In Reading images: an introduction to visual literacy Melissa Thibault and David Walbert define visual literacy as "the ability to see, to understand, and ultimately to think, create, and communicate graphically [...] Like traditional literacy, visual literacy encompasses more than one level of skill.. The first level ... is simple knowledge: basic identification of the subject or elements in a photograph, work of art, or graphic. The skills necessary to identify details of images are included in many disciplines; for example, careful observation is essential to scientific inquiry. But while accurate observation is important, understanding what we see and comprehending visual relationships are at least as important. These higher-level visual literacy skills require critical thinking, and they are essential to a student’s success in any content area in which information is conveyed through visual formats such as charts and maps. They are also beneficial to students attempting to make sense of the barrage of images they may face in texts and Web resources. "
'Visual literacy' is a contested term - its implied analogy with spoken or written language can be misleading and some resources may focus on helping students to understand visual communication but ignore the need for them to learn to communicate effectively themselves. However, the presence of an established name for this aspect of visual learning does simplify the search for useful resources. Many of these come from the US and Australia where there appears to be more sustained interest in supporting visual literacy in schools, so I've included some resources aimed at school teachers or children where they would also be helpful for university students. (All external links will open in a new window)
Some general sites relating to visual literacy & communication
- Edward Tufte Tufte has published several highly influential and lucid books on Information Design, including Envisioning Information , Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative and Beautiful Evidence. His website also includes the Ask ET Forum with discussion threads on many topics in this field.
- Using Visual Aids This is part of the LearnHigher Oral Communication website and contains advice (including video examples) on using visual aids as part of a seminar presentation.
- Creating Effective Poster Presentations This very useful site includes detailed advice on all stages of creating a poster presentation, with plenty of illustrated examples. Though primarily aimed at creators of scientific conference posters, the advice applies equally to other subjects and to poster assignments for university students. Downloadable resources include a Quick reference handout and sample evaluation sheets.
- International Visual Literacy Association Resources include "Visual Communication: A Taxonomy and Bibliography" by Sandra Moriarty and Keith Kenney
- The Visual Literacy White Paper Commissioned by Adobe Systems, this article by Dr Anne Bamford, Director of Visual Arts, University of Technology Sydney provides a useful brief overview of the history of the term, strategies for promoting visual literacy and links to relevant articles and websites.
- 21st Century Literacies This site focusses on what the authors describe as four 21st century literacies - information, multicultural, media and visual. The latter two sections contain a variety of exercises and activities suitable for high school and adult learners. One draws on the same set of prints described below, but with additional questions and examples, others include "The Function of Images in Text", "Framing and Point of View" and "Images as Persuasion".
- A Visual Literacy Exercise This resource is based on selected woodblock prints from a famous 19th century series by the Japanese artist Hiroshige. Students are invited to examine a sequence of fifteen prints, complete a short exercise, review the print set a second time, and then complete a second exercise. This is followed by discussion of the implications for observation and analysis of visual materials of all kinds. Working through the exercise in full would take about 30 minutes.
- Image and Meaning , part of Harvard University's Initiative in Innovative Computing (IIC), began in 2001 by Felice Frankel in MIT's Envisioning Science Project. Their purpose is "to help scientists, writers and visual communicators develop and share improved methods of communicating scientific concepts and technical information through images and visual representations. The goal is to enhance the level of discourse within the scientific community, among teachers and students, and those who communicate with the public."
- 'Is visual language anything more than a figure of speech?' part of a discussion on "Is drawing a language?" on the excellent Tracey site - an electronic open access journal dedicated to presentation and the discussion of drawing practice
Websites with examples and explanations of different kinds of charts, diagrams and other visual 'texts'
- Visual-Literacy: An E-Learning Tutorial on Visualization for Communication, Engineering and Business A joint project by four Swiss universities, this English language site "focuses on a critical, but often neglected skill for business, communication, and engineering students, namely visual literacy, or the ability to evaluate, apply, or create conceptual visual representations... in order to transform abstract thought efficiently into graphic, tangible forms and to manage the topic complexity and the problems addressed in each class." The site includes a comprehensive Periodic Table of Visualisation Methods with 100 examples sorted into categories such as Data, Information, Concept and Strategy Visualisation, and two excellent demo tutorials, Business & Communication and Engineering & Communication, which you can view as a guest, or log in to take advantage of more interactive elements. The related WikiViz contains resources and links on information visualisation.
- The On-Line Visual Literacy Project based at Pomona College, Claremont, California. Includes examples of basic visual elements (such as dot, line, shape etc) and how they work.
- Types of Graphs from Mississippi State University
- Kinds of Concept Maps Part of the 'Mind Module' at the University of Illinois. Illustrates examples of different concept map formats for representing different kinds of information.