CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY AT CHICO
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
For one group of advocates, a literal definition of the term has 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 Metaphors'
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 inclusive
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 Writing (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 Wild's 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) tide 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. Similar to proceedings, these edited compilations include articles
that have only one unifying thread: they all have something to do with seeing.
This chapter will attempt to deal with so-called visual literacy research
that includes widely diverging topics of interest. With such an expanded conception
of visual literacy, to describe all of the relevant research and to present
all of the findings would take an entire volume, not a chapter. Thus, the thrust
of this chapter will be to identify and categorize a large portion of the related
literature and to elaborate on only selected studies.