Visual images weren’t an integral part of early mass media products. Technology back then was word-centric and didn’t lend itself to visuals. This began changing gradually with the introduction of photography in the mid-1800s and then quickly with improved printing processes by the 1900s. People liked pictures, but the process of deriving messages from images was largely intuitive. Not until the 1960s did anyone think much about whether a systematic intellectual process was at work for interpreting, negotiating, and making meaning from photographs or other visual images. The term visual literacy was the invention of John Debes when he was the education projects coordinator at Eastman Kodak in 1969. In short, visual literacy is using a group of skills through which people simultaneously integrate what they see with other sensory perceptions for a richer overall conscious experience.
With technology making visuals increasingly important to human communication, educators have recognized that learning visual literacy could be indispensable in increasingly visual modern life. But the multiplicity of academic disciplines involved hindered the development of core principles.
Today some of the most coherent definitions of visual literacy are from comics author Scott McCloud. In a 1993 nonfiction book in the graphic novel format, McCloud proved himself a leading theorist of visual literacy.
In Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art McCloud described how artists can control core elements of their work, including form, idiom, and structure, to convey messages with precision.
Savvy media consumers will recognize basic concepts, such as right-facing depictions of movement being upward and positive, at least in Western cultures in which reading is ingrained as left to right. Left-moving depictions suggest obstacles, orneriness, and tension. Colors affect mood and tone, as can the pace and juxtapositioning of words in word-centric communication.
Done well, the intended messages in comics and other visuals don’t require conscious analysis. But a sophisticated media consumer who recognizes the principles employed by an artist is well-positioned to understand and assess the messages. Picking up an author’s intent yields more accuracy and satisfaction from the message.
McCloud and other visual literacy theorists are quick to point out that visual literacy, although necessary to survive and communicate in a highly complex world, cannot be a replacement for linguistic literacy. Rather, visual and linguistic literacies are
interlaced, and a mastery of both is essential to maximize meaning and understanding.
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