picture shows some 2,600 years old rock engravings in the province of Bohuslän in Sweden. Rock engravings were often painted in red. Photo: Rune Pettersson, with permission.)

The best-known examples of prehistoric rock art in Europe are the Palaeolithic cave paintings of Altamira, Lascaux, and other sites in southern France and northern Spain. The images have been widely reproduced and are now familiar to the general public. Common motifs are buffalo, deer, horses, reindeer, and other animals. It is possible that rock art was meant to increase the hunting success and the fertility in the tribe. Rock images lack visual codes for perspective and they have no horizon. Sometimes the actual rock or the walls in a cave constitute a perspective. The prehistoric artists used black, brown, red, and yellow pigments from dirt and soil, from ashes, calcium oxide, and charcoal. They used animal fat, blood, and urine as adhesive for the paints.

Velders 1 concluded that:

The history of visual communication goes back to the cave paintings 30,000 years ago, the description of it only 2,500. … visual literacy is 2,500 years old (as a skill) and 30 years young (as a term).

Discussions about the use of images have a long history. Ancient philosophers used images for visual communication. In anatomy and medicine, Aristotle employed anatomical illustrations. In mathematics, Pythagoras used visual images to teach geometry. In Mesoamerica, the old cultures and civilizations used advanced pictorial messages, especially in their temple cities.

After the first conference on visual literacy was held at Rochester in the USA, Debes 2 offered a tentative definition of the concept:

Visual literacy refers to a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences.

Since 1969 several researchers interested in visual literacy have developed their own definitions.

There have been and there are many aspects of visual literacy and of the use of images for various purposes. Many definitions and explanations of visual literacy, visualization, and understanding of pictures have been considered. It is clear that it is difficult to describe verbally a concept that is primarily nonverbal. My own attempt to a definition of visual literacy includes creation as well as interpretation of visual messages: 3

Visual literacy is the learned ability to interpret visual messages accurately and to create such messages. Thus interpretation and creation in visual literacy can be said to parallel reading and writing in print literacy.

Avgerinou 4 provided the following operational definition of visual literacy (p. 26):

In the context of human, intentional visual communication, visual literacy refers to a group of largely acquired abilities, i.e. the abilities to understand (read) and use (write) images, as well as to think and learn in terms of images.

There are a large number of other definitions of visual literacy. 5 Arriving at a common definition of visual literacy has been contested since its first appearance in professional publications. Over time definitions have varied from very narrow to very broad explanations, and from practical to theoretical perspectives.

Area View

We live in a complex and visually oriented information age. Science and technology education rely on the use of pictures to present technical information. Teaching resources contain a wealth of pictorial representations, ranging from photographs and realistic drawings to graphs and abstract diagrams. In order to be able to communicate and to survive, all citizens need to develop knowledge of traditional literacy as well as knowledge of visual literacy. These are critical life skills.

However, pictorial representations may be used in almost all disciplines and subject matter areas, and in different media.  Pettersson 6 listed 75 areas where scholars have discussed visual literacy. Some examples are advertising, aesthetics, art, biology, chemistry, communication design, cultural anthropology, educational technology, engineering, film, graphic design, history, instructional design, journalism, learning, mathematics, philosophy, reading, and teacher education. Thus visual literacy is discussed and used in many established disciplines. It is probably possible to find some “core knowledge” of visual literacy that is important to all disciplines.

Some areas are practical, and some are theoretical. Disciplines, such as architecture, dance, economics, education, engineering, fine arts, information design, journalism, medicine, message design, music, and theatre have a practical as well as a theoretical component. No doubt scholars from all these disciplines may have different needs of visual information and of visual literacy, and they may perceive the term in various ways. New applications of visual literacy develop in concert with established disciplines.

We should probably rather talk about “visual literacies” than visual literacy. In fact rather similar concepts have been developed in different places and at different times, named with different terms. Diagrammatic literacy, digital visual literacy, graphicacy, graphical literacy, and visual literacy are all terms representing concepts concerned with the ability to understand and work with visual representations. The term visuacy is suggested as an umbrella term for these concepts. 7

(Caption: Visual literacy (green) is discussed and used in many established disciplines, but not in all. It is probably possible to find some “core knowledge” of visual literacy that is available to all disciplines. Image: Rune Pettersson, with permission.)

Despite all differences Avgerinou 8  found that what various definitions of visual literacy share in common is greater than what separates them. Several definitions reveal that visual literacy is an ability, a competency, or a skill. Visual literacy is an interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and multidimensional area of knowledge.

Theoretical View

It is clear that visual literacy is a broad concept including bits and pieces from several areas of knowledge and it has many foundational roots. Having considered a vast literature on visual literacy, Avgerinou and Pettersson 9 proposed that a Cohesive Theory of Visual Literacy should be grounded on the following five conceptual components: visual language, visual thinking, visual learning, visual communication, and visual perception. This theoretical view could be used for the study of different subject matter areas of visual literacy. There may be many different connections and relationships between the conceptual components. The conceptual components interact in various ways when we create and when we interpret visual messages.

The cohesive theory of visual literacy (green area) is grounded on five conceptual components: visual language (yellow), visual thinking (red), visual learning (green), visual communication (blue), and visual perception (violet). Image: Rune Pettersson, with permission.

Connections between the conceptual components theory of visual literacy may be seen in space forming a pyramid: visual language, visual thinking, visual learning, visual communication, and visual perception. Image: Rune Pettersson, with permission.

Visual Language

The visual literacy concept is grounded on the assertion that visual languages exist. Visual languages have analogue coding employing combinations of basic graphic elements (dots, lines, areas, and volumes). A given set of basic elements can be combined to form completely different images. Visual language is holistic. Visuals are iconic and they normally resemble the things they represent.

Visual language must be learned. Visual language abilities develop prior to, and serve as the foundation for development of verbal language. Visual language may improve learning. Pictures are cultural products shared by individuals. An international symbol system based on intuitive interpretation of symbol meanings may not be possible until the world shares a common culture.

Visual language is not easier to understand and it is not universal. Pictures are not self-explanatory. Visual language often needs verbal support. Visual messages as well as verbal messages must be adopted to suit each group of receivers.

In the literature on visual literacy the three terms “visual literacy abilities,” “visual literacy competencies,” and “visual literacy skills” have been used somewhat interchangeably. Avgerinou & Pettersson 10 used the following explanations. Visual literacy abilities include (a) to read/decode/interpret visual statements, (b) to write/encode/create visual statements, and (c) to think visually. Visual literacy competencies include reading, planning and creating visuals, and combining visuals and verbal information for intentional communication. Visual literacy skills range from the ability to distinguish light from dark to the ability to read and express a sequence of body language arranged to express a personal emotion. Visual literacy skills are capable of development and improvement, and they are learnable and teachable.

Visual Thinking

Visual literacy involves critical viewing and thinking. According to the pictorial superiority effect, memory for pictures is superior to memory for words. Visual memory is very fast. It is one thousand times faster to view an inner image than to rehearse a word from verbal memory. Emotionally charged pictures may improve motivation for reading and thus improve the memory.

In business, engineering, and science, clear thinking is often synonymous with visual thinking and visualizing. Albert Einstein and several other highly valued thinkers relied on visual images. Visualizing a message means an attempt to materialize it in an effective synthesis of pictures and words. In many cases, visuals may be the main source for communication and information today.

Visual Learning

In teaching aids, visuals must evoke responses in the reader. To make this possible, the reader must be able to discover the images, become interested in them, and read them in an active and selective way. It should be remembered that pictures might actually have a negative effect on learning. At some point, illustrations move from being engaging motivators to engaging distractors.

Learners are most able to build connections between verbal and visual representations when text and illustrations are actively held in memory at the same time. This can happen when text and illustrations are presented in close connection, for example on the same page in a book, or when learners have sufficient experience to generate their own mental images when they read the text. Therefore, pictures should be put as close to the relevant text as possible.

Visual Communication

Visual messages are a powerful form of communication and superior to verbal messages when content is emotional, holistic, immediate, spatial, and visual. Images speak directly to us and may have a strong emotional impact. Factors in visual language are related to criteria such as the content and execution of a visual, its context and format, and the subsequent perception, learning, and memory. Content is more important than execution, context, and format. For complex messages, combined verbal and visual information may be the best choice.

For a visually literate student, visual literacy objectives may be: 1) To be able to read visuals made for intentional communication. 2) To be able to plan visuals for intentional communication. 3) To be able to create visuals for intentional communication. 4) To be able to combine visuals and verbal information for intentional communication.

Visual Perception

It may take only 2–3 seconds to recognize the content in an image, but 20–30 seconds to read a verbal description of the same image and 60–90 seconds to read it aloud. Meaning is apparent on a basic level, but visual languages must be learned for true comprehension. In verbal and visual languages, prior experience and context are very important to the perception of content.

Communication View

An originator, like an author, a designer, an illustrator, and a painter, may want to tell somebody something. Then he or she has an intended message as well as one or more mental images to communicate.

By creating a number of physical outlines or sketches, the originator is able to explain and demonstrate her or his mental images. Sometimes an information designer assists him or her. These outlines include “preliminary messages” and they seldom reach any large audience. The mental and creative processes, and the physical and practical work, make it possible for an illustrator, a painter, or a photographer, to make an original drawing, painting, or photograph. This finished original has got a “designed message.” After production, “mediated messages” will be distributed as information sets such as books, journals, reports, etc. Each person looking at the final product will create an individual “interpretation of the message.”

(Caption: An originator (1) has an “intended message” (A). An information designer (2) assists him or her. During this process, the designer creates a “perceived message” (B) and a number of sketches (3). After some discussion, they agree on a “preliminary message” (C). The original (4) includes a “designed message” (D). After production, “mediated messages” (E) will be distributed as information sets (5). Each person (6) looking at the final design will create an “interpreted message” (F). This model includes mental images (green) as well as physical materials (yellow). Rune Pettersson, with permission.)

Several authors have pointed out “form follows function.” Thus the content of the message is more important than the actual execution of the message. Therefore, we should begin by defining what any message is supposed to show. What is the problem we want to solve? The information in each message will have to be structured and adapted to the needs of the target group, the intended readers, listeners, or viewers. An intended message may consist of data, ideas, subject matter facts, or thoughts.

The purpose of an intended message may be advertising of a product or a service, providing a business proposal, providing education, entertainment, information, instruction, learning, or training, establishing a change of behaviour, making a decision, performing an action of any kind, or any combination of these and many other examples. There are many groups of receivers. The receiver of an intended message may be business partners, colleagues, dentists, employees, course participants, ministers, students, teachers, veterinary surgeons, retired professors, teenage girls, teenage boys, or a “general” audience—just to mention a few. There are of course many more groups of receivers. It is obvious that a person may belong to several groups of receivers, or “target groups.” There are always individual differences among members of any group.

The study of the five visual literacy conceptual components may increase our understanding of the way communications processes operate. Drawings and photographs are two-dimensional representations. Interpretation of image content is less constrained than interpretation of a verbal message. However, a still picture may be interpreted in more than one way. Furthermore, dioramas, models, sculptures, and stereo pictures have a third dimension. Current laser techniques make it possible to create three-dimensional images, holograms, enabling viewers to see behind image objects.


A large number of papers have been presented at the Annual Conferences of the International Visual Literacy Association and many have been published in the Selected Readings and in the Journal of Visual Literacy. Visual literacy scholars have not arrived at a general consensus for a theoretical organization of visual literacy. There has been, and there still are, considerable disagreements among researchers and practitioners concerning a precise definition of visual literacy. A number of researchers have practically rejected the whole concept of “visual literacy” and they search for something else, like communication design, information design, or message design where visuals and words interact.


Return to Issue 1 Table of Contents

(You are invited to add to the conversation below.) 



  1. Velders, T. (1999). Introduction. Presentation at the 5th Symposium on Verbo-visual Literacy: Information Design. Eskilstuna, Sweden, November 9–11, p. 10.
  2. Debes, J. L. (1969). The loom of visual literacy. Audiovisual Instruction, 14, 25–27, p. 26
  3. Pettersson, R. (1989). Visuals for Information, Research and practice. Englewood Cliffs. N.J. (USA): Educational Technology Publications, p. 146.
  4. Avgerinou, M. D. (2001). Towards A Visual Literacy Index. In R. E. Griffin, V. S. Villiams & L. Jung (Eds.) Exploring the Visual Future: Art Design, Science & Technology. (pp. 17-26). Loretto, PA: IVLA, p. 26
  5. Pettersson, R. (2012a). Information Design 3. Image Design. Tullinge: Institute for Infology. <>, p. 21-27
  6. Pettersson, R. (2012a). Information Design 3. Image Design. Tullinge: Institute for Infology. <>, p. 44–47
  7. Pettersson, R. (2012b). Information Design 2. Text Design. Tullinge: Institute for Infology. <>, p. 31
  8. Avgerinou, M. D. (2003). A mad-tea party no-more: Revisiting the visual literacy definition problem.  In R. E. Griffin, V.S. Williams, & L. Jung (Eds.) Turning Trees (pp. 29041).  Loretto, PA: IVLA.
  9. Avgerinou, M. D. & Pettersson, R. (2011). Toward a Cohesive Theory of Visual Literacy. Journal of Visual Literacy, 30, 2, 1–19. <>
  10. Avgerinou, M. D. & Pettersson, R. (2011). Toward a Cohesive Theory of Visual Literacy. Journal of Visual Literacy, 30, 2, 1–19. <>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *