There are two major impediments to research on visual literacy. The first is a lack of a widely accepted definition of the term visual literacy itself. The second, perhaps a consequence of the first, is a lack of a cohesive theory. We must confront the ever-present problem of identifying visual literacy itself before we can identify the body of visual literacy research. The visual literacy concept as an area of study has been plagued by an identity crisis from the outset. Skeptics doubt that visual literacy really exists.


For one group of advocates, a literal definition of the term led to investigation of visual languages with a one-for one analogy with the reading and writing aspects of verbal literacy. For others, more inclusive definitions have led to the study of visualization in all of its aspects of communication and education. The definitional controversy has been so much a part of visual literacy that Cassidy and Knowlton wrote a major paper in 1983 entitled “Visual Literacy, a Failed Metaphor?” and in 1994 Moore and Dwyer included in their book a chapter titled “Visual Literacy: The Definition Problem” Seels, 1994). Cassidy and Knowlton (1983) may have had trouble with the term because Knowlton (1966) had set for himself an exclusive definition. Seels and most others at this time favor a more attitude toward what constitutes the area of visual literacy.

As evidence that there is no common definition, we merely need to look at the titles of six recent books: Visual Literacy: Image, Mind, & Reality (Messaris, 1994); Visual Literacy: A Conceptual Approach to Solving Graphic Problems (Wilde & Wilde, 1991); Introduction to Visual Literacy (Curtiss, 1987); Visual Literacy Connections to Thinking, Reading and (Sinatra, 1986); Visual Literacy: A Spectrum of Visual Learning (Moore & Dwyer, 1994); and Art, Science & Visual Literacy (Braden, Baca & Beauchamp, 1993).

Each of these books contains the term visual literacy in the title, but, how different are their basic assumptions. Messaris (1994) approached the subject—and thus defines and delimits it—from the communications field and particularly from the perspectives of film, television, and advertising. Wilde and Wilde (1991) have written a basic textbook for graphic artists that contains 15 graphic design exercises and 4 illustration exercises, with each exercise followed by examples of how the authors’ students have solved those problems. Like the work of Curtiss, the Wildes work relates visual literacy more to art than to communication, and except in the graphic-design world, nobody would accept their assumed limited definition of visual literacy Curtiss (1987) took a wide-ranging look, but primarily from the viewpoint of the fine artist. Sinatra’s (1986) title includes the term, but his book is more about the acquisition of verbal literacy (reading). Moore and Dwyer (1994) have compiled an eclectic, comprehensive text, covering 22 aspects of visual literacy. Their particular delimiter (definitional bias) is learning: the ways that visuals and visualization affect the learning process. Finally, the Braden, Baca, and Beauchamp (1993) volume is just one of more than a dozen annual books of readings published by the International Visual Literacy Association. to proceedings, these edited compilations include articles that have only one unifying thread: they all have something to do with seeing.

Roberts A. Braden
California State University at Chico

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