Visual Literacy Means Better Thinking

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about the world moving from text-based to visual communications, an underlying angst was touched upon. A fear exists that visual literacy may mean more ignorance and the general dumbing down of society as a whole.

First, let’s be clear. Visual literacy is not a new concept. It dates back to the sixties.

The recent media trend towards communicating with video, pictures and graphics has inspired people to building methods of encouraging visual literacy. The Internet world has started wrestling with this as an entire culture, but some thought leaders were earlier in driving visual media. Others have even published a strong how-to book for marketers looking to master visual in the social context.

Yet the tension remains. What will a society where people learn and communicate visually — and struggle with reading and writing — look like?

Will we become a society of ignorant fools? Will superstition and bogus news stories dominate our thinking? Will violence and polarizing behavior continue to trend upwards? Will there be so much visual bait demanding our attention that image pollution and desensitization are the next battle after content shock?

This is the End

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Context means everything in this conversation. Ignorance or lack of education has been best typified by the inability to read or write effectively, the common definition of illiteracy.

People who were bright, but didn’t know how to read or write effectively or didn’t have a college education were dubbed “street smart.” This is how we were raised to think when I was a kid (back in the neanderthal era). I know I’m not alone.

When someone from this kind of upbringing encounters an inability to speak and write well, we think illiterate. This also assumes ignorance. Afterall, the written word was the foundation of civilization, preventing us from sinking back into the Dark Ages.

This well-rooted historical view creates a prejudice steeped in an increasingly archaic definition of information literacy.

Once can come to understand concepts and communicate extremely well through other means. And if the devolving state of writing coming from most college graduates is any bellweather, let us hope some improvement in communication arises soon.

And the Beginning

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We as a species process visual information faster than than the written word. We come to understand objects as infants and toddlers well before we can read or write. I’ve heard that we understand visual information 500 to as much as 60,000 times faster than text.

Perhaps visual is the way we are meant to digest information. It’s just that historically we needed a Gutenberg press or its derivative to exchange ideas. Now we just need an S5 or an iPhone.

As we move forward into an era of visual learning and media, it could be argued those of us who only use and understand text to communicate will become the illiterate ones.

Now that’s a scary thought.

Using objects to learn from as opposed to words may lead to more and faster growth of knowledge. Those who master visual learning may be able to create and evolve ideas, concepts, and technologies faster than their counterparts in prior eras. They will need to build from a foundation of knowledge. Innovation requires understanding the current state of things, and the historical predecessors that got us to the present.

Traditionally, ideas and concepts have been retained for our reference through books, papers and articles. This was the classic role of the library. In the modern era, right or wrong we find this information through Wikipedia, Google, and other perhaps more qualified sources online.

But some search on YouTube for answers now. One of my favorite sites to search for photography information is KelbyOne. There are tons of answers to all sorts of questions, but the answers are in a video format. I prefer this kind of reference information than reading my Nikon D7100 manual or the Adobe Photoshop help guides.

Libraries recognized visual literacy well before it became hot as a trend. Microfiches, video libraries, etc. have all existed for decades. Now the visual may become the primary media form within the libraries of the future. And perhaps those libraries will only be online with a Siri-like interface much like Neal Stephenson envisioned so long ago in Snow Crash.

Part of literacy in my mind is being able to delineate quality information from bad data. In the visual world, that includes producing and consuming quality media in a loud world.

People struggle with seeing things and understanding whether they are real or fake. They think the unfiltered is filtered and vice versa. They believe the video clip rather than question if it is a screenplay. The infographic is trusted even if it doesn’t cite sources.

Separating good visual commmunication from the bad, the signal from the noise, will mark the literate mind of tomorrow.

What do you think?

  • marc zazeela

    Geoff – I think there is a place for both. Visual is probably a quicker way to communicate certain things. I think, it may be helpful in providing context.

    However, written communication is also an effective way to store and distribute information. If history is an important part of our culture (maybe it isn’t?), how to teach people about the past by using short videos or infographics?

    Cheers,
    Marc

  • Geoff you are starting a fascinating conversation. When we take the time to stop and think back on how our brains work (visually), then ask smarter questions (what are we afraid of), it allows us to see our biases.

    Is this a case where people do not understand the value of visual thinking and communicating or is it their resistance to learning “one more thing” in a world that has developed a rapid and frantic pace?

    Now I am truly understanding things my grand parents shared we me as I was growing up about how they felt the lived in a wondrous time in history.

  • If I have to fix anything in the house, I’ll read a few How-Tos…but I’m DEFINITELY hitting YouTube and the Play/Pause button while going through the repair. And I get annoyed when there is no video available to teach me!

    Great pics, as always, Geoff.

    • geofflivingston

      Thanks, man! I try to figure out subheads to match now! LOL!

  • Neicole Crepeau

    It’s true that we process visual information faster, but we don’t always interpret visual information faster. Some information is easier to digest visually. A lot of information, including abstract concepts or complex sequences, can’t be effectively communicated visually. The written word isn’t going away. But I agree with you that long pages of just text are on the decline. People want their information conveyed in a richer, more visually interesting and arresting way.

  • Gloria Bell

    I love the discussion this topic started! Thank you Geoff! Here is my 2 cents. I think you are both right and wrong. There has been a discussion in education for years about the need to adjust education to how kids learn. Some of us our visual learners, some of us are textual/word-based learners. Declaring either method right or wrong is shortsighted. Determining that the wave of the future is or should be one or the other automatically leaves someone who learns or absorbs information differently defined as “not as smart” As with everything, there has to be a balance and the option for everyone to learn and absorb information in the way that they best learn.

  • Geoff, MIT recently found that has found that the human brain can process entire images that the eye sees for as little as 13 milliseconds — the first evidence of such rapid processing speed. That speed is far faster than the 100 milliseconds suggested by previous studies. http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2014/in-the-blink-of-an-eye-0116

  • and here is a fun little experiment to show you what visual memory is like, in most cases you will score extremely high http://click.si.edu/Story.aspx?story=769

  • Storewars News

    Nice
    read! Very informative. Morrisons goes online in Manchester. Read it here: http://bit.ly/1l1Hfr8.

  • Superb thought-starter, Geoff. Two lines really resonated: “Part of literacy in my mind is being able to delineate quality information from bad data. In the visual world, that includes producing and consuming quality media in a loud world.”

    I would posit that while visual literacy is kind of its own dog, it’s hard to separate numeracy from this skill, given how much we seem to be “learning” from infographics. Case in point: an article in Forbes this week (at one point in its history, a numerate publication) that BADLY misread a graph of our data on the percentage of Americans who have used various online music services as the “market share” of those services (it’s here, in the second paragraph: http://www.forbes.com/sites/anthonykosner/2014/05/29/beats-music-acquisition-gives-apple-a-way-out-of-the-itunes-and-app-store-traps/)

    Visual literacy is not so simple, I think.

  • geofflivingston

    @tomwebster:disqus @richardbinhammer:disqus @gloria_bell:disqus @neicole_crepeau:disqus @dbvickery:disqus @prosperitygal:disqus @marczazeela:disqus All great comments in their own right with some excellent points of view. It is such a new topic (for me), I prefer to read and listen to the feedback as I am learning as much as I am talking here. Thank you!!!

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  • Anne Miller

    I think the issue is not visual vs. verbal. They work together. Visuals can communicate concepts, emotions, insights and trends. Words are needed to shape the argument and go into details. And words, without actual visuals, conjure feelings and stories as well (think poetry and novels). I agree that communicators need to be more visually literate in a world of too much information and short attention spans, but visual literacy, while essential, is not sufficient to effective communication. Would Martin Luther King’s speech have been as effective if he just showed images of black and white children going to school together? I think not.

  • Anne Miller

    I think the issue is not visual vs. verbal. They work together. Visuals can communicate concepts, emotions, insights and trends. Words are needed to shape the argument and go into details. And words, without actual visuals, conjure feelings and stories as well (think poetry and novels). I agree that communicators need to be more visually literate in a world of too much information and short attention spans, but visual literacy, while essential, is not sufficient to effective communication. Would Martin Luther King’s speech have been as effective if he just showed images of black and white children going to school together? I think not.

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  • Very nice and azmazing :) I enjoyed this architecture.