Essay #5: Visual Literacy

Understanding Visual Literacy


            In the words of the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL), “The importance of images and visual media in contemporary culture is changing what it means to be literate in the 21st century” (ACRL). Even coming from a credible source like this one, that is a bold statement to make. However, after investigating the ways in which readers and students are utilizing visual literature in contemporary society I feel that the application of visual literacy in higher education would be beneficial to students throughout their professional lives. Examples such as the NASA Interactive Poster and Bret Victor’s research pertaining the importance of understanding systems, I support the idea that visual literacy, such as infographics and visualizations, function to create a better understanding of the design’s purpose through the use of both words and pictures.

            Existing in the Internet’s largest audience of users, I am considered a “digital

native” and often spend too many hours than I hope online each day. Twenty minutes quickly turns into two hours when browsing the web, especially websites that contain live news feed, a feature to keep you informed of the latest updates. We live in a society where technology is an essential part of life and is employed in the workplace, for entertainment purposes, and as a method of organizing and accessing massive amounts of information. Visually literate individuals are able to find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media. Having visual literacy skills better equips students who are attempting to understand and analyze the contextual, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, intellectual, and technical components of visual material. In short, “Visual literacy empowers individuals to participate fully in a visual culture” (ACRL).

However, with the development of such a new culture, society must learn new ways to better understand an image’s purpose. In his article “Media for Thinking the Unthinkable” researcher Bret Victor discusses the importance of understanding a system. When faced with any kind of task, Victor believes the first and foremost skill an individual must possess is the ability of understanding systems. We must utilize the tools that we are given, such as the Internet and digital media, in order to create representations of a system that show how well we understand it. Victor demonstrates various ways in which data can be better represented in a medium that is both interactive and informative. Every artist struggles with transmitting the perfect image that is in their head to tangible works of art or visual sets of data. However, because paper is a “low-bandwidth channel”, much of the information is lost or left uncovered. Victor’s redesign of a scientific article is composed of both words and pictures and ultimately reduces the cognitive load required of the reader. The words describe the structure of the algorithm while the pictures depict the behavior of the algorithm. One example that displays an arrangement of pictures and words to send a message or tell a story is the mapping of global climate change in different parts of the world.

            I found the NASA Interactive Poster to employ many of the qualities a successful piece of visual literature encompasses. For over forty years, NASA satellites have been mapping Earth and compiling global observations of the atmosphere, biosphere, land surface, solid Earth, and ocean in order to improve understanding of the Earth as an integrated system. At first, I found the plethora of colorful chunks confusing and had trouble depicting the image’s purpose. I quickly learned, however, that by hovering over a specific landmass featured on the globe I could learn more details that I otherwise may have overlooked. The smart design allows for the user to make quick comparisons between data sets when analyzing the different landmasses. Also, the use of vibrant colors makes the overall design aesthetically pleasing to viewers. Each section provides the reader with useful information including the title of the data set, its designated mission, a brief description, and a key to help put this data in perspective. One suggestion I have would be to provide labels of common locations to help me better establish a sense of setting. Overall, I felt that I learned more about global climate change with the interactive features than reading from a textbook.

With the application of visual literacy in the academic curriculum we are essentially giving students credit for the skills they have already accumulated over the years. However, it is in the student’s best interest for these skills to be advocated in a controlled classroom setting. By using, sharing, and reproducing visual material in a text-based environment, students will be faced with real-life ethical and legal considerations that they may have otherwise disregarded. Additionally, the visual literacy education community employs a collaborative endeavor, consisting of faculty, librarians, curators, archivists, visual resource professionals, and learning technologists. For example, a society in which visual literacy education was mandatory would inhabit various academic departments under one conveniently located roof. An increase in library use and activity would most likely result from the integration of visual literacy by providing students with quality image resources, developing research and subject guides for images, teaching image research strategies, and raising awareness of the ethical use of visual media. To ensure that all students will be able to gain access to these materials, including visually impaired students, adaptive or assistive technologies, such as audio descriptions of graphics or multimodal access to visual media, would be made available.

In conclusion, it would be beneficial for to society to accept advances in education. When it comes to educating the masses, all parties share a common goal: to generate a future society of satisfied and productive citizens. I believe that if enough young people show interest in making these educational reforms society will adjust itself accordingly. Perhaps these small changes to improve our nation’s education system will spark a global change in underdeveloped countries. We could assign students a pen pal who is the same age, but lives in a foreign country. This ability would build many bridges with all different kinds of people at a young age. Thanks to recent developments in technology, users of data can now display information in a more innovative and informative way.









Work Cited:

“ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education.” American Library

            Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.


“Mapping Our World.” NASA Interactive Poster. NASA, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.


“Mapping Our World.” NASA Interactive Poster. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2013.


“Media for Thinkingthe Unthinkable.” Media for Thinking the Unthinkable. N.p., n.d.

            Web. 12 Nov. 2013.




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