Why Visual Literacy Is More Important Than Ever & 5 Ways to Cultivate It

November 7th, 2015 No Comments Features


Last year, Nick Sousanis became the first PhD student at Columbia University to complete a dissertation entirely in comic-book form.

He got the idea while pursuing interdisciplinary studies at Columbia’s Teachers College. Drawing on his old habit of sketching cartoons, he pitched the idea of a “visual thesis” to the graduate commitee, explaining that he could “make complex arguments through that medium that he couldn’t with words alone.”

“It was clear to him and his advisers that his knowledge was best expressed in visual form,” says Ruth Vinz, Sousanis’s main adviser, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “His major goal wasn’t to disrupt the typical dissertation format, but instead to create meaning the best way he could.”

Soon after, an editor at Harvard University Press caught wind of Sousanis’s project and asked him to expand it into a book. Unflattening, which came out this May, illustrates (quite literally) the science of perception and the history of image through the ideas of Eratosthenes, Copernicus, Descartes, and many others. But it’s not a book “with” illustrations; it’s a book of illustrations. And it’s meant to be read and absorbed just as seriously a text is meant to be read and absorbed.

In fact, Sousanis’s editor, Sharmila Sen, says one of the book’s goals is to challenge the notion that serious ideas require words: “For centuries, words have been considered the superior currency of intellect. So much so that our reliance on the written word, like any other kind of dominant perspective, is so pervasive that we don’t even realise our role in perpetuating it.”

Sousanis isn’t trying to devalue the written word. He only wants to point out that there are other possibilities, and hopes his work advances the conversation about what he calls the “narrowness of the education system.”

“I think people can respond to it,” he explains. “I made a real purposeful effort from the beginning to take out all the language, the specialised vocabulary, that might keep one audience out and include one other audience. I handled all that with both visual and verbal metaphor so somebody could read it and they wouldn’t have to be in the field I was in but get a good grasp on it. They could get into the work and stay with the work and not be turned off it. People have sent me pictures of where the book has been shelved and it has been stacked with (Veronica Roth’s YA) Divergent series. It’s been shelved in philosophy. It’s been shelved in science. It’s kind of an odd one to characterise.”

But the fact that it’d hard to characterise is what makes it so educational. Sen says there are many comics that are talked about by intellectuals, and there are many articles and books written about visual literacy. But it’s always words that are used to communicate these ideas. In Unflattening, Sousanis has opened up a new world of possibility by using images to talk about images.

“The book makes your brain work on two planes, almost bilingually,” adds Sen. “That pushes us intellectually, cognitively. I feel like this book does that for me, and I really hope it does for others, too.”

But is this the definition of visual literacy educators have been working with since John Debes coined the term in 1969? No, not quite. Visual literacy has acquired a different meaning in recent years, and while Sousanis might have had similar insights fifty years ago, it’s more likely they’re a product of the times–specifically, the Age of the Internet.

Why Visual Literacy Is Important Right Now

According to a report released in May, we currently upload and share 1.8 billion photos every single day. On Instagram alone, 20 billion photos have been uploaded since 2010. The Internet has completely revolutionised the way images serve communication.

“Pictures are no longer precious; there are just too many of them,” writes Jessi Hempel for Fortune Magazine. “Once collected and preserved as art, or to document memories, they are now emerging as a new language, one that promises to be both more universally understood and accessible to anyone.”

And with new language comes new thought.

Classical and medieval theories of memory and learning, for example, placed a strong emphasis on how the visual format of words and lines affected the ordering of information in the mind. According to researchers, educators, museum professionals, filmmakers, and artists, visual literacy can improve one’s creativity, critical thinking, educational achievement, empathy towards others, and ability to decipher technology.

Anticipating a kind of image-driven cultural renaissance, Hempel draws an interesting parallel between the Internet and the printing press:

“In the 1400s, Europeans were considered literate if they could spell their names– and 80% could not. Then came the printing press. Within a century, people could read and write in growing numbers, and the literate were able to express complex ideas in writing. This mass shift in literacy ushered in progress in science, general education, and the arts. We are now entering a similar period for images. Our smartphones and the Internet that enables them are the modern-day equivalent to movable type, and these tools are still very new.”

At the Toledo Museum of Art, Bill Kennedy is currently conducting research to learn more about how visual literacy affects the way students think.

“Nearly 30% of the brain’s cortex is devoted to visual processing,” he says. “More than the other human senses. The optic nerve has over a million nerve fibers. Ninety percent of all the information we take in from the world we take in visually. With so much of the brain’s cortex devoted to visual processing, it is logical that visual literacy is the key sensory literacy.”

Kennedy has created his own visual literacy curriculum through the Toledo Museum of Art, which involves training students to understand their own viewing process. One important distinction he makes is between “looking” and “seeing.”

“Looking and seeing are the same thing, right? What is the difference between these two actions?” he says. “If visual literacy is the ability to read, write, and comprehend visual language, then looking at an image is similar to skimming a text while seeing an image is comparable to reading it.”

So how does someone move from looking at an image to fully seeing it? “As you begin to slow down and look closer, you will begin to make note of the different elements in the image. This is called observing– the process of building a catalog of visual elements– and is the bridge between looking and seeing.”

One reason why twenty-first century students need to master this type of thinking is so that they can understand the way they are affected by media.

“It’s as important to be visually literate, to understand pictures and how they affect us, as it is to be word-literate,” Kennedy says. “Many of us employ visual language, often without realising it. Being fluent in the language of images gives us an advantage at school, at work, and at home.”

You can watch Kennedy’s Ted Talk:

Can Visual Literacy Be Taught?

James Sturm, cofounder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, says it’s only a matter of time before more universities have visual literacy programs.

“Today’s world is so visual, and research has shown the importance of images in remembering concepts and absorbing information,” he explains. “Applied comics are being used in business planning sessions to encourage new ways of thinking and in medicine to improve the way doctors and patients communicate.”

New York Times art critic Roberta Smith agrees that we need to place more emphasis on visual learning. While society expects us to develop a high level of verbal literacy, she says, visual literacy and visual IQ are essentially perceived as useless.

“We don’t teach what I’d call visual literacy. We teach the other kind. I think it would be pretty amazing if art history were taught in public schools from an early age.”

Francoise Mouly, Art Editor of the New Yorker’s “TOON” book comics, thinks there’s probably a lot of support for visual literacy, but that educators don’t know where to start when it comes to teaching it.

“In the best of all worlds, everyone would grow up being able to spend time in museums, looking at paintings, and so on,” Mouly says in a recent interviewing“>interview with GOOD Magazine. “But it doesn’t always go that way. There is often more of a focus on words. And educators, parents, and librarians are often more comfortable with words because that’s how they’ve been trained. So, even if they’ve been told at some educational conference or online that comics are good for kids and reading, a number have said to me, ‘I don’t know how to read comics or graphic novels. I don’t know how to choose them.'”

In fact, Mouly says, they often give things to students that are actually visually unhelpful.

“There’ll be a block of text, and a picture that illustrates what the text says,” she explains by example. “Now, if you’re a kid, you go for what’s most efficient. If it’s already shown in the picture, you don’t need to read the text. You’re not getting anything extra by reading the words. A lot of what are actually proposed as books for children don’t have that dance between the words and the pictures.”

When her own son was learning to read, Mouly was given primers that would show, for instance, a picture of a cat in front of a door and say, “The cat is in front of the door.” Or “The cat goes out the door,” with a picture of the cat going out the door.

“Now what’s the reason to read the words if you already know the story? There’s no humour or narrative drive, playfulness, none of the things that anyone in her right mind would be motivated by.”

It’s clear that teaching visual literacy is more than just using visual aids or Power Point slides. So if educators are going to try teaching the real thing, where should they begin? Here are five ideas to get you started.

5 Ways to Cultivate Visual Literacy

1. Present photos without captions.

Frank W. Baker, author of three books, including Media Literacy In the K-12 Classroom, likes to present students with an iconic image or photo without its caption. It could be an image from current news, history, or popular culture. “Of course students will have no context and in many cases, no prior knowledge,” he says. “That’s OK. Imagine students are looking at a picture of the Hindenburg disaster. With no caption to read, they are forced to look only at the photo, and to make judgements and inferences.” Students can research the photographer and the circumstances surrounding how the image came to become iconic. “Our students now are constant consumers of visual information,” Baker adds. “These skills are vital to their critical thinking, problem-solving, and effective citizenship.”

2. Teach graphic design alongside poetry.

Mouly, talking about James Sturm: “I heard him say that we think of comics as words and pictures, but he thinks of them as graphic design and poetry. And that’s really well said because the visuals in comics are spare in way that’s more like design as a discipline. It’s more than just lines and illustration; it’s boiled down to an essence– idea-pictures. Similarly, the words are not this flow of words, but rather this small number of words, meant to have an evocative meaning. Put together, it can be an essential tool for understanding the way we are affected by the material we process.”

3. Stop using “visual aids.”

Why must visual material always be seen as a supplementary form of communication? Even comic books and graphic novels, says Nick Sousanis, tend to be used as a “gateway to other forms of literacy,” which only limits their potential. Let visual material stand firmly on its own.

4. Stop labeling students as “visual learners.”

We are all visual learners. Here’s proof: Researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center’s Department of Neuroscience found that we learn to read by adding words to our “visual dictionary” (that’s right, not our “literal dictionary”). In their previous work, the researchers had shown that the area in the left side of the visual cortex–roughly behind the left ear–seemed to have a visual dictionary that recognised whole words as images. The visual word form area (VWFA), as it’s called, is opposite a similar brain area on the right side, called the fusiform face area (FFA), that quickly recognises faces. In their latest study, the researchers found that the VWFA recognises entire words at once, like a face, rather than by working them out phonetically.

The sooner teachers abandon the dusty old Learning Styles Theory and realise we all learn visually, the sooner our students will be empowered to become visually literate.

5. Practise representing serious ideas without words.

Even Sousanis didn’t think, at first, that his images would be taken seriously without a traditional amount of supporting text. He told Inside Higher Ed that he had trouble believing a Harvard Press editor was interested in his work at all. But Sen recognised his cause: not all serious ideas require words, and many are better off without them. We need to teach our students this as well. Language is, and always will be, the ultimate form of communication. But visual communication deserves much more respect than it is given, and can serve education in so many ways that the written word can’t. Let’s work to appreciate this, and help visual literacy spread beyond its boundaries as a dusty old 20th century invention.


Saga has taught and tutored writing at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels. Her educational interests include psychology, creativity, and system reform. She earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and lives in Portland, Oregon, USA.

You can reach her on Google+, @sagamilena or saga.briggs@gmail.com.

Leave a Reply