Visual Literacy – is a picture worth 1000 words?

Exhibit in the Aho Art Gallery, May 31, 2006 Image by New Media Consortium on Flickr (

Exhibit in the Aho Art Gallery, May 31, 2006
Image by New Media Consortium on Flickr (

Literacy grabs the headlines every now and then, and whilst this is a major political and social issue, the type of literacy we are exploring here is slightly different.

Visual literacy is the ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of images. This is based on the idea that meaning can be communicated through images, and that they can therefore be read.

In this article, Sarah Kante looks at visual literacy in the digital age. With most of the tools and media we interact with on a day-to-day basis relying heavily on images, are words taking a backstage? Is 21st century communication mainly visual and if so, is this an issue for society at large?

Cursive hieroglyphs from the Papyrus of Ani, an example of the Egyptian Book of the Dead Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp.

Cursive hieroglyphs from the Papyrus of Ani, an example of the Egyptian Book of the Dead
Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp.


If you are reading this, it is a given that you are literate, and because the Digital Present blog is a Central Saint Martins platform, you may well be a university student, member of staff or a graduate.

Literacy is the ability to read and write, something most of us at the University are able to do, sometimes with the aid of assistive technologies. Yet, there are 8.5 million adults in England and Northern Ireland with the numeracy levels of a 10-year-old. A major study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that England’s 16 to 24-year-olds are falling behind their Asian and European counterparts, and out of 24 countries, England is 22nd for literacy and 21st for numeracy.

Around 16 per cent, or 5.2 million adults in England, can be described as ‘functionally illiterate’. They would not pass an English GCSE and have literacy levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old. They can understand short straightforward texts on familiar topics accurately and independently, and obtain information from everyday sources, but reading information from unfamiliar sources, or on unfamiliar topics, could cause problems.

Communication is at the centre of all human interactions, and this is, ultimately, what we do everyday, be it through our practices or simply by living our lives. Visual communication is older than writing and reading, with the first form of alphabet believed to date back to 1800 to 1900 BC, found in Egypt. Alphabetic writing emerged as a simpler and more democratic way of recording information than Egyptian hieroglyphics. Instead of having to learn the hundreds of pictures used in hieroglyphics, writers could communicate much more quickly with 30 or less symbols representing sounds.

But people were around before that, and their communication was oral and visual. From cave paintings to hieroglyphics, images have always carried meaning.

Evan Spiegel, co-founder of Snapchat Image by on Flickr

Evan Spiegel, co-founder of Snapchat
Image by on Flickr


Fast-forwarding to today, and images are again taking centre stage. Many of the digital tools we use everyday rely on images, and the popularity of picture apps (such as Instagram), and visual blogs (such as Tumblr) are strong evidence to this trend. Text alone does not attract an audience, images need to be inserted to win the readers on most digital platforms. Even texting is now visual, with Snapchat, the photo-messaging app, having been valued at US$860 million.

As art and design students and practitioners, visual literacy is at the core of our practice. Being able to communicate ideas through images, as well as giving meaning to and reading images, are essential skills. Being visually literate means you can interpret the content of images, examine social impact of those images and discuss purpose, audience and ownership. To create the images of tomorrow, we need to be able to interpret and decode the images of the present and past.

Our understanding of the universe has been deeply influenced by visual computing technology, from outer space images via the Hubble telescope to vivid views of our internal organs and images from the world of nanotechnology. You can now get a full body CT or MRI scan for under $1,000 at your local mall.

 Spalter and van Dam, 2008

But beyond this, critical knowledge is needed. Images are everywhere, especially when dealing with digital screens: TV, DVD, the Internet, etc, and we need to be aware of the accuracy, validity and worth of images: to understand them but also to create them.



Visual Communication is the ability to communicate through visual elements. The main assumption of visual communication is that the recipient is visually literate enough to decrypt the communication and understand the meaning behind the image.

We come into contact with millions of images each year, from snapchats, blog posts and more or less everything on the Internet to magazines, advertising and every course taught at UAL. Meaningful images, signs and symbols are omnipresent and we sometimes forget we are creating or decoding them when we are. In the end, we are in the business of visual communication.

The main issue of relying so heavily on images to convey meaning is the possible loss of other kinds of literacy. With literacy rates being as they are, is the textual in decline? Could we imagine a future where images are the only means of communication, especially online? Our digital society seems to rely on as few words as possible to convey meaning, images are in high demand – more so than text.  And it’s no longer only the realm of newspaper editors and advertising copywriters to grab attention and deliver messages in snappy headlines or captions. Web 2.0 is all about democratising communication, and enabling participatory, collaborative, interactive and creative practices. With long-form journalism seemingly disappearing online, and the omnipresence of Twitter, the ‘man of few words’ is becoming everyone. Gestures and images are what communication is all about in the 21st century.

To assume that everyone is visually literate is a mistake. More, to assume that being visually literate is enough can be misguiding: the world is now a ‘global village’, thanks to the Internet. Communication between people of different cultures is a day-to-day activity. The New London Group called for a new kind of literacy in 1996: multiliteracies. Understanding a multimedia world is important at all level of society, and the New London Group included everything from sound or images (still and moving) to body gesture or spatial organisation into their multiliteracies. Diane Lapp et al (1999) reiterate the importance of ‘multiliteracies, themselves using the term ‘intermediality’ to describe the combined literacies needed to ‘read’ in a multi-media world.

The multi-media world we live in is shaped by images, they give us a sense of place. Our surroundings are now both photographically represented and digitally mapped.

Be it physically or online, our sense of place is shaped by the locative media services and the geo-tagged photos we take. Our world is both physical and digital, and not only do we shape it through images, they also shape us and our identities.

With location-based services (LBS) smartphone apps like Instagram geotagging is increasingly the default, rather than choice. This has transformed both how we experience and conceptualize co-present relationships across micro and macro realms and how we chart these relationships and environments as we move through the everyday world. […] To understand these new everyday visualities we develop the notion of the “digital wayfarer” as a way to think about the perpetually moving mobile media user.


Larissa Hjorth and Sarah Pink (2014)

The digital wayfarer is all of us: shaping and being shaped, by our visual sense of place and surroundings.

Almost all that has to do with digital is visual. The word digital itself means a representation. Digital is anything represented using discrete (discontinuous) values. The word is also mainly used next to media, art, data, information, images, TV, cameras… all things that are, or can be, visual. It should not come as a surprise then that the highway of the digital realm, the Internet, is a visual world where images, including icons, rule.

For art and design students and practitioners, the reliance of 21st century communications on images means that a wider range of audiences can understand their work. It also means, to some extent, that the expectations of their practice and understanding are raised. It does not suffice to understand the meaning of an image: we have to be critically aware of its origin, its original format, its publishing platform…

With words seemingly taking a backstage in the communication of information as well as in the shaping of our world, visual literacy is increasingly important. Not only do we shape our identities through images, we are also, to some extent, shaped by them. From art and design practices to our physical environment, our surroundings and human interactions, digital data is visual. Our literacy has to adapt to these changes for us to fully comprehend, and influence, the world we live in.

The ratio of visual image to text is increasing. Charles Brumback, the chairman of the Newspaper Association of America said in 1995 that we are heading to a culture of ‘visual literacy’.


Fitzgerald, 1995



National Literacy Trust 

Visual Communication

The Visual Literacy White Paper

Visual Literacy and Art Education: A Review of the Literature By Scott McMaster

Boughton D. (1986) Visual Literacy: Implications for Cultural Understanding through Art Education Journal of Art and Design Education Vols 5.1 & 5.2

Anne Morgan Spalter and Andries van Dam (2008) Digital Visual Literacy: Theory Into Practice, 47:93–101. London: Routledge.

Rose, G. (2001). Visual methodologies: An introduction to the interpretation of visual materials. London: Sage.

Mirzoeff, N. (1999). An introduction to visual Culture. London: Routledge.

Larissa Hjorth and Sarah Pink (2014), New visualities and the digital wayfarer: Reconceptiulaising camera phone photography and locative media. Mobile Media & Communication, Vol 2(1) 40–57