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Visual Literacy: Group Think


by Alan Melson 5 Jun 2008

Every day this week, Associate Professor Michael Gibson and Assistant Professor Keith Owens, who both teach communication design in UNT’s Department of Design, will address a different question related to thinking critically about what we absorb visually. Technology brings us Facebook and You Tube, allows us to connect in an instant with people all over […]

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Every day this week, Associate Professor Michael Gibson and Assistant Professor Keith Owens, who both teach communication design in UNT’s Department of Design, will address a different question related to thinking critically about what we absorb visually. Technology brings us Facebook and You Tube, allows us to connect in an instant with people all over the world, and makes it ever easier for anyone to create, communicate and “brand” themselves or their work visually. All of this means it’s important to go beyond simply identifying the thousands of images, symbols, gestures we see every day and learn to understand their meaning and context. – Anne Bothwell

Why is it more important now to understand – and promote understanding – of how some groups find meaning in images?

Images are interpreted very, very quickly and on multiple levels of understanding.

Being visually illiterate in the early 21st century is somewhat akin to not being able to read if you lived in Europe in the middle of the 16th century—it put you at such a severe disadvantage socially, politically and economically that it became impossible for you to carry on as you had before and maintain your existence. You had to adapt to the new reality that a different type of literacy was facilitating in society or risk losing your political, social or economic position. A similar change in literacy and its subsequent effect on world society occurred a hundred years ago when new technology such as wireless telegraphy, telephones and motion pictures enabled more efficient communication.

Images have recently become very easy to capture, store and disseminate.

Images easily travel across cultural and language barriers (whether or not they are interpreted
by particular viewing audiences in the manner that was intended by their creators is
another matter…)

A key factor: Our ability to decode messages according to how our own personal social, political and economic belief systems tells us to is more efficient than ever. But that does not mean we do this effectively.

Being skilled at accessing and processing information quickly does not mean that you have accrued enough knowledge to understand all the contextual factors that have affected and are affecting what you’re seeing. This makes visually illiterate people around the world easier to manipulate than ever before, and the consequences of these manipulations are more grave than they have ever been.

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