Visual Literacy

Visual Literacy

What Is Visual Literacy?

John Debes, co-founder of the International Visual Literacy Association, who coined the term in 1969, offered the following definition: 
“Visual Literacy refers to a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences. The development of these competencies is fundamental to normal human learning. When developed, they enable a visually literate person to discriminate and interpret the visible actions, objects, symbols, natural or man-made, that he encounters in his environment. Through the creative use of these competencies, he is able to communicate with others. Through the appreciative use of these competencies, he is able to comprehend and enjoy the masterworks of visual communication.”
John Debes (1969b, 27)

Other definitions include:
“Visual literacy involves the ability to understand, produce, and use culturally significant images, objects, and visible actions. . . . With training and practice, people can develop the ability to recognize, interpret, and employ the distinct syntax and semantics of different visual forms.  The process of becoming visually literate continues through a lifetime of learning new and more sophisticated ways to analyze and use images.”
“Resource Review:  Visual literacy” by Peter Felten. In Change, November/December 2008.

Visual literacy is:  “A group of acquired competencies for interpreting and composing visible messages. A visually literate person is able to: (a) discriminate, and make sense of visible objects as part of a visual acuity, (b) create static and dynamic visible objects effectively in a defined space, (c) comprehend and appreciate the visual testaments of others, and (d) conjure objects in the mind’s eye.”
Brill, J.M., Kim, D., Branch, R.M. (2000), Visual literacy defined: the results of a Delphi study: can IVLA (operationally) define visual literacy? paper presented at the International Visual Literacy Association, Ames, IA.


How Do You Teach Visual Literacy?

The sites below offer information about teaching visual literacy and resources for the classroom.
International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA).
An organization dedicated to research, study, and publication of visual literacy.  Includes links to their official conference, publications, resources, and membership information.

Visual Literacy Portal of the International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA).
This ongoing project of the IVLA gathers links to Internet resources relevant to visual literacy, proposing to make this site “an international HUB of information on visual literacy.” Submissions invited.  Entries are not annotated, but include a large collection of links in many categories such as Teaching Resources, Learning Tools, Scientific Sites on Visual Perception, and Video/DVD/CD Resources.  A useful site for educators.

Journal of Visual Literacy (Official Journal of IVLA).
A refereed, scholarly journal published twice yearly focused on all aspects of visual literacy and communication.  Subscription required.  Archives open in full text online.

Visual Literacy Research Guide (Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound).
A collection of mostly annotated links to online visual literacy resources including Visual Literacy Tools, such as a visual literacy tutorial; Image Resources, such as University of Puget Sound’s Images on the Web; and related materials.

Active Learning with PowerPoint (Center for Teaching and Learning, U. of Minnesota).
A tutorial on using PowerPoint effectively to design, present, and use visuals in the classroom.

EDCAUSE, an association focused on advancing higher education information technology, offers several visual literacy resources:  articles, presentations, podcasts, and reports.  Two papers call for visual literacy as an institutional imperative in order to create the 21st century truly literate person:  “Visual Literacy in Higher Education” by Ronald Bleed, and “Visual Literacy:  An Institutional imperative” by Susan E. Metros and Kristina Woolsey.

Visual Thinking in University Teaching (Maria Ebner & Derek Bruff, Vanderbilt University).
A rich collection of resources for integrating visual thinking into your teaching.  Links to materials on images as metaphors, images as stories, types of schematic diagrams, and much more.

For continuous additions to these materials, see also The Visual Thinking posts on the Blog of Vanderbilt University's Center for Teaching

A Periodic Table of Visualization Methods
A unique and clever way to demonstrate the interplay and overlap of various forms of visualization techniques using a chart modeled after the periodic table of the elements. Each item opens with a "mouseover" to reveal a graphic of a particular visualization concept.
The larger website at offers "An E-Tutorial on Visualization for Communication, Engineering and Business," which contains some fascinating material useful for educators as well.

Visual Materials for Education and Scholarship:

ARTstor Digital Library.
Contains over one million images in the arts, architecture, humanities, and social sciences for the use of educators, students at all levels, and scholars.  Available to non-profit organizations by subscription.

NASA’s Visible Earth collection.
A free searchable catalog of NASA images and animations of our home planet.  Images are downloadable if ‘terms of Use area followed.

American Memory Site at the Library of Congress.
Free and open access to still and moving images (plus other materials) that document the American experience: “ a digital record of American history and creativity.”

Studies of Visual Materials across the College Curriculum:

Curricular Uses of Visual Materials: A Mixed-Method Institutional Study” by Nixon, A., Tompkins, H., and Lackie,P.  (2008) Northfield, MN:  Carleton College, Dean of the College Office.
With the aide of a grant from The Andrew R. Mellon Foundation, Carleton College studied how well students and faculty are supported as they use visual materials for curricular purposes. The full report includes the survey instruments, four case studies, and final recommendations.
A summary of key points in the study, its findings, recommendations, and implications, is available at

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