Matters of Visual Literacy

Title image is of Hollywood billboards, Los Angeles, USA. Photo by Shaun Fynn
Second image is of Gurgaon in the National Capital Region, India. Photo by Shaun Fynn

The subject of literacy is one of great importance to all societies and cultures concerned with the Idea of advancement. Over the decades and millennia the preoccupation with literacy manifest in institutions of education and business models that require the brightest of the bright to maintain their competitive advantages. However, when we dig into the subject of literacy a bit more we may find that our systems of education and business concentrate on forms if literacy that are quantifiable and can be measured in definitive ways to assign exact value.  The most understood systems of literacy are of course those connected to the idea of letters and numbers and what can be constructed and communicated through the mastery of these media.

Design and designers have a responsibility to bestow beauty and communicate meaningful messages in what they create as those supposedly gifted or trained in visual literacy. 

If we are to consider the subject of creativity and how one becomes visually literate or able to understand all that is around us that is not of the natural world then we have a significant challenge. Firstly, creativity is a route to understand the components of the visual world created by ourselves but if we look at education systems, especially those at high school level or below there are very few channels through which to evolve these skills and there is even less respect for those who pursue such paths. In fact, in some instances, one may even be considered in a lesser light if the bias of their aptitude is in the arts or creative fields.

The idea that visual vocabularies are as important as those of letters and numbers is an important proposition. We may ask why a visual vocabulary is important? If we are to consider that most of us spend nearly all our time in built environments (homes, offices and cities) and using products that are entirely the result of mankind’s labour and the decisions made (for better or for worse) about how these should function and what they should look like then we must consider the impact of these decisions. In fact, many people may not even consider that all around us that is not of the natural order is the product of our own actions because our levels of visual cognition are not as developed as other forms of literacy and as George Nelson said “seeing is not a unique god given talent, but a discipline, it can be learned”. 

Visual illiteracy allows us to tolerate a multiplicity of things around us that are not conducive to our own well being or the unspoken and unconscious senses that provide us with genuine senses of joy.

If we are to study examples of the products of visually illiteracy then the culture of the billboard, the shopping mall and strip mall, the brutality of many urban environments developing unchecked and the plethora of many ill considered products seeking to identify with your emotive needs are often examples where we see limited applications of visual literacy. This lack of visual literacy seems to manifest on a global level. Take Gurgaon, India, for example, aptly described in a recent New York Times article as where ‘Dynamism Meets Dysfunction’.  The objectives of locating business in such developments makes good sense but to neglect to build decent infrastructure, utilities and public services to support this and then package it in a formula combing generally poor architectural design and specification with absent urban planning is not a recipe for a sustainable future. Surely better visions of the future can be created.  

Visual illiteracy allows us to tolerate a multiplicity of things around us that are not conducive to our own well being or the unspoken and unconscious senses that provide us with genuine senses of joy. Art remains a vital component of all societies, both primitive, ancient and modern not because it provides adornment or satisfies solely aesthetic values but because at its highest levels it allows us perceive our world through non formulaic intuitive channels inherent in our nature. Art and visual literacy when considered at their highest level are akin to the objectives of the sciences as they allow us to interpret and define our world in a fully comprehensive way.

Design and designers have a responsibility to bestow beauty and communicate meaningful messages in what they create as those supposedly gifted or trained in visual literacy.  However, the impact of the designers endeavours depends on a wider recognition in both business and public domains that visual literacy matters as much as the traditionally defined norms of literacy.