What Is Visual Literacy?

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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 06 October 2019
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Visual literacy is the ability to understand images. It is similar to reading and writing, but involves reading pictures and diagrams instead. In this sense, understanding that a car is a car shows someone possess a basic level of image literacy. Content comprehension also concerns a person being able to decipher complicated images as well as simple ones.

The discipline was not widely known until the late 20th century, where it came to be compared to normal literacy. It involves understanding, comparing and analyzing visual data like with reading texts. As with writing, visual literacy also includes being able to create or conceptualize such images. This depends on the creative talent of the individuals involved to a greater extent than writing.

Literary is the basic ability to read and write. When boiled down to its basic level, it is about interpreting data and understanding it. While reproducing this data is an important element of literacy, it only works when done from comprehension. Worldwide literacy varies, with the highest concentrations being in Europe, East Asia and North America, and the lowest being in Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

An early example of visual literacy predates actual literacy. The Lascaux cave paintings in France depict animals and hunts. It is possible that these paintings were used as an instruction to young hunters about their parents’ techniques and different animals.


Visual literacy is linked to a number of other disciplines. This includes artistic subjects such as art history, art criticism and comic book studies. It also includes more technical subjects such as architecture, graphic design, information graphics and information design. A key element of visual literacy is the development of critical thinking.

A growing awareness toward the importance of visual literacy has led to a growth of visual literacy programs in schools. They work on the premise that old teaching methods were based on text reading and oration. The end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st saw a rise in overhead projections, videos and diagram picture-led presentations. This led to the study of visual data as an independent element of learning.

American schools realized that students were good at studying maps, graphs and images, but were poor at analyzing them. With the increase in technology in their lives, students were becoming more adept at understanding images. As a result, programs were developed to help students understand why certain graphs are better than others and to produce ones of their own.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim museum in New York runs learning through art courses with local schools. The program is designed to promote awareness of visual literacy amongst its students. Artists from the New York area work for 10 to 20 weeks at a chosen school and help the teachers and students complete an art project.


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