“Visual literacy”

The phrase “visual literacy” is one that is often bandied about these days, and has begun to grate on my nerves a bit — if only because it is a bit vague and vacuous in meaning. The phrase at this point is basically being used to mean a familiarity with anything that is an image and (usually) not text.

However, what kind of “literacy” is this exactly? The range of things covered by this term include vastly disparate material: diagrams, paintings, graphs, websites, comics, etc.

Not all of these items are processed in a similar way, and “literacy” for one does not necessarily equate with “literacy” for another. For example, I know people who are highly fluent in reading the visual language of comics, yet find “infographics” like flow charts mind-numbingly opaque (and vice-versa).

Such a phrase implies 1) that visual communication and expression is homogenous, and any diversity is washed over by its shared virtue of being “visual”, and 2) that comprehension of one of these forms equates to or leads to equal understanding of the others.

This seems far from the case. The various things that are covered by this term have very different motivating structures and properties, and comprehension with one does not necessarily lead to the same skills with others (and especially does not imply that for production). Really, what we have is a number of disparate forms that each involve their own forms of fluency independently, despite a shared visual modality.

The implication that such diversity is homogenous is a kind of orientalism — likely just a view embodied from a culture entrenched in a verbal modality that is still grasping at a method of communication that it doesn’t yet fully embrace or understand.


  • Hi Neil,

    This is a bit long for a blog comment, in fact it’s almost a treatise in itself, but you post triggered a bunch of thoughts and helped me think through some issues that I think are very important.

    My brother, a research scientist, once said to me that “science is always ahead of language.” By this, he meant that the nature of science is to explore things that we don’t have words for yet, because they are new. I believe that you are seeing this term more frequently because more people are beginning to explore the visual modality. There is a need for a vocabulary or terminology for discussing these things and I think you can contribute significantly to this if you wish to do so.

    As one of those people who is using the term “visual literacy” fairly frequently, I’d like to respond to your thoughts and share my definition of the term.

    I agree fully with your assertion that we live in “a culture entrenched in a verbal modality that is still grasping at a method of communication that it doesn’t yet fully embrace or understand.” Since I was trained as an artist and work professionally as a visual communicator, I think I stand on your side of that great divide, that is, I don’t see myself as “entrenched in a verbal modality.”
    So I am not sure that my use and definition of the term “visual literacy” is one of those that are troubling you. However I can only speak for myself and my own use of the term, as well as why I think it’s an important one, and why I hope that it will continue to feature prominently in public conversations, especially with regard to education.

    I do intend a specific meaning when I discuss visual literacy, which you may find perfectly reasonable, and which I believe is neither vague or vacuous. I will be interested to read your response after reading my explanation.

    First I’d like to draw a distinction between literacy, fluency, and comprehension. By most definitions, literacy is the ability to read and write, fluency is the ability to do so eloquently, or with great skill, and comprehension is the ability to understand or interpret meaning. Plotted on a learning curve, I would say that comprehension comes first, then literacy, followed by fluency.

    I define literacy as the ability to read and write in a given medium. By this definition, to comprehend, to be an educated or informed reader, even a fluent reader, is not enough: To be literate one must be able to both read and write. So when I say visual literacy, I mean the ability to both “read” (that is, decipher or interpret) visual media, as well as “write” (that is, craft meaningful statements, formulate propositions, draft narratives, etc.) using visual media.

    This begs the question “What do I mean by visual media?” I define visual media as any information that is primarily “read” with the eyes. Unfortunately this does include text and all written language, which can result in some confusion. Clearly visual media includes written text, but literacy in written language is already well-covered by the term “literacy,” so visual literacy clearly stands for something greater.

    Let’s put that point aside for the moment and say (I think we can agree on this) that visual media are those media which are primarily visual, and which may or may not involve text, across a diverse array of disciplines such as photography, painting, film, comics, information graphics and flow charts.

    These media are certainly different in many ways. However they also are underpinned by many commonalities, which you might call foundational principles or fundamentals. For example, an understanding of Gestalt theory (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gestalt_psychology), which deals with the way we see and understand patterns, can be useful in any kind of visual composition.

    The search for this set of common foundations is my current focus, so I have done quite a bit of thinking about it. I’ll admit that right now this idea (that there is a set of common foundations) is a belief, a theory that I have. I am not sure that there is broad agreement on whether there is a common set of principles, and even if people do believe that these principles exist, there is still a long way to go before we will have agreement on exactly what those principles are.
    However I think the search is important. Such a set of fundamentals might serve as a foundation for an educational curriculum in visual thinking or visual literacy that starts in grade school and goes through college. It also could provide a basis for future scientific and literary development, in the same way that Euclid’s geometry formed a foundation for scientific development, including the work of Galileo, Kepler and Newton. In addition it could result in a common vocabulary that could enable critique and comparison between different visual forms.

    Your observation that our society is entrenched in a verbal modality, with which I agree strongly, is one of the reasons I think the investigation is worth pursuing.

    If this premise (a set of fundamentals common to all visual media) is true, you might expect to find people who work in more than one visual medium, or move between media with some success. And this is in fact the case. Alfred Hitchcock began his career as an illustrator. Andy Warhol made both paintings and also films. David Lynch makes films and also paintings. Richard Saul Wurman, one of the world’s foremost information designers, studied architecture before emerging as an information designer. You might say that these people are phenomenally gifted and not fair to use as an example, but the principle holds true at many levels. At my company, XPLANE, for example, we have designers who make award-winning information graphics, including charts and maps, during the day, and in the evenings draw comics, for which they are also internationally recognized. The link between comics and film is obvious – Frank Miller is an example of a comic artist who has translated his skills into excellence in filmmaking. I myself have created comics, paintings, and information graphics, including charts, maps and other graphic forms.

    There is also some precedent in college art education. Many art schools have some sort of foundation program where all students take a set of basic subjects before determining a major. These foundation programs often include drawing from life, graphic design, color theory and typography.

    You say that the phrase “visual literacy” implies two things: First, that visual communication and expression is homogenous, and second, that comprehension of one of these forms equates to, or leads to, equal understanding of the others.

    This may be true of some usages but I don’t think it applies to visual literacy in the way I am using the term. You may agree, but in case you don’t, I will take these in turn.

    First, that visual communication and expression is homogenous, and any diversity is washed over by its shared virtue of being “visual.” I can’t speak for others, but I myself make no such claim. There is an incredibly diverse array of visual forms, possibly as diverse as the array of verbal languages and dialects that are spoken around the world. At the same time, they do share the property of being visual media. To state that a property is shared is not to dismiss diversity. Someone can be literate without speaking every language. Someone can also be literate in one language without being conversant in every written form. For example, I consider myself literate. I can read and write English. But that does not mean that I can write a scientific research paper, legal document, newspaper article, essay, novel and every other form, nor does it mean that I wash over those differences by their shared virtue of being English.

    You mention people that are “highly fluent in reading the visual language of comics, yet find “infographics” like flow charts mind-numbingly opaque (and vice-versa).”

    In this instance, to determine if we are really speaking about literacy, I think it’s important to differentiate between mind-numbing and opaque.

    Something can be mind-numbing, yet readable. For example, I am fluent in English yet find some kinds of documents mind-numbing. This does not mean that they are opaque, at least in the sense that they are indecipherable. On the contrary I COULD decipher many of them, but because they are mind-numbing I choose not to do so.

    I would venture that some of the people you describe, who for example are highly fluent in reading comics, might find flow-charts mind-numbing but not opaque in the sense that they are inscrutable.

    Second, you imply the assumption that “comprehension of one of these forms equates to, or leads to, equal understanding of the others.” Again I refer to the distinction in terms (comprehension vs. literacy) that I mentioned in the first paragraph. If you are indeed speaking about literacy here, then we may disagree on this point.

    There is certainly a wide variety of visual forms, and I agree that they are processed differently and often require different kinds of reading skills. Certain forms are easier to read than others. A film, because of its verisimilitude, might be easier to read than a comic, which in turn might be easier to read than a complex data visualization.

    I do NOT believe that comprehension of one form (or literacy in one form) equates to an equal ability with regard to other forms.

    However I DO believe that literacy skills achieved in one discipline may be transferable to other disciplines, and thus may lead to easier assimilation of new skills that build upon the old. When you are learning to read a new visual form, you don’t necessarily start from scratch each time. For example, learning to “read” 3D perspective is a skill that can be applied to photography, painting, comics and film. Learning to read values along an axis can be applied to many forms, including data graphs, maps, rulers and measuring cups.

    At a higher level, I’d like to address why I think visual literacy is an important concept and why it’s important to talk about it.
    As you point out, we live in a culture that’s entrenched in a verbal modality. As you also add, that culture is grasping at a method it doesn’t embrace or fully understand. I fully agree.

    The question we should ask is “Why are people grasping at this unfamiliar and perhaps even uncomfortable method?” I believe it’s because people are starting to realize that in a world that’s becoming more and more information-rich, the old ways of processing information, the old ways of learning, may not be sufficient. And in the visual modality they see an opportunity.

    Elements of this grasping are more evident in the younger generations. You can see the evidence on Myspace, Youtube, and in classrooms around the country, where children are turning in their homework as PowerPoint presentations. These experiments by younger generations is putting more pressure on their elders to reach out and explore this new modality.

    I believe that when it comes to visual culture, we are at the stage that written culture was in Medieval Europe, when only the priests and aristocracy – the people in power – could read and write. Literacy in that time was tantamount to control of the media, which gave those in power an advantage when it came to government, law and persuasion of the masses. Today it’s the same story with visual culture, except instead of priests we have the media, the entertainment industry, and the advertising industry. As a culture we can read visual form but we can’t write them, which puts us at a disadvantage and makes it easier for people with high fluency to manipulate us.

    I see this emerging discussion, with all its flaws and misuse of terms, as an opportunity. New things are never fully understood at first, and when people grasp at new concepts they mispronounce, stumble, and make many mistakes. They also invent new words sometimes.

    And yes, to people who are experts, highly fluent, such fumbling attempts to use a new form can be grating and irritating. But this is the only path that’s possible if true literacy in these visual modalities is to become part of mainstream society and culture.

  • Thanks for the reply Dave. While I commiserate with your thoughts, I have numerous responses, most of which will attempt to clarify my original point…

    I disagree with your characterization of “literacy, comprehension, and fluency.” Fluency is the capacity to have comprehension in a particular language. If I am fluent in a language, it means that I’m able to understand and/or speak it with a certain level of comprehensiveness, regardless of eloquence.

    Literacy is the ability to read and write in a language’s writing system. Up until 100 years ago, 90% of the world was (and much still is) illiterate, but 100% of normal humans are fluent in their respective native languages.

    This is important because “literacy” as it applies to “visual literacy” conflates “fluency” (acquired effortlessly) with “literacy” (acquired through explicit teaching), which is another reflection of a “writing system”-centric culture.

    I think that our disagreement about homogeneity comes at where to place the “common principles.” While I do think that “visual media” might have “common principles”, I think that those universals are not in the media but in the mind — as are the root of differences between those forms.

    Gestalts are distinctions of the mind, but only cover how perception organizes visual information. The type you’re talking about does not connect to how those visual forms create meaning — which to me is the far more important and interesting question about human expression and comprehension. You cannot base a theory of “literacy” or “fluency” on Gestalts alone, because it doesn’t tell you much about the extraction of meaning (and thus can’t tell you about communication).

    Placing the difference between these forms in the mind is important, because it means that fluency is in the mind only. It also means that differences in fluency within the mind correspond to the heterogeneity of visual media — which is why I don’t think that fluency for one necessitates fluency for the other.

    And, while you list off several people who are skilled in several domains, isolated examples don’t necessarily lead to generalizations. I know people who have gone to art school who I could tell were just barely productively fluent in sequential narratives, though they were highly proficient in aspects of design — despite having majored in “Sequential Art”!

    But, the same could be said of any skill set within a domain. You could say that proficiency in one sport leads to proficiency in others, and give examples of multi-sport athletes like Bo Jackson and (kind of) Michael Jordan. But, just because you can sink a three-pointer doesn’t mean you can hit a baseball (and vice-versa) or kick a field goal.

  • Hi Neil,
    Thanks for the clarifications. Since you and I agree on some issues and disagree on others. I think it makes sense to articulate those points here, both for my own clarification and because I believe they relate to the subject at hand.

    Fluency: I am happy to accept your definition for the purposes of this discussion. If I understand you correctly, fluency is a property that’s acquired naturally, like speaking, whereas a writing system, required for literacy, must be taught. So, for example, a person could be fluent in a language while also being illiterate.

    Where (I think) we agree and disagree (please correct any misconceptions!):


    1. We agree to make a distinction between natural languages and other systems such as constructed or formal languages, where natural languages are those which
    – a. have evolved over time,
    – b. whose rules are not defined by an “inventor” but rather are based on observation, and
    – c. which codify rather than dictate the way the language is used.

    2. Our definitions of language, while they may differ in some respects, both include the possibility that such a thing as a visual language could, indeed, exist.

    3. We also both believe that such a thing as a *natural* visual language could, indeed, exist.

    4. We both define literacy as the ability to read and write using a language’s writing system.


    1. Definition of language: I am not sure whether we agree or disagree. It may come down to whether you believe there is, or could be, such a thing as a non-sequential grammar. Based on previous conversations I believe you are skeptical but open to this possibility.

    2. I believe we disagree on our definitions of what is, and is not, visual language. Or (since I haven’t proposed a definition) perhaps I should say that I disagree with your definition.

    3. Although we agree on our definition of literacy, it seems that we disagree about what is, and is not, visual literacy. Since we don’t agree on a definition of visual language, it doesn’t surprise me that we would differ on what might constitute the writing system.

    However, if we agree that such a thing as a “visual language” could, indeed, exist, then it follows that “a visual language writing system” could, indeed, exist. If that’s true then such a thing as “visual literacy” could, indeed, exist.

    So, even before any particular natural visual language is observed and codified, these terms have clear and specific meaning.

    When I use the terms visual language and visual literacy, I am not constraining my point of view to a single scholarly tradition, nor am I referring to a specific visual language or a specific writing system. Rather I refer to such systems as could possibly exist. What I am advocating is not a specific point of view, or a specific definition, so much as the importance of exploring and attempting to codify such visual languages and writing systems as may exist.

    I believe you are doing important work in this area, with regard to the area we call comics. In my view this does not preclude the possibility of equally important work with regard to other visual phenomena. In addition, it does not preclude the possibility that there might be a set of common foundations; i.e., a language and accompanying writing system, that applies to more than one kind of visual media, or indeed, all visual media.

    This is not to say that I know conclusively what these languages or writing systems are, but that I believe that they are possible; that they may exist, and that they are areas worth exploring in future research.

    To have a conversation about possibilities, even if they don’t exist yet, requires some kind of vocabulary.

    So I guess for the time being I will continue to use the term visual literacy to describe an ability to read and write “visual language.”

    I hope my notes here demonstrate that my use of the term is thoughtful and specific as opposed to vague or vacuous.

  • Thanks for laying everything out like this. Let me see if I can address some fo your points…

    1. Yes, we disagree on what could constitute a “visual language,” and I DO NOT believe that a non-sequential grammar would allow for linguistic status based primarily on A) comparison to the structure of other modalities, B) developmental evidence about how people learn to draw (in sequence or not). A simple analogy can suffice here:

    Gestures: Sign Language::Non-Sequential Drawings: Visual Language

    2. Part of our disagreement about “visual literacy” is what “literacy” is meant as here. I believe that it’s a conflation of “fluency” and “literacy” (i.e. “capacity for comprehension” with “learned writing system”), and relates to…

    3. I do not believe that a “visual language writing system” exists. “Writing systems” feature a conversion of sound (or body movements) into the visual (or tactile) modality. They are, essentially, a “synaesthesia.” Visual languages feature no such conversion because they are as natural to their modality as speech is to verbal expression, and are inherently “written/drawn” with no other modality dictating their comprehension.

    That is: Visual languages have no accompanying writing system.

    4. Saying that I study “comics” betrays the paradigmatic difference between my work and your understanding of it. Even if you say you are not constraining your view to a single scholarly tradition, you still make assumptions about the graphic modality of expression that are embedded in a particular way(s) of thinking about images.

    My work inherently is guided by a different perspective about thinking about graphic expression. In the vocab of “paradigm shifts”: I’m not just providing new answers, but asking new questions. The conflict in this discussion is a reflection of the interaction between my frame of looking at things versus an older (and, in my opinion, incorrect) frame of mind.

    5. Finally, I think you’re right that our disagreement on what “visual language” means is at the heart of our disagreement in the meaning of “visual literacy.” If I may(?):

    To you, “visual language” is a wide-open term for numerous types of visual media. Thus, “visual literacy” doesn’t have any vagueness, because it’s open scope lines up with “visual language” for you.

    To me, “visual language” is a specific and constrained visual phenomenon, and other types of graphic expression are just “other non-linguistic” types with a variety of different properties. Regardless of which you assign as “language” they are not all equal in their nature. Thus, using “visual literacy” to talk about such a wide scope does remain rather hollow as a term.

  • Hi Neil,

    I’m back again! 🙂

    I like your summary in your point number five, and I think it does underline a difference in how we understand each other.

    While I may not fully grasp the specifics of your argument, especially the more technical elements, I do understand your point of view as you describe it here (Thank you!).

    I trust you will allow me to reformulate my own point of view and have done so, below.

    (Changed “you” and “me” do “Neil” and “Dave” for the sake of clarity):

    Neil: “Visual language” is a specific and constrained visual phenomenon, and other types of graphic expression are just “other non-linguistic” types with a variety of different properties. Regardless of which you assign as “language” they are not all equal in their nature. Thus, using “visual literacy” to talk about such a wide scope does remain rather hollow as a term.

    Dave: “Visual language” is a wide-open term for a phenomenon that has not yet been clearly articulated or described, although numerous attempts have been, and are being, made. The term “visual literacy” refers to the exploration of what systems and rules for “writing” might apply to such a phenomenon, if, indeed, visual language can be shown to exist. Because it is so new, any investigation of visual language as a phenomenon is likely to come with embedded assumptions based on the point of view of the investigator (regardless of who that is), and because any “angle of attack” must necessarily use languages, terms and means of description that were originally designed to describe other, previously known and understood, phenomena. As my brother (a scientist) once said to me, “science is always ahead of language.”

    I do have a bunch of thoughts/rebuttals and questions related to your other four points but have no wish to become tiresome and so I’ll hold my tongue and maybe will publish them later in another venue. 🙂

    Let me say though that there are some things in your comment that I am intrigued by and am interested to hear more about:

    1. Very much interested to hear more about the developmental evidence related to how people learn to draw, and how you interpret that in a way that supports your view that a visual grammar must be sequential.

    2. Very intrigued by your concept that visual language conflates literacy and fluency. It has sparked a number of thoughts about the various modalities and how their similarities and differences offer varying levels, and types, of constraints and opportunities.

    3. I’m wondering if you may want to consider some new terms so you can more clearly describe some of the phenomena you are investigating: for example, a term for the literacy/fluency conflation you mention which is particular to visual language. This might help you make your paradigmic differences more apparent, so that people would initially ask “What do you mean by that?” instead of launching into some kind of argument that’s fundamentally based on different understandings of the terminology.

    Thank you Neil, as always, for this engaging and stimulating discussion.

  • Hi Dave, I knew you wouldn’t stay away long! 😉

    Let me try to address your queries, most of which have been covered in other blog posts, so I’ll do a lot of linking…

    1. A lot of the papers I’ve read for developmental evidence are available in my bibliography , or under the “Child Drawing” tab in the blog. A couple posts related to the understanding of sequential images are here and here.

    2. I don’t think that visual language conflates literacy and fluency, I meant that the term “literacy” in “visual literacy” conflates them. “Visual literacy” has mixed up “comprehension” with “the ability to read and write” graphically. To me, visual language has no “literacy”, it just has “fluency” (and varying levels of it), just like any other natural language.

    3. I generally ignore the term “visual literacy” when talking about visual language specifically, and prefer “visual/graphic fluency”. I started doing this exactly because of the overly broad nature of “visual literacy.”

  • “visual language writing system” exists. “Writing systems” feature a conversion of sound into the visual (or tactile) modality can be found in Chinese language systems.

    They have at least four sound leveling for quite similar if we transliterate it into latin alphabetical, which can have different meaning and different writing characters. since i can speak literally here, i jsut put these: be be be be can have meaning ‘can not buy sell horse’

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