Visual Literacy Essay

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An increasing focus on visual communication— through intersecting developments in transnational media, the Internet, television, and film—makes critical analysis and comprehension of the image world a high priority for educators. Visual literacy traces its roots to linguistic literacy, based on the idea that educating people to understand the codes and contexts of language leads to an ability to read and comprehend written and spoken verbal communication.

Some theorists equate the linguistic text and the visual quite directly, whereas others seek an alternate discursive space for visual literacy. The theorist Richard Howells, for example, is in the former group, arguing that reading an image involves the same complex system of decoding that reading a written text entails. Howells warns of a visual illiteracy that is presented as a dangerous proposition in our modern image-world. Other theorists argue for a visual literacy that recognizes the great difference in encoding and reception of the visual and linguistic, not identifying a visual “text” to be literally read. All theorists who work in the field of visual literacy agree about the need for an increased focus on the visual in education with specific goals in mind.

Two of the possible goals for visual literacy outlined by Paul Messaris include the expanded appreciation of the aesthetic form in art and the skills to identify manipulation and deception in visual images. A third possible goal of visual literacy is to encourage active production of visual materials using the elements and codes of images to create meaning, leading students to become producers as well as consumers of the visual.

Aesthetic Appreciation

The most basic goal of visual literacy, especially as imagined by those in the fields of art history and art appreciation, is the learned aesthetic appreciation of images and art objects. This branch of visual literacy is concerned with reading the image, or artwork, for what it is and not for why the image was created and for what ends. For still images, this focuses on learning basic elements of the visual such as color, texture, pattern, space, shape, and form.

Moving images, in the form of television or film, are appreciated for the creator’s technical skill in production, lighting, editing, framing, and visual storytelling. Proponents of education in visual literacy for appreciation believe that increased knowledge of technique and production will lead to greater understanding of the creative process and appreciation for aesthetic qualities in the visual.

Awareness Of Visual Manipulation

Another, very different, stated goal of visual literacy advocates is the production of savvy and astute interpreters of meaning and manipulation in images. This involves the ways that images can be digitally manipulated to intentionally distort appearances and the ways that images manipulate the emotions and comprehension in the viewer. Understanding how meaning is created in still and moving images is a work of cultural image deconstruction that examines relationships of power and persuasion. This involves understanding who produces the image, for whom it was intended, and what the message or intention might be. This form of visual literacy can be applied to classic Impressionist paintings of nude women, the persuasive visuals in advertising, and the framing and editing of television and film.

Understanding the intentionality and message behind advertising and media images is meant to create educated and skeptical visual consumers. The processes of digital manipulation of images in advertising can reveal that models with seemingly perfect skin and bodies have been digitally airbrushed and altered to create an illusion of perfection. In deconstructing advertisements for various brands of beer, students might see the underlying messages about the masculinity of beer drinkers, the sexual appeal of drinking, and the sexual availability of inebriated women. In both cases, visual literacy would seek to make transparent what ideas are being sold through these images and the possible social effects of such manipulation.

Manipulation in other visual media may be subtler, but issues of power and intentionality are central to reading meaning. Feminist criticism has led to increased understanding of the gaze in visual art and media, who is doing the looking and who is being examined. The eye of the viewer or camera is the gaze focused on the object of the work. Some researchers theorize that the lens of the film camera is the male gaze, investigating, objectifying, and often violating the female in the frame. The understanding of the gaze as a tool of power allows viewers to better understand with whom they are intended to identify in an image and how that relates to objectification and authority.

Visual Production

A final direction of visual literacy is to encourage the production of visual materials, using visual methods and codes learned through the appreciation of visual creation and the awareness of visual manipulation. In linguistic literacy, it is expected that students will learn to read and produce texts. With the visual, students are generally viewers and consumers of images without the opportunity to create meaning of their own through production. This allows consumers to become active agents, responding to the deconstruction of images with the construction of their own meanings. Usually, students are marginally encouraged to create visual pieces in art classrooms, but there is a movement within visual literacy for greater production of student news programs, documentaries, Web sites, and digital images.

Although there is internal disagreement about the goals of visual literacy, and the analogy of linguistic and visual reading, the field is unified in its call for a greater emphasis on the study and production of images. The increased visual nature of media, based upon the preeminence of television and the Internet as tools of communication, means that students will be called upon to be able to understand and analyze the images around them. Visual literacy can provide the formal and cultural tools to make sense of the purpose and intention of imagery. With the appreciation of aesthetics, awareness of manipulation, and production of images, visual literacy has the possibility of creating knowledgeable and skeptical visual consumers, and skilled and savvy visual producers.


  1. Dondis, D. (1973). A primer of visual literacy. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  2. Howells, R. (2003). Visual culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell. Messaris, P. (1994). Visual literacy: Image, mind, & reality. Boulder, CO: Westview.
  3. Mirzoeff, N. (1998). The subject of visual culture. In N. Mirzoeff (Ed.), The visual culture reader (pp. 3–23). New York: Routledge.
  4. Mulvey, L. (1989). Visual and other pleasures. London: Macmillan.

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