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"
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
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"
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
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