Visual Literacy and Visual Thinking

What is visual literacy and is it different from visual thinking? I’ve been pondering that for a while now. I have absolutely no training in art or any form of visual literacy. I assume, I hope with some degree of accuracy, that visual literacy means, in parallel with textual literacy, knowing the history and current usage of images and colours so you can interpret them within a community of knowledgeable users. As I said, I’ve never studied art or visual stuff, but Jay Cross says 80% of learning is informal – and that’s where I’ve learned anything I know, visually.

Jay Cross on Informal Learning
Jay Cross on Informal Learning

My informal learning sources have been

  • my genetic mix: I love colour but have a kind of dyslexia with maps and other wholistic, non-linear images;
  • my ongoing attempts to understand visuals both moving and still;
  • my husband, who studied film, including art, at BU, and continues to read and explore museums and other visual worlds;
  • colleagues who have formally studied art and/or graphic design; and
  • books such as Robin William’s The Non-Designer’s Design Book, which I highly recommend.

So I’m a autodidact in visual content, kind of in the position of “I don’t know art, but I know what I like.”

And what I like is simplicity and contrast. When I look at Jay Cross’s graph on informal learning, above, I can understand the information immediately. When I was early into the web and both Yahoo and the upstart Google were young, I chose which to follow by appearance.

Early Yahoo & Google
Early Yahoo & Google

For me, there was no problem choosing – I went to the visual simplicity of Google. I found the Yahoo page overwhelming and confusing. But I don’t think that’s visual literacy; I think it’s just the way my perception works. Other people may well prefer the complexity and detail of Yahoo’s page.

Currently I’m working on preparing a presentation for MERLOT in August so I’ve been looking at what’s online about PLEs, (Personal Learning Environments) – part of my topic. I found this wonderful wiki filled with visualizations of PLEs – My favorite is Dave Tosh’s –

Dave Toshs PLE
Dave Tosh's PLE

I like it because he uses icons and different shapes to help convey the meaning, before text comes into play. I like the contrasts and repetitions  that help me sort out the information. Whenever a representation simply positions relatively similar shapes filled with text in different parts of the page, my dyslexia kicks in and it’s so much work to decipher it, that I give up unless it’s really, really important to me.


That’s not the whole story (or even very much) of my take on the importance of visual thinking. Even we visual illiterates can use visual thinking, which I take to mean sketching and laying out information visually as a form of drafting, as part of composing. Mostly when I write, I just start writing, letting my words lead me to a structure that I then use to shape the second draft. Even outlines with their phrases and indenting didn’t work for me. I was solidly text-based, figuring out what to say by writing, sometimes in journal-style, without worrying about correctness or structure. Then I would mine this ore for the thoughts I wanted to shape and present to readers.

Over my adulthood, the culture has become much more visual. Over the previous century photography, visual and audio recording, and the increasing use of graphic design have led to our receiving more information visually. Visual composers use sketches and storyboards; they think visually. Even text-based people now add images to their written pieces, use PowerPoint, and sometimes venture into short videos. Plus, with the advent of the possibilities of word-processing, text has also become a visual experience that affects how people read.

When I started preparing the PowerPoint expected for my conference presentation, I found, as I have previously, that I was having trouble writing my way into composing my content for a visual medium. I needed to do something visual to help me compose my presentation. A delightful coincidence occurred. I was inspired by Michele Martin‘s PLE mindmap.

Michele Martins PLE Mindmap
Michele Martin's PLE Mindmap

and in my Twitter explorations, I discovered Wisdomap. Michele’s inspiration and the stumbling onto a new web app to play with led me to create my own current PLE mindmap –

Joan Vinall-Coxs PLE
Joan Vinall-Cox's PLE

And here’s what the whole Wisdomap screen looks like –

The Wisdomap Screen
The Wisdomap Screen

I really like the added features – I can attach videos, images, files and sites to my mindmap for a richer collection of information. And, when I had some problems with this beta app, they responded quickly and sorted out the bugs.

So I’m thinking with visual tools; both my Wisdomap page with my PLE mindmap and associated materials, and my PowerPoint presentation allow me to think visually.

However, I believe this doesn’t mean I’m visually literate, just that I can (and need to) use visuals in my composing, in my thinking. Peter Elbow, I think, wrote that the person that benefits most from writing a textbook, is the writer him or herself. Even poorly written textbooks (and there are many) make the author think through the information and put it into context, thus learning it more deeply. Writing is a way of learning. Writing theorists universally encourage the keeping of journals and engaging in free-writing, informal writing, to think with and learn through. I think learning the habit of informal visual thinking is an important addition to free-writing as ways of thinking and learning.

Using visual tools to think with, using them informally, is increasingly a neccessity in this increasingly visual age. You don’t have to be visually skilled and/or literate to think visually informally; you just have to figure out what works for you and find those tools.

11 thoughts on “Visual Literacy and Visual Thinking

  1. Joan,
    I make the distinction between visual literacy and spatial thinking. I think what you discuss here demonstrates the difference. Some people (I believe) think spatially (think Gardner’s spatial intelligence). It would appear that while your husband does think spatially, you don’t. As a result, it is more difficult for you to write in a spatial environment without some tool. I wonder, do you need an outline in order to write, or can you go ahead and write without one?

    My theory is that those whose thinking is dominated spatially need the outline, which is a tool to force them to think linearly (from my experience in teaching computer supporting writing). The advantage with writing on a word processor is that it allows us “spatial thinkers” to develop an outline non-linearly. When I used to do this on a piece of paper, it would be a mess with arrows and notes in the margins. I would then take the first draft and come up with a nice looking outline (which used to aggravate my teachers).

    Visual literacy, on the other hand, is the ability to incorporate visuals and make meaning from visuals (including pictures, graphical representations of data, etc…). Like reading and writing, some people might have a natural aptitude, so they don’t need tools to help them to interpret this information, but others without “spatial thinking skills” do need additional tools (such as mind or concept maps). As this is a relatively new skill required (it used to be only artists or those that worked in the arts needed this ability, but now as we communicate globally, visuals have become more important in the workplace), we now are required to teach this skill to those people that don’t have this natural ability. I think this is what those looking at visual literacy are trying to develop.

  2. Joan, I’m currently reading The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam (recommended by Christine Martell) and his premise is that we all benefit from becoming more visually literate, in the sense of being able to express ideas in simple, visual terms. He actually shares a “visual codex” that shows how most ideas can be represented using a few simple types of visual representations and I could personally see how these could become a way of being “literate” in a visual language.

    Christine’s company, VisualsSpeak, sells visual toolkits that allow people to explore various questions and ideas using scientifically tested photos. The photos give everyone a “common language” in the sense that they are using the same graphics, but these pictures can have very different meanings for people depending on their interpretations of the photos. This, to me, is less about “literacy’ and more about using visuals to access a part of our thinking that isn’t available to us verbally. That’s a different kind of skill, but one that I’ve found to be equally important and useful.

  3. Wow – another example of learning informally from web friends.
    Virginia, I am a longtime advocate of Gardiner’s Multiple Intelligences theory. In fact I used to do presentations at Ontario ed conferences on it, and I think you for pointing out what I wasn’t seeing in myself. I do struggle with spacial thinking. I rarely use an outline when I write, in fact in exams where we were required to show our outline, I created it after I finished answering the question;-> Thanks so much for your response.

    Michele, I keep seeing references to Roam’s Back of the Napkin. In fact, just after I posted this, I found Dave Plooard’s post – so I think that goes right on my must-read list. Christine’s work sounds interesting too. Thanks for your response.


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