Why We Should Be Teaching Visual Literacy in High School

When I started teaching college eight years ago, I would occasionally see students who didn’t know how to type. I could casually amble my way through a computer lab and spot about one in every thirty or so (rough guess) who would be, eyebrows furrowed, index-poking their keyboards with either amazing (albeit goofy) fury and flair or else with palpable anxiety and stress.

Eight years later (although I can’t pinpoint precisely when it happened), it is evident to me now that I haven’t seen that behavior in several years. College students, in all their shapes, sizes, and backgrounds, know how to type. They are, after all, taught computer skills at young ages.

Computer literacy is a competency I can comfortably, almost without thinking, expect from nearly all my students. Eight years ago, this wasn’t the case. I used to have to teach students how to use Microsoft Word. Google was a foreign concept. I had to pull teeth to get students to use email. And college students then actually used to make fun of Facebook the same way they used to make fun of online dating.

Oh, how much has changed in eight years.

Yet, one thing is clearly no different now than it was when my teaching career began: students, by and large, lack basic visual literacy skills. Most don’t have a clue how to design information, interpret images, or offer any aesthetic acuity.

How can this possibly be?

How is it possible that, save those who are blind, students can know less about the visual world around them than they do about how to type a paper (which, by the way, is far more difficult to learn than opening our eyes)?

The truth is, most Americans simply aren’t taught visual literacy skills. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find many grown adults (outside of trained artists, of course) who can design better than a fifth-grader. It’s true: without practice, our artistic abilities begin to atrophy—or at least plateau—at age 10.

The argument against teaching visual literacy has been, of course, is that producing and interpreting visual information isn’t as productive as teaching reading and writing, math and science. Visual stuff is for artists, for highbrow aesthetes, for those who wish to pretty-up the world, but it is not for everybody. Reading and writing, math and science, the argument goes, those things are everyone.

But visual literacy isn’t just about being able to draw or paint or critique a Van Gogh. It’s about being aware of how information works, how it makes us think and act.

On average, Americans are exposed—every day—to 5,000 advertising messages, 5 hours of television, 1 hour of video games, and 1 hour of the internet. (And we spend more time staring at our smart phones than at our significant others—nearly 2 hours per day!)

How is it possible that we can be swimming in a deluge of visual information and yet remain virtually clueless about basic principles like color psychology (how colors affect mood), gestalt principles (how our brain fills in gaps in information and makes stuff up), and face-ism ratios (the smaller the face in a photograph, the less we perceive personality traits and the more we focus on sensual, physical characteristics)?

Perhaps even 20 years ago, it would have been safe to argue that ignorance in visual rhetoric was largely inconsequential. But I’m not comfortable thinking that way anymore. With the availability and ubiquity of desktop publishing (MS Word), digital imaging (Photoshop), and design (InDesign) software, nearly everyone will, at some point, be making visual communications that will affect either themselves or the public. Gone are the days when visualizations are only created by trained experts.

If you don’t believe me, consider résumés as a basic example. Forbes recently (2012) published an article about eye-tracking research done on how job recruiters read résumés. The study found that the average time reading a résumé was 6.25 seconds. In such a brief time, recruiters require an ability to scan information, which is a byproduct of well-thought-out layout and design theory. According to the article, those who don’t feel like they can create a well-designed résumé, but have money to spare, can pay nearly $400 for the service to be done. The rest are, well, up a creek.

But the inability to get a job interview because of poor design skills isn’t the extent of my concern. Lack of visual awareness breeds naïve and misguided assumptions about information being fed to us through our visual media. It is disconcerting, for example, that so many failed to recognize the irony intended in the republican infographic of the Affordable Care Act.

Republican version of the House Democrat Health Care Plan
Republican version of the House Democrat Health Care Plan

It is bothersome that so few can recognize the misleading data visualizations that so frequently pop up on our television screens, like when Fox News created a perfectly straight line (to suggest steady and unwavering increase in unemployment) when the real data suggested otherwise.

Fox News Unemployment Graphic
Graphic used by Fox News to communicate the unemployment rate since President Obama issued the economic stimulus packages in 2009.

And it is especially disturbing that so few are aware that even our “most trusted sources” in news subtly use sexed-up images of women to sell us content and, through biological visual stimuli that further create viewing addictions, further encourage people to view increasingly graphic pornographic images (all these images came from CNN’s website).

News Headlines Images


Without training in visual literacy, it has also become apparent that most people don’t understand fundamental ethical considerations when borrowing other people’s work. Most college students are unaware that it is plagiarism to use images without citing their source. I’ve even been to several presentations given by academics with doctorate degrees who use images without permission to pretty-up posters, PowerPoints, and papers. And I’m alarmed to realize how few people realize that it is illegal (and just plain discourteous) to take images from someone’s Facebook page and redistribute them without permission.

Other consequences of bad visual literacy are abundant (and can be quite embarrassing). Consider what the reactions might have been to a junior jazz dance studio that used a logo without awareness of gestalt (where the brain turns two dancers into a nude woman’s torso).


Or the reactions to a kid’s consignment store that created a sign without understanding the principle of kerning—space between letters—which inadvertently turned “Kids Exchange” into “Kid Sex Change.”


Or, the reactions to large company faux pas, like when PepsiCo’s lack of typography awareness led to a promotion of rape, or when JCPenny’s ignorance of anthropomorphism and figure-ground relationships, somehow turned a tea kettle into Adolf Hitler.


Bad visual literacy in these cases is bad marketing, sure, and it can damage an organization’s ability to lure customers. But the problem is far more serious when bad visual literacy is thwarts potentially purposeful and worthwhile causes, like when a religious organization fails to understand that the images it uses on its website communicates greed and power rather than following Christ.


Without basic visual literacy skills in a world inundated with design technologies and visual displays, rising generations risk far more than tainting our world with ugly design (although, that ought to be reason enough to encourage more education on the matter); they risk ignorance in the ability to make informed judgments. They become unaware of how sociocultural and biological visual inputs (some subtle, others more overt) affect how they view other people and organizations, develop prejudices, react to religious and political paradigms, and on and on.

It seems that, as an educator, I have a responsibility to inform my students about the consequences of visual communication. But I’m convinced that college is too late a start to begin thinking about visual literacy and I certainly don’t think it should just be taught in communication and art schools.

Visual literacy is fundamental to the way humans communicate—probably more so than reading and writing—since seeing isn’t a learned process. Shouldn’t it naturally be a part of our curriculum as well?