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Visual Literacy: Innovation and New Thinking


by Anne Bothwell 2 Jun 2008

This week, in Art&Seek’s feature content area, we’re presenting the works of some new media artists participating in Keywords, an upcoming art exhibition. We’re also thinking about issues related to visual literacy. Guest blogger Associate Professor Michael Gibson, is one of the organizers of a conference on the topic this weekend. Becoming visually literate, and […]

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This week, in Art&Seek’s feature content area, we’re presenting the works of some new media artists participating in Keywords, an upcoming art exhibition. We’re also thinking about issues related to visual literacy. Guest blogger Associate Professor Michael Gibson, is one of the organizers of a conference on the topic this weekend.


Becoming visually literate, and then sustaining a high level of visual literacy, is imperative for organizations that seek to generate, test and then effectively implement the kinds of new ideas that will give them competitive advantage. What I’ve just described in the predicate of the last sentence is a sound-byte definition of INNOVATION, which has become one of the most over-used and least understood buzzwords to enter the business lexicon in recent memory. Using visual images to communicate specific messages to particular audiences in a manner that motivates them to at least think if not act differently has become crucial to the success of a huge variety of social, economic and political endeavors.

The processes and methodologies that are necessary to create the kinds of new ideas that lead to effective visual communications can also be applied to an enormous variety of business situations. Businesses who are struggling to re-invent what they do and how they do it in the midst of the current economic downturn have begun to realize that the knowledge that is created as a result of increasing their general level of visual literacy can help them enormously. It enables them to become more open to experimentation, to the notion that generating several iterations of responses to a given problem or opportunity (including ones that no one else in their market sector has ever tried before) can yield extremely useful and usable results. It helps inform people in all levels of the organization that the information gleaned from failures can be utilized to guide the invention of successful products, practices and the promotion of both of these in the future.

Being visually literate implies that an individual or an organization has cultivated an understanding of how to select, interpret and create visual images to create specific meaning. If this understanding is allowed to inform day-to-day decision-making, it will catalyze thinking in a manner that fuels the kind of calculated risk-taking that leads to new ideas, invention and the actual implementation and sustenance of best practices. It teaches people to analyze and evaluate less-than-desirable conditions and situations and then propose solutions that can be made or practiced to make those situations more desirable.

I cribbed that last idea from a computer scientist named Herbert Simon who first published it in 1969. It has become a mantra of sorts for all kinds of people who work in design and other so-called creative industries wherein ideas have to be tested, evaluated, re-tested and re-evaluated and then actually made into something that works.

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  • In reading this post and the featured articles, two questions come to mind. First, to what degree are we all innately visually literate? Second, does visual literacy pertain only to what is seen? Can it not also pertain to images that are conjured in our minds through words, sounds, and other experiences?

  • very interesting to know there are many ways to motivate ourself.

    • Tanja

      Hmm…after reading the above post about visual literacy, effective visual communication, and new ideas, I wondered if the DFW community of artists was familiar with the current status of the proposed Orphan Works legislation? Particularly since various artist and photography organizations that oppose the Orphan Works bills — as they are currently broadly written — feel that the bill has the potential to actually stifle creative output due to new requirements for the registration and posting in a visual database of any art or photo to retain copyright (so it isn’t considered “orphaned”), among other problems, like this:

      “All citizens would be required to understand that they must now take active steps – not to actually protect their work (because registries won’t protect it) – but merely to preserve their right to sue an infringer in federal court (in case they ever find out they’ve been infringed in the first place).

      Otherwise, ignorance of copyright law will be be no excuse against an infringer who has done a “reasonably diligent search” for a photo he found on a blog, photo sharing site, Facebook page, or other source..”

      Or at least that’s one of the outcomes as per the various discussions I’ve read in the past couple of months.

      Here are a few links that go into more detail:
      http://capwiz.com/illustratorspartnership/issues/bills/?bill=11320236
      http://capwiz.com/illustratorspartnership/home/
      http://forums.cgsociety.org/showthread.php?f=2&t=629108&highlight=orphan+works

  • I think a lot of this message is gobblygoop.
    I would say what I’ve advocated in my zine. Musea
    We teach language skills in school, but not how to draw. That is under educating our brains by one half – the hemisphere of the brain that controls visual thinking as compared to the hemisphere of the brain that controls language.
    Not everyone is a great writer of literature, but everyone can learn to read and write.
    In the same way not everyone can draw like a master, but they can learn how to draw and paint enough to be able to communicate visually. That would open and develop that half of the brain.
    It is an important skill that none of our schools teach. it is another failure in education.