Visual literacy

A 21st century skill

Reading and writing is relatively new to us. Before the written word we would exchange information through painting on walls and later develop logographic systems enabling us to record historical events and communicate to our social groups.

As societies became more complex (around 3200 BCE), laws, trade and administration evolved early systems in to a more permanent one — the writing of language, allowing the reader to encode with great accuracy an articulation using a phoneme system known as the alphabet.

My regard for language systems stemmed recently from a game my son enjoys playing to liven up a trip to the supermarket. He reels off names of brands by recognising their logo or typeface on packaging and signs. It strikes me how many he can recall and his depth of knowledge for each product.

“Our language abilities do not define the limits of our cognition” — Elliot W. Eisener

In children, language skills are the primary avenues for cognitive development enabling the ability to share experiences and discoveries in social environments. We learn the alphabet through these emerging literacy skills, recognising pictures, attaching a visual cue to a meaning and retelling the story.

For a child getting to grips with the complexities of basic literacy, what does it mean to learn in a culture where one of the most important systems is the communication of visual information?

Like reading and writing, visual literacy is a learned skill and something that should be embedded in education from an early age. Our frequent and daily intake of images provide us with vast libraries of meaningful messages and ideas that we decode and connect with. Why have a conversation when you can tweet or take a picture of what you mean? Delivery of raw, up to the minute media streams give us both the ability to form an informed immediate opinion and the opportunity to entirely misinterpret their meaning.

Visual language systems are much broader than other language models and being visually literate makes for more accurate, well rounded judgement.

Martin Scorsese, in a recent Jefferson lecture in the Humanities entitled ‘Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema’ presented a case for visual literacy to be taught in school -

“We’re face-to-face with images all the time in a way that we never have been before. Young people need to understand that not all images are out there to be consumed like, you know, fast food and then forgotten. We need to educate them to understand the difference between moving images that engage their humanity and their intelligence, and moving images that are just selling them something.” —

Connectivity has given us entirely new ways to share our experiences and for the viewer, a need for an increased knowledge of visual literacy is key to allow information to be read correctly.

As an image maker this recent reflection has reinforced the notion that we all have a responsibilty to cut through a sea of complicated messages and ideas with a degree of clarity, conviction and honesty.