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Introduction to Visual Literacy: Learning and Visual Literacy

This guide introduces visual literacy and why it is important. It discusses how to think about, use, and create images and visual media, and provides links to important resources.

Created by Health Science Librarians

Learning and Visual Literacy Introduction

Learning and Visual Literacy

Learning and literacy are closely related. Literacy can be defined as proficiency, or “the ability to comprehend or articulate”  (Apkon, page 37).  According to Stephen Apkon, “true literacy is always a two-way transaction. We don’t just consume; we produce. We don’t just read; we write.” (p. 39).

This definition is consistent with a constructionist view of learning, according to which learning is an active process in which learners construct new understandings and knowledge by integrating new experiences into their existing knowledge structures. 

Visual literacy and reading/writing literacy

Reading and writing continue to be vitally important to education. Education professor and researcher MaryAnne Wolf writes that the “emphases of digital media on efficient, massive information processing… and seemingly endless forms of digitally based entertainment…can be less suited for the slower, more time-consuming cognitive processes that are vital for contemplative life and that are at the heart of what we call deep reading.”  "Deep reading" is an important antidote to unreflective consumption of images and media. Deep reading requires active participation and therefore promotes active learning and deeper understanding.

But this doesn't diminish the importance of visual and media literacies. Just as "deep reading" engages us in reflecting on our reading experience, visual literacy involves reflecting on our media experiences. Because visual media can be so easily consumed passively, visual literacy is critically important.  Visual literacy involves awareness of and reflection on what we experience when we view images, video, and other forms of multimedia. 

The possibility of integrating visual literacy skills with reading and writing literacies has huge implications for learning as well as for teaching. Wolf advocates “parallel development of multiple literacies” that can help students ask and think about “deeper questions and new, never-before-articulated thoughts.”  Rather than competing with each other, multiple literacies complement and reinforce each other– and give a person greater facility in processing different kinds of information – thus facilitating effective learning in a variety of situations.

Visual thinking and the big picture

In almost all people, visual and verbal literacies operate together.*  Visual thinking contributes the ability to see the big picture –  to provide context and an understanding of relationships. This is why visual thinking is important to creativity.

According to Ann Marie Seward Barry, visual thinking "has its own holistic logic... which operates on every level of awareness from subliminal perceptual process to holistic creative thinking, which allows us to consciously combine different element in new and surprising ways."

Visual literacy and teaching

Evidence from neuroscience indicates that presenting information in multiple ways helps learners because it engages multiple channels for processing the information presented. According to neuroscientist Louis Cozolino, “learning is enhanced through multichannel processing… because we have an amazing capacity for visual memory, written or spoken information paired with visual  information results in better recall.” (Cozolino, 2013)  Of course, the effectiveness of visual materials presented depends on their design. 

* For examples of cases in which brain damage has disrupted the connection between these kinds of thinking, see Sacks (1998)

Developing Visual Literacy

Developing visual literacy 

The following diagram represents one way of looking at developing visual literacy, divided into three aspects. This is obviously a very simplistic interpretation of an extremely complex process, intended to provide a useful approach to looking at complex issues. It is not a scientific description of what happens in the brain.

The three activities shown above roughly correspond to the sequence of input-processing-output. Of course, all these activities go on all the time, but representing them sequentially may make it easier to think about. 

Visual message awareness:  Just being aware of visual messages starts a process of reflecting on our visual experiences which develops visual literacy. See "About Visual Message Awareness" below. 

Visual thinking:  Visual thinking includes working with images in our imagination as well as on paper or on the computer. Visual brainstorming techniques, such as clustering and mind mapping, are examples of ways to think visually. Visual brainstorming is described in the next section. 

Creating and communicating: Developing skills in design and visual media tools help us communicate visually. This important aspect of visual literacy is described in Section 4 of this guide.    

Learning to use tools to create visual media not only helps us express our ideas creatively, it also helps us understand the visual media we see as consumers and how it was created. That is the reason the above diagram shows a loop going back from “Creating and Communicating” to “Visual Message Awareness.”   

About Visual Message Awareness

Visual message awareness includes the ability to pay attention to what we experience, and to critically reflect on it.  

Attention is important to visual literacy.  Authors like artist Frederick Frank in The Zen of Seeing and photographer Freeman Patterson in Photography and the Art of Seeing point out that attention (or mindfulness) is key to their approaches to art (and living). Just noticing visual forms that we see each day can make us more visually literate. Attention is especially important in photography, which aims to "capture the moment."

In the realm of media messages, paying attention to what is happening as it happens is a necessary prerequisite to critically reflecting on it.

Critical reflection is important for understanding the ways in which visual messages are trying to persuade us. If we don't reflect on what we are seeing, we are likely to be influenced and manipulated by stories without being aware of it. According to neuroscientist Louis Cozolino, stories “are powerful organizing forces that serve to perpetuate both healthy and unhealthy forms of self-identity” (Cozolinas, p. 167).

Analysis of the ways in which consumers can be manipulated through media messages is beyond the scope of this guide. For more information see Ewen (2008) and Barry (1997).