Lesson 1: Introduction to Visual Literacy

Why is visual literacy important?

While all of us have learned to interpret, analyze, evaluate, and create written texts in our education systems, not many of us had any official training when it comes to interpreting, analyzing, evaluating, and creating visual messages.

In our personal and professional lives, images are all around us. We see them in the newspaper while we eat breakfast, on television, in the form of billboards, logos, and as bumper stickers as we drive to work. We also see visuals in magazines we read, they are the paintings that hang on our walls, and we see them on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, news sites, and other websites we use throughout the day.

It is therefore ironic that most of us never learned the conventions, principles, rules, and influence that these visuals can have on us and our society. Visuals often convey strong emotions to us and can therefore be quite powerful. For example, images of wars can have an impact on public opinion. Most of us probably remember images of the Vietnamese war, such as the young girl running away from a bombed area after a Napalm attack. You may also remember the 1994 image of the young Sudan girl starving from hunger in the Sudan famine with a vulture nearby her. This image sparked up many debates about the ethics of creators of visuals. You likely also remember visuals from Abu Ghraib and how these were the root of many debates in society. Sometimes an image is really worth more than a 1000 words.

We often find visuals more convincing compared to text. We often do not believe something until we see it. Yet, visuals can also be Photoshopped and doctored and have little correspondence with reality. It is therefore important that we analyze and evaluate these images before we use or share them.

Visuals are not only omnipresent in our society, Bamford (2003) states that visuals are also becoming one of the main forms of communication across a range of instructional resources that are delivered across a range of media and platforms.

According to Clark and Lyons (2011), people can learn better from visuals and words combined than from words alone when they are used effectively. These authors write that some training materials are a wall of words. In these instructional materials, visuals may be completely absent. In our school-systems, verbal language skills are usually emphasized over our visual language skills. It is therefore not surprising that we may find it easier to express ourselves with words rather than with visuals, even though we may respond more readily to visuals (Clark & Lyons, 2011).

Reflection activity:

Write down which visuals you saw since you woke up today. How many different types of visuals did you come across? Which different purposes did these visuals have? Were they mainly aimed to inform you about something, persuade you, entertain you, teach you, or did they have another purpose?