Visual Literacy by Katherine Seiffert
(Katherine is an undergraduate student majoring in journalism and international studies at Miami University; she designed the interface for Innovations.)
While often our current propensity to think via visual images is attributed to the proliferation of media technology in the recent past, the visual has been, of course, an integral part of human communication and understanding for thousands of years. From early cave paintings to artwork on cathedral walls that formed a "textbook in stone" of Christian theology and myth, visual images proved to be the only effective way to communicate with the verbally illiterate masses (Platt 7). Nowadays, with verbal literacy rates so high, visual literacy is not viewed as a vital form of communication. In truth, it is so vital a form that "computer-based communication," which includes visual elements, "has been called the 'fourth cognitive revolution' after speaking, writing, and printing" (Stafford 92).
Verbal literacy refers to the ability to read and write. Visual literacy extends verbal literacy to include perceptions of visual experiences such as body language, photography, computer and advertising images, and television, to name but a few (Platt 8). At a 1970 conference concerning visual literacy described by Platt, participants defined it as
a group of vision competencies a human being can develop by seeing at the same time he has and integrates other sensory experiences. The development of those competencies is fundamental to normal human learning. When developed, they enable a visually literate person to discriminate and interpret the visible actions, objects, and/or 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. (Platt 8)
In simpler terms, visual literacy is the capacity to collect and decipher information communicated visually. Images can be "read as texts" just as, through the use of imagination, texts can be read as images (Joyce 24).
Imagination is often regarded as one's ability to conjure images as one reads texts. With the recent increase in visual modes of communication and understanding, the definition of imagination has shifted to include one's ability to create textual ideas from images. For example, upon viewing a surrealist painting, the viewer theorizes the meaning, purpose, place in history, etc. of such an image.
But we don't simply read analytically, by theorizing. The imagination deciphers textual meaning by creating pictures in the mind. And imagination is essential to verbal literacy. Art historian Barbara Stafford states that "images not only possess a cognitive quotient but they can refine our imaginative, emotional, and spiritual lives, make us intelligent in the body and sympathetic in the mind" ( Stafford 17). If, then, one utilizes and develops one's imagination through images, doing so can only augment verbal accuity.
Since "understanding, plotting, navigating, recreating knowledge structures is the essence of learning," it is important to create multiple, diverse outlets for fostering visual and verbal literacy (Joyce 43). Therein lies the importance of integrating images into the traditionally text-based environment. Educators who are conscious of the "range of experiences offered by visual literacy can encourage and teach sensitivity to visual images and thus help expand their students' powers of perception and expression" (Platt 9). Furthermore, it is essential to incorporate images that promote participatory observation rather than receptive watching (Stafford 76), offering images that require viewers to participate physically, emotionally, and/or intellectually.
Receptive watching is often the result of watching television as the viewer is complacent and accepts the images and information without interaction. Educators should be wary of using television or any form of visual media accompanied with spoken word in the classroom as it "involves immediate recognition and reaction, often without time for critical judgment" (Platt 12). A lack of "critical judgment" leaves little room for organic, self-motivated learning. As Platt states, "television poses the threat of becoming a shortcut to thought and reasoning" (12).
While receptive watching will not enhance one's visual literacy, participatory watching will. According to Fransecky, "a good visual statement [. . .] begins with an underlying idea—a kind of deep structure—from which the communicator develops a surface structure visual presentation" (8). By presenting an array of visual media—paintings, photography, abstract images, and innovative films—educators will enable critical thinking, the foremost purpose of developing one's capacity to read visual materials. For instance, if students are presented with an abstract painting, there will not be a clear-cut answer regarding the artist's purpose. Merely because it is abstract in form, viewers will construct various, differing ideas concerning the abstract painting and thus enable critical thinking and text-based imagination. That is the goal of visual literacy: to develop critical thinking and imagination, further exercising verbal literacy skills. "[T]he main objective of visual literacy is to give new dimensions to each individual's perception and expression, not to substitute one rigidly defined dimension [textuality, or the visual world] for another" (Platt 25).
Fransecky, Roger. Visual Literacy: A Way to Learn—A Way to Teach. Washington, D.C.: Association for Educational Communications and Technology. 1972.
Joyce, Michael. Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 1995.
Platt, Joan M. Visual Literacy. Washington, D.C.: National Education Association of the United States. 1975.
Stafford, Barbara Maria. Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images. London: MIT Press. 1996.
[Proceed to COMMENTARY on this essay by Olin Bjork, Assistant Director Computer Writing and Research Lab, Division of Rhetoric and Composition, University of Texas at Austin]