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Sunni Brown

Author, Chief Infodoodler, sunnibrown.com


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Why is visual literacy discouraged in most cultures & WHAT CAN WE DO to change that?

This LIVE CONVERSATION will open at 1PM ET/ 10AM PT on Monday, October 31th! Join me!

Visual literacy, if described as the ability to communicate via doodling, drawing, and sketching or described as the ability to display complex information in visual language formats, is often a literacy missing in adults despite it being a universal and natural inclination in children. Why does it disappear? And more importantly, what can we do to alter this course?

**ADMIN UPDATE: Sunni Brown has asked to extend her Conversation for two weeks. She will be jumping in to catch up with responses over the next two weeks. Happy posting everyone!

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    Nov 4 2011: Before you can walk, you can draw. Before you can talk, you can draw. Before you can read, you can draw. Before you can write...... YOU CAN DRAW
    So with all that experience behind us, why do so many people say 'I can't draw"

    35,000 years since we started painting on cave walls and carving figures out of Mammoth ivory.
    What have we done to ourselves that we educate our children to think of art and visual thinking as being a secondary, lesser subject.
    Policy makers sitting ostentatious offices with art hanging on their walls, nicely designed suits, desks and chairs, driving to work in their beautifully designed cars, telling us that Art isn't as important as other subjects.
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      Nov 5 2011: Agree 100%!

      (With my own bias as artist I would extend it: before you can draw, you can paint!)

      The fact that drawing/doodling actually requires processing (unlike, for example, automatic writing) indicates that it takes active listening and contributes to anchor learning and increase retention.
      Weather is art itself, or the ability to take notes this way that are suppressed, this simply reinforces the belief that instruction and indoctrination are preferred over education.

      A passive student doesn't ask questions, but accepts all facts -he already lost his chance to learn!
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      Nov 7 2011: Some time ago, I owned several graphics companies. At that time, if you asked people what were the five largest industries, no one would have put graphics in the list. Probably no one would even put it in the top ten.

      As it turns out it was the fourth largest: after food, clothing, and automobiles.*

      I'm not sure were it would be placed now. I think hospitality/tourism is now considered the "biggest" industry ... but I'm not sure.

      Think about every industry, no matter what else they do, they all use graphics: from package design, to signage; corporate ID to reports; to advertising, business cards, menus, vehicles, clothing, and so on.

      * These are industries categorized in broad stokes: automobiles would include all support for autos; graphics would include design, printing, printing presses and inks, paper, photography, typography; and so on.
      • Nov 8 2011: Graphics....used in entertainment, advertising..... It wouldn't surprise me if graphics had actually grown given how influential advertising is and how much demand there is for advertising anywhere it can possibly fit.

        I think visuals not only have the capacity to communicate, I think visuals influence our beliefs and decision making.
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        Nov 9 2011: I hate to post rumors or look like a fool, but one thing I heard was that advertising is a tax write off for companies. Is that true?
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          Nov 9 2011: It depends on the country you're in but generally, yes, advertising is seen a s "business expense" and can be written off.
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        Nov 10 2011: Wow Thomas! Who knew. You just surprised me with that information. Thank you
  • Oct 31 2011: It's too bad I won't be able to see this conversation live. I ALWAYS am made fun of when I'm trying to describe something to someone and have to resort to drawing it so they understand exactly what I mean.
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      Oct 31 2011: Tory, you just send those people to me. I'll handle them.

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      Oct 31 2011: I also have to visualize when I am talking and I often find that I begin to see far more clearly what it is I am trying to express as I make the picture. My claim to household fame is any time my wife and I are at a restaurant I usually have all the sugar packets out making a map with them as the representation marker. I do get some strange looks when I have 10 packets and just need 3 more
    • Oct 31 2011: Include me in this category too. There is a tactile quality to thinking, which is why I sketch. The benefit when I am done, is it is easier to remember when I can locate something visually in my mind.
  • Nov 1 2011: I am a visual learner, and I struggled with the way mathematics was taught at my school and university. I later did my own research into visual methods for learning the same things. For example, the water analogy for electronics, and ancient Greek (and older) methods for calculating geometries using shapes, which were more visual-based, and came before algebra. This really helped me and I think it would help other right-brained people if they were taught both ways.

    I think children should be taught both visually and verbally, to make learning more effective, and to reduce classroom problems that occur when teachers think in a different way to students. There is also the generation gap in brain structure caused by differences in environments while growing up - my generation grew up with computers, my teachers grew up with books - as a result, our brains are structured differently. Kids that think differently could fail classes just because the teacher isn't catering for different brain types. This puts kids off subjects like mathematics, science, engineering, electronics etc. which they could potentially learn if they were taught the right way.
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      Nov 1 2011: You are so on target!!!

      And ancient Greeks knew how to do it, just look at the Socratic school -the Maieutica- where a SMALL group of students were guided by a wise teacher through an inquisitive thinking process, questioning everything and reviewing all accepted knowledge inside and out. The assumption was that we do not really know anything yet, we have to discover all. Also, that everyone was able to access this truths through this process.
      Outside, under the trees, with visuals and tactile experiences... it sounds very avant-garde if you ask me.

      I can hear Cher now, "If I could turn back time..."
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      Nov 1 2011: Math history has been the most appealing approach to the subject for me. By telling a story it explains the 'why' portion so well. Where it came from, how it got there, and why we do it the way we do today. When I found out that algebra was done with two parallel number lines it blew my mind. All of these ties with Greek history you mention would be tied beautifully into myth readings. These combinations offer an in depth learning experience.
      • Nov 1 2011: Guys, I absolutely agree! Also, I think teaching things alongside other material and showing how they are related further reinforces long-term memory. If you teach mathematics on its own, numbers, functions and their relationships can lack meaning. Applying the relationships in real world situations, adding a background story and history to why it is done that way really helps students.

        Perhaps doodling looks immature, but studies I've read/heard about show doodling is really beneficial to memory and creativity (sorry about lack of references). Also, music is really beneficial to mathematical understanding, with all the harmonic relationships etc. Education and industry needs to catch up with science!
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        Nov 1 2011: Mr Froebel, the creator of kindergarten, also created the core of his program, called The Gifts. Look into that, worth it!

        It was a math set, ALL MANIPULATIVES, all visual and kinesthetic, that is admired even today. He favored open ended activities, LOTS of "play" time, where children explored and talked to discover natural laws. All rare things in today's education, by the way...

        I have never seen M. Bradley's version (do you mean a Hasbro game similar to the Gifts?)
        But I have been trained on the 1820 set (a replica), the progression of concepts, the goals, etc.

        Incredible material, challenging even for adults!
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          Nov 2 2011: Milton Bradley distorted Mr. Froebel's Gifts to the point that they were unrecognizable compared to their original version's intent. Sad to see this distortion pursued for the sake of profit.

          His Gifts do live on in many respects in Waldorf education, which is gaining in popularity worldwide.
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      Nov 1 2011: I have taught math for a long time, and we always have done it with sketching, making diagrams, and so forth. Even calculus involves sketching. It is a fundamental aspect of figuring out what the problem is really asking. Students are expected to have diagrams as part of showing how they did their work.I think math instruction is one area in which sketching things out has long been accepted as necessary.I have never taught writing, but it seems to me the way kids are taught to sketch out plots of stories also involves diagrams. And social studies involves lots of map-making and timelines done by hand by kids.
      So in my teaching career and watching my three kids in schools public and private, I cannot say I have seen a neglect of visual tools in learning and communication.
      • Nov 2 2011: Well said, Fritzie. I think we need to be very careful about not over-generalising on this thread. There is a lot of good education going on that makes extensive use of the visual.
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      Nov 2 2011: I can definitely relate with you. I excelled in Geometry and flunk badly in Algebra. Had to jump 10+ schools in my entire life.

      I'm glad that my kids are living in this day and age that schools are aware of the different kinds of learning although most don't do anything about it.

      It's the system that kills visual learning. Example: My kids take Math everyday and have Art once a week.
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        Nov 2 2011: Oliver, isn't it an oxymoron?

        The reason the curriculum pushes math is, in principle, because it is such a needed tool in many real life occupations today, such as computer programming, engineering, physics, etc.

        Yet, the way it is implemented keeps it disconnected from real applications in a formulaic confusion of rot memory data and useless required demonstrations. If it were hands on, deductive, exploratory and project based (e.g. build a bridge that supports X weight, or a robotic device for a given purpose) kids of any age and skill would feel at ease with at least the rudiments and practical use of algebra.
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          Nov 2 2011: Yes, problem-based learning! I had to discover this myself as a young student because it was not talked about or existed in my country during the early 80s.
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    Oct 31 2011: I have 3 children 5,9,12 and I am amazed at how easily they can learn a Playstation Game, or learn all the types of pokemon their evolved forms. Then how difficult it is for them to learn anything at school.
    The types of pokemon and their evolved forms ISTM has very similar meta data structure to the chemical elements. So if a child can learn all the classes of pokemon they should easily be able to learn the periodic table and the group of each element, because it is simpler. But this is not the case.

    I have come to the conclusion that the way information is presented to them at school is no longer compatible with children. (Assuming it ever was).

    I think education should shrug off all this "Playing Computer games" and "Watching too much TV" is bad, and take a LONG HARD look at what works, what form of presentation makes information easy for a child to absorb.
    We have the technology, advertisers know 100% how to get information into a child's mind.

    Give me history on a DVD, in cartoon format, let the kid watch it 20 times like they do with every other DVD they will learnt up, down, and sideways.
    Give me maths on a PS3 game where you have to get to level 10 to pass the year.
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      Oct 31 2011: In this case I would make note that the element of the GAME is also contributing heavily to your children's interest in and capacity for learning. I have a book called Gamestorming which was driven in part by the idea that games are powerful vehicles for learning. And I agree - most schools can't possibly keep up with the changing technology and expectations of children these days. They're swimming upstream while the kids are on hovercrafts carrying iPads. That's partly why I don't expect the vehicle for increased visual literacy to be schools or educational institutions. I think the learner is going to be largely responsible for how s/he manages and learns information. And that sounds daunting, but because visual language is so native to us, it's not a big leap to a quick fortification of our thinking skills.
      • Oct 31 2011: Sunni, it sounds like you're advocating more of a (re)validation for young people that, whatever expectations their teachers/educators/peers have, that this is a legitimate, even advantageous way of learning, thinking and communicating.
    • Oct 31 2011: I believe DreamBox turns math into a fun video game. Dreambox is a company that I believe is owned by #Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix.
  • Oct 31 2011: You'd think this would be a critical skill in a business climate so addicted to power point.
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      Oct 31 2011: The fact that it's not KILLS me. Business is operating in a hyper-competitive, global, socially-connected, incredibly complex space and YET here most of us are, trying to talk and inspire people using slides with clip art. I can't tell you how many business ideas are a direct result of sketching. Without them, we wouldn't have the Internet (thank you, Al Gore!), or the telephone, or moving pictures.
      • Oct 31 2011: "I can't tell you how many business ideas are a direct result of sketching." -Sunni Brown

        What many parents and teachers around the world discourage is EXACTLY what leads to the latest innovations and and most significant company ideas of our world! What a Paradox.
        • Nov 1 2011: Schools discourage what is needed in many ways. For example, nearly everything a school calls cheating is an essential skill in business. Such a paradox, then, should not surprise us, but that is a different topic.
          Back to your point about the value of sketches, you are right on. A lot of businesses start that way. Many others, though, start with a few sentences, which form an outline. All projects, business or otherwise, start out with an overview, then get into the details. If you sketch a construction project, that will eventually become a blueprint before a shovel hits the dirt.
  • Oct 31 2011: I'm seeing teachers at the elementary school where my wife works use graphic organizers more frequently. It excites me that these students are using visual elements to understand their world. Anyone have similar experiences?
    • Oct 31 2011: Yes.. wholeheartedly concur. I'm seeing students having fewer hangups about using any number of tools to help get their ideas down somewhere. I credit a lot of it to the growth of Web 2.0 where collaboration, invention and creativity are actually more encouraged. More opportunities to share with others one's talents, ideas and opinions. Problem for many is not knowing certain tools exist.
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    Oct 31 2011: Why does it disappear? I attended a lecture just two Saturdays ago, by David J. Lewkowicz, where he explained that development integration and differentiation (of the senses) appear to be simultaneous and needed processes, showing there are regressions of functional capacity when a perceptual ability is not stimulated. I had not related it to visual literacy, but now that you pose the question, it popped out in my mind.
    Maybe the lack of stimulation for visual literacy in main stream school systems leads to the regression of such a capacity. So that idea would lead me to ask myself (and others) why isn't it stimulated? Isn't it needed in further life? Or is an underrated skill?

    Maybe I was too technical, lol, I see no one answering. XD
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      Oct 31 2011: In my experience, it is a dramatically underrated skill. And not having heard Lewkowicz' lecture, I would likely agree that we lose functional capacity when this skill isn't nurtured or stimulated. It's like being born with huge, innate potential and then letting it wilt. For reasons that seem to have no real merit. Obviously, we can all get by without the capacity of drawing or sketching, but we can also get by without proper nutrition or sanitation. The question is: why would we want to?
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        Oct 31 2011: Usually it is considered brain economy, the brain lets go certain capacities to achieve mastery in others. The thing is, why is school to decided what capacity should wilt!!!
  • Oct 31 2011: One of the most important purposes of communication is not to express an idea so people can understand, but to express it so accurately that people can find fault. This is particularly critical in negotiations, but also in engineering, law, medicine, etc. It is my belief that visuals may convey a flavor or the borad picture, but it is hard to find errors in a visual representation. Not always, of course, but I think that is a common issue.
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      Oct 31 2011: Interesting idea... what about things like schematics, blueprints, scientific drawings?

      Really curious what visual leagalese would look like. :)
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      Oct 31 2011: Kenneth, I love what you said about expressing an idea so people can find fault with it. Visual depictions, like words, however, CAN and should be be critiqued. Indeed, the process of creating visual maps inherently empowers the creator to get a better understanding of the subject matter and then, upon presentation, gives the viewer an opportunity to scrutinize the information. It may be hard to find errors in visual representations precisely BECAUSE we aren't visually literate. It's much like our inability to determine a good commercial from a commercial that's full of shit. We don't have much media literacy either. :(( You might enjoy this article from Science: http://www.livescience.com/15747-doodling-science-education.html
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        Oct 31 2011: Media literacy or advocacy for that matter are absent from school wide education. This is a bit out of balance from the amount of time spent in school verses the amount of time a student is exposed to media. I vaguely recall the number of hours a student is engulfed in media is as much if not more than the number of hours in class at school K-12. This provides a dynamic challenge in gaining the attention of students, let alone competing with what media is saying to and guiding our youth to do. School's role is to teach people how to think, not what to think. Students need help being able to discern between the good, the bad, and the ugly in all the world portrayed by media, the classroom teacher, and the folks at home.
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    Oct 31 2011: I think the tide is turning, slowly, towards awareness of visual literacy. See the recent infographic trend. I'd like to think that in another few decades we'll be teaching visual literacy along with language literacy. I wonder how this will look in our classrooms...

    Until that day comes, I think it's going to take giving as many people a taste of the benefits and power of visual communication as possible. I find most people become "converts" once they get direct experience of visual notetaking, visual meetings, etc.
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      Oct 31 2011: Kelly, absolutely. I spent a LOT of time talking people through the value of visual communication and it takes almost NO time to show it to them. The experience is where the impact is.
  • Oct 31 2011: I think one aspect of the challenge is the notion that visual communication/processing requires "talent" from the genetic lottery while we expect, that everyone will be able to read and write regardless of talent. Yet that doesn't mean that everyone who writes will write good poetry or novels, but that doesn't stop us from using the tools of language. Similarly, if we move towards seeing sketching/doodling/visual communication as a critical tool and de-couple it from great works of art, it might seem more accessible.
    • Oct 31 2011: I agree and think we can trace this back to the 2-3 grade, prior to learing how to read and write most kids draw feverishly until they become conscious of the concept of a good drawing and a bad one.
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      Oct 31 2011: The "talent" argument is one of the four I hear most often. We have a miseducated belief that "art" is exclusive and that the visualization of content needs to be beautiful. While beauty is certainly appreciated in art and the mastery of form should be applauded, talent is NOT is prerequisite for visual literacy. In fact, the opposite is true. The impact of creating and processing visual information is available to anyone who dives in to the experience, regardless of perceived skill. That is one aspect of the Doodle Revolution that will never change.
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        Oct 31 2011: Curious - what are the other 3?
      • Oct 31 2011: Pictionary taught me one great lesson, and that was how unimportant a beautiful or accurate drawing was, and how important speed and clarity were.
        • Oct 31 2011: In order to qualify speed as an advantage to that game, you must be able to simplify and stylized whatever it is you are trying to draw to save time. This requires talent.
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        Oct 31 2011: Moreover, the actual quality of the drawing is irrelevant. Just as the only requirements for ones notes is that one can read them the same is true for graphic notes.
        Plus it does not have to be sketches, islands of text in boxes with arrows between them, geometrical shapes, different colors.

        Whatever works. Children should be encouraged to take notes in any format that works for them.

        The only way to do that is to show the class 4 or 5 examples of "non linear" note taking and let each student adopt a personal system that works for them.
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      Oct 31 2011: Great point, I couldn't agree more.

      I would love to see the day when lines/shapes/color are as democratically used as words and grammar. Where did this divide come from? When did we conflate mark-making with art-making?
  • Nov 7 2011: I believe there are a number of factors that keep us from moving forward as a culture focused on mastering visual literacy. First, sadly, drawing/doodling/etc. are not practiced everyday for communication in most social/learning settings, nor is it encouraged on a daily basis in classrooms/social settings.

    Second, many people are intimidated by creating art in any capacity because of the fear of failure and/or ridicule.

    As a social experiment, ask anyone over the age of 11 to draw an unfamiliar object or animal while you watch them. Take note of how many times each person does one or all of the following: erase, retry, make excuses for their short comings, give up, "x" out their work, or deny the challenge outright. I wonder how many people will apologize for their drawing not being "perfect" when they finally finish and show you.

    The arts are also commonly mistaken as a frill added onto our education system; not as something that will super charge it. But I believe the tide IS turning.


    Maybe people simply miss the fact that visual language is a system of patterns not too different from the patterns found in language arts, science, and math. All of which are used to report back our findings from observing our surroundings in nature to record history, help predict future patterns, or mimic them for our civilizations' better good.

    As a visual learner, I understand the basic form of visual language as a straight line and a curved line (a single letters/number) that can be manipulated into a shape (word/number) which we combine with other shapes and lines to create an image (sentence/equation) to serve a specific purpose whether it is to pose a question, answer a question, or explore a thought. Artistic process and the scientific process are the same to me. If we bring total awareness to these shared patterns, nonvisual learners may finally understand it.
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      Nov 9 2011: "Artistic process and the scientific process are the same to me."

      Short story... My old elementary school holds an art and invention show together in the same space every year. This is a collaborative effort between two specialists, the art teacher and the science teacher of a progressive school. (Yes, science is a specialist along with library, art, music, and sports [physical education]) Students get to show off their art works and share their inventions both kinds of work convey great ideas.

      The connections between art and science mirror each other. Theory, hypothesis, experiment, conclusion, and then repeat based on your findings are how artists and scientists inform their work. There is a lot of discovery, accidental answers to unasked questions, and unknown outcomes. Original ideas are crushed or altered by pursuing a painting or experiment. Some might damn this as 'failure' or as a 'mistake' and judge it to be 'bad.' I argue otherwise and find it essential to learning. Anyone who is free of error does not exist. The more mistakes a person makes the greater lived experience they have earned.

      Finding the strength to be brave enough to face failure is not as difficult as ridicule from others. Critical cruelty from the exterior world can work its way into the mind of anyone. Even lies can become beliefs after routine battery from peers especially during adolescence.

      Overcoming negative feedback from others and especially yourself is the greatest challenge we face in order to try. Shutting down and running away seem to be safe places to be, where these kinds of feelings appear to 'go away.' These feelings actually anchor in and dig deeper, keeping people from pursuing their dreams and ideas. The real struggle is letting go of them and not finding comfort or familiarity in their pain.

      My question at this point is how to address it? What can be done to alter, adjust, or advance through these challenges? Where does it come from, is it learned or taught?
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    Nov 2 2011: I agree with numerous contributors to this post that the situation is not as bleak as it may at first appear.

    In my corporate career with huge manufacturing firms, it is my experience that visual literacy is highly valued for many reasons. One reason is that visual images can represent complex relationships concisely, accurately and in a compelling way. Another reason is that visual images usually do not need translation the way text does. I worked in firms that operated in up to 90 countries so the time, expense of translation was significant.

    I am surprised that Edward Tufte has not been mentioned in this conversation yet. He has published at least 4 major books on visual literacy and conducts workshops around the world on this topic. http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/ In one of my former employers, training in Tufte's workshops was a common choice for professionals across different functions.

    Another phenomenon is the rising popularity of illustrated/graphic novels as serious communication forms. Nick Sousanis is a talented graphic novelist who creates remarkable works on a variety of topics, including the nature of thinking. http://spinweaveandcut.blogspot.com/

    Yet another interesting development is the field of data visualization which has become more and more valued as the sheer amount of information freely available rises exponentially.

    Finally, I believe that cultures with pictograph-derived written languages have a greater regard for visual literacy. I recall working hard to create aesthetically balanced characters when learning to write Chinese script. The feeling and skills I used to write such characters were markedly different from those I experienced when writing English words, even English script.
  • Oct 31 2011: This is interesting in that I guess I didn't realize it was being discouraged. I have but recently come into contact with RSAnimate, which I find an absolutely amazing and captivating way of transmitting ideas. So much so I am looking at developing some courses I am working on to incorporate more visual.

    I was also just watching to a TED presentation by Bruce Schneier, in which he made the statement "we are also a species of story tellers. We respond to stories more than data."

    This idea is driving what I'm working on in this very moment, and why I find this interesting that this is some how being discouraged.

    One thing which comes to mind, which Emmie Thomas stated in her post regarding the possibility of visual language being missing due to the difficulty in acquiring the skills to present it effectively. I too have to wonder if sheer presentation of an idea is easier in a non-visual format for many people. I know several people who are artistically inclined and who design things of beauty with a skill I don't even come close to having. For me, not having this advanced skill level has, in the past, caused me to hold back on even considering visual presentation of some of my ideas. But as I move forward with this project I am working on, I absolutely not only see the need, but the power of a strong visual component to the learning process.

    I have to wonder if there is a way to create a easy to use interface where people can display their ideas visually. First thing which comes to mind is mind-mapping. This concept has changed my life when it comes to how I approach the development of my ideas. Maybe accessibility to resources which make visual presentation easier would help.
    • Oct 31 2011: It’s interesting that Robert Cornell should bring up Bruch Schneier’s statement, “we are a species of story tellers. We respond to stories more than data.” This resonates with us very much. In our Knowji Vocab apps, we strived to teach vocabulary through the use of illustrations, stories and audio. We created a set of characters that interrelate with one another in the example sentences throughout the lessons. This provides learners richer context for learning. It also helps to elicit emotions from the learner, which also helps with learning and remembering. It is very difficult to learn obscure and abstract words and ideas with a simple short definition. Such de-contextualized learning is boring and makes developing a visual representation of an idea difficult in our minds.

      Robert, what is the name of your project?
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    Oct 31 2011: And oh, btw, completely on board with tool vs. skill differentiation. My point was that most people learned "how to make presentations" because of Microsoft Powerpoint. (Of course there are those (including me) who would argue that PowerPoint has taught us all bad habits! :) 'nuff said...)
  • Oct 31 2011: Visual Literacy in children in innate for most. Did you see a 3 year old playing with an iPhone and iPad? I am an artist, a visual multimedia designer and a teacher. Been surrounded by technology for many years and played a role in numerous visual design projects for large companies. I cannot compare the speed with which they can "read" a visual interface with my own. We are looking at a whole new generation of visually literate human beings. As teachers we should push this angle in our curriculums and practices. As parents, need to take matter into our own hands and stimulate it, endorse it, while the system is catching up. (oh so slowly )... After this session I am hoping to get an insight as to what can be done to promote visual literacy. Will there be a recap?
  • Oct 31 2011: About cost of illiteracy, I once read from a training journal that illiteracy costs U.S. businesses $60 billion a year in lost productivity. I can try to dig up the research if anyone is interested. Sunni, what you said about the ridicule of the use of visual language is very interesting. We haven't seen or heard of such before, so sharing references to this fact would be really instructive.

    I am wondering if the use of visual language is so often missing because the ability to illustrate our thoughts is a difficult skill to acquire, despite its tremendous learning value. When we illustrated pictures 1500 SAT words for our iphone apps (Knowji Vocab), it required an enormous amount of creativity, talent and time and the project took thousands of hours to put together. For instance, how would one go about drawing words like "abstract" or "conception"?
    • Nov 13 2011: Hi Emmie, I am interested to find this app? It isn't coming up on iPhone, I also know a way how to illustrate the words, the reason is, if you cannot read at all, you find a way!
      • Nov 14 2011: Hi Maxine: I would love to learn about your solution for illustrating words. Our apps can be found in the app store by searching for "Knowji Vocab". Or you can go to our site at www.knowji.com. My email is info@knowji.com and I hope to hear from you. Best, Emmie
  • Oct 31 2011: What I find interesting is that we are discussing this as we ourselves (Americans) are shifting away from traditional literacy to sharing information visually. I find that as we undergo this shift, subtle yet important ideas are lost. There is value in literature exploring the abstract concepts which give meaning and weight to our words. Therefore, we should integrate visual imagery into society, but continue to maintain robust literacy.

    A picture does indeed speak a thousand words, but we still need to know the words and concepts behind every picture.
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      Oct 31 2011: Ali, I make a distinction between consumption of visual content and production of it. I believe people should be taught to do both. Intelligently consume visual content and intelligently portray it for their own and others' understanding and analysis.
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    Oct 31 2011: I want to stress that these are not random patterns. There's an evolutionary agreement between all earth dwelling beings, at least, as to what exactly a 'note' is. A single 'note' sets up a pattern of vibration in the airspace it occupies. A combination of notes with a common denominator between them sets up a swirling pattern in the airspace it occupies that is audible to the ear, visible to the brain. Also, color gets involved, inferred by emotional response.
    I know this is not your field, but it's the same ranch....it is the arena of perception. Cousins in creation.
  • Oct 31 2011: Was an Art Educator in a public art gallery for 6 years. Focused on this very issue. My take on why it's taken for granted? Because everyone assumes that because they can "look" at things that they can "see" them. Most of us are encouraged to "label" what we look at rather than be truly critical about what it is we "see". We typically have a very tiny vocabulary of terms to describe what it is we do see ...

    Another take? We've had a difficult enough time trying to promote the concept and importance of full literacy (reading & writing) to be functional in today's society and we still haven't managed to include everyone. To suggest that visual literacy is a "must" is going to be a very hard sell.. unless we can prove the shortcomings of not doing so .. the cost of it to society... This simply points out the need for more research on the topic.

    How to overcome the problem?
    First .. use opportunities to increase public awareness of the issue .. and what's at stake as a result of having someone who is not"visually literate". The whole Gallery, with its Art Education community would seem to be a likely starting place for organizing and lobbying for this..

    Second the focus of that awareness should be on noting the cost of having that limited vocabulary. I'd suggest that we use the analogy of reading to help here. If we had the same limited vocabulary for reading books.. we'd also be limited in the number of books we could read .. and the extent to which we could understand the concepts presented in them .. and in understanding the world around us. I've found that for most people, the number of words used to describe visual objects or events is extremely limited .. and to complicate matters further.. with few opportunities to learn how to expand and practice that vocabulary.

    Third, get the research that's needed to know the true extent of people's visual vocabulary and detail the opportunities lost by it.
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      Oct 31 2011: I think you're right, we'll need to prove the cost.

      On a related note, I recently learned of a lawyer-turned-art-historian who began a program to teach police detectives and other law enforcement first responders how to articulate what they see better. She found that if these professionals didn't feel comfortable describing what they saw, often the information would go unexpressed. Crimes are solved based on tiny details that require precise observation. http://aop.artfulperception.com/

      Other times it's not so clear cut, but hopefully more research will bear out the importance of not only being able to communicate with visuals, but articulate what we see in them.
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      Oct 31 2011: James, fantastic comment, thank you. My responses:
      First, visual literacy can actually be used to teach verbal literacy which, as you rightfully pointed out, is a problem in itself. I think that we may be missing an opportunity to use instinctive visual language as a gateway to teaching all kinds of other fundamentals kills.
      Second, calculating the cost of this illiteracy is so challenging to do. I can point to our declining scores on the Torrance Test as some evidence, but the request to show the cost is like requesting to show the cost of not being able to read. It is preposterously enormous. There are numerous other studies of declining ability (innovation, problem-solving, etc.) but I think your metaphor is one of the most powerful approaches to igniting people's concern and action. I will always compile research-based evidence to make the case, but the anecdotes and stories are what seem to move people to action.
      Last, "looking" versus "seeing." Two entirely different animals indeed. Thank you so much for your work as an Art Educator.
    • Oct 31 2011: With regards to the size of vocabulary, the average person uses 2000 words that encompass 95% of spoken communication. A well-educated native English speaker should have a vocabulary size of about 20,000 words by the time they are in college. I believe most people have a significantly smaller vocabulary than that – particularly given that 50% of American adults can’t read at an 8th grade level.
  • Oct 31 2011: Sunni, do you ever think that we can build a lexicon of images which are cross referenced with words and used much like fonts, where you can either write a word or draw an image and simply switch between literary and visual fonts? Simply a different way at looking at the same information?

    Perhaps if people had the same comfort that spell check gave them, they would draw more. That's what we need, a visual spell check
    • Oct 31 2011: Are you speaking of ideographs, as we see in written Chinese?
      • Oct 31 2011: No, it really has to be accessible...was simply dreaming of having a "Visual" option under Google Translator, to or from any other language.
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      Oct 31 2011: A visual auto-correct, hilarious! My first concern would be that it would start to homogenize visual representations, which scares me. But regarding a lexicon, I do have my own "graphic vocabulary", pieces of which I use to quickly convey something people are describing in a conversation. I encourage all students of visual literacy to start to develop their own lexicon for the purposes of rapid sketching or prototyping. There are books available for this purpose as well and Google Image search doesn't hurt to see what the collective societal metaphors are.
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    Oct 31 2011: WHY: Maybe because it is regarded as "caveman like" and when early colonizers thought of it as uncivilized.
    WHAT CAN WE DO: Listen and draw more. Read and write less.
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      Oct 31 2011: Hmmm...maybe we can blame the Puritans...prioritizing reading the Bible versus seeing/sensing the world (and inviting temptation via the eyes)? That would be my armchair anthropologist guess.

      Or maybe back to the Enlightenment and it's favor of reason...or the Renaissance perhaps...
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        Oct 31 2011: They forgot about how effective story telling is especially with pictures.

        Meditating on the Bible is a very creative process and definitely a right brain function just like doodling, drawing, and sketching.
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          Oct 31 2011: True. Thinking of cathedral stained glass panels...
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      Oct 31 2011: There is definitely a bias against visual language (a phenomenon I'm still researching) and yes, I think much of that bias was a result of the construction and distribution of written language. Being able to read and write was often a function of one's class in society, so the "peasants" relied on pictures and the intelligentsia had "evolved." But moving away from images and toward words is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They're BOTH incredibly valuable and they serve different functions. I want to live in a society that honors as much of human intelligence (emotional and intellectual) as is available to us.
      • Oct 31 2011: Now that you have brought up the issue of literature, I am thinking of the wonderful invention of moveable type, and how much easier printing became. Have you tracked a decline in visual representations that corresponds to the use of moveable type and the movement away from wood block prints? Today, of course, as in this conversation, we type. My own illiteracy prevents me from using a drawing. However, the computer I type on is perfectly capable of transmitting and printing drawings.
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        Oct 31 2011: You may want to consider personality profiles because I've observed that most people with dominant personalities prefer to read and write.
      • Oct 31 2011: I don't believe there is a bias against visual language. What I think is missing is the real-time unfolding of a line, a shape, an arrow, a bubble, a series of dots, a squaring, etc. that should accompany the drawing or illustration. Technology isn't there yet.
  • Oct 31 2011: It's silly because we are becoming a visual learning culture. With the introduction of phones, computers, tv, and technology, our form of learning is being steered more towards visual information processing, as well as auditory. But the visual representation has to be intact first for most people to even be receptive. People aren't whispering at the dinner table anymore, or passing notes. No, they are sending texts and videos and images to one another. The education system is snub-nosed and arrogant, out-dated and slow to recognize incoming trends, and they are failing us. More concerned with their unions and political prioritization than the actual quality of the education they are giving our children. And, because of their out-dated methods, they are not giving two-thirds of our children a chance. How dare they tell our children to get with it when it is them that are failing to recognize the innate capacities these children have to learn in today's day in age. Their lack of receptiveness makes me sad, and it makes me sick. Without giving these children opportunities for alternative method problem solving and information portrayal, you are giving them and our nation nothing for the progress of tomorrow.
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      Oct 31 2011: Less than 5 minutes ago: We are definitely moving at hyper-speed to visual consumption of content. My concern is that most children and adults don't know how to produce that content visually. We have always been visual creatures (try walking into a room with your eyes closed) but we are lacking any system by which we get better at creating, analyzing, and displaying information visually.
      • Oct 31 2011: I think we could look towards our most current example/resource: Advertising. With an intensive study on it's origin and tactics, I believe a small crack in a big door will be opened.
      • Nov 3 2011: i think we favor words over images because words allow precision far more than images which can be illustrative and be inspirational, but lack the rigor and precision of words and numbers. Can we "agree" on what a painting "means"? No, and thats the mystical attraction of imagery. Words and numbers allow us to engineer solutions that directly effect survival and the primary measures of quality of life. I find the increase in visual communication to be dumbing down children who are captivated by moving pictures but who cannot construct an argument.

        Did you do a TED Talk or a TED draw? your pictures hold the inspiration for me but the meaning, for me, is encoded in words. I am a big fan of your work :)
        • Nov 4 2011: What if kids don't want to argue? What if they just want to share? What if being "dumbed down" is the state of dualistic debate and arguments?
    • Nov 2 2011: Quote: "The education system is snub-nosed and arrogant, out-dated and slow to recognize incoming trends, and they are failing us. More concerned with their unions and political prioritization than the actual quality of the education they are giving our children...Their lack of receptiveness makes me sad, and it makes me sick."

      As an educator, I simply do not recognise this grossly inaccurate caricature you are painting here (if I may use a relevant metaphor!). If you are really interested in winning over others to the benefits of visuals (as I, again as a educator, most definitely am), then let me suggest that this overly generalised slandering of those involved in education is not the most effective way of doing this. Recognise the (already widespread) good practice; gracefully and passionately critique the less effective practice, and build from there.
      • Nov 2 2011: Again Allister, I'm not interested in politics. As an educator I think you should be the one critiquing your practice and going from there. And spreading what you've found in the benefits of visuals.
      • Nov 2 2011: Actually, as an educator, I think you should be finding what is working. And share your knowledge.
      • Nov 2 2011: And be going from there.
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    Oct 31 2011: I think doodles represent patterns that the brain produces to find creative solutions. To 'see' a solution, you have to rearrange the furniture, so to speak, and I believe the patterning underlying speech, drawing and music progressions is the dynamic to which you refer. I'm speaking of patterns that emerge from our brains, not patterns imposed on us.

    I use a mental pattern approach when I teach music instead of a written note driven code, and it's like reminding students of something inherent. Instead of teaching them external 'facts', they are remembering something they already know, or recognize. I don't believe it's MIA in adults, but it may be unconscious.
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      Oct 31 2011: Interesting. Music is definitely an apt parallel for doodling. Much of the discovery that occurs in the process of relaxed visualization is the same discovery that occurs for jazz musicians as they "scat" and for scientists and inventors as they "noodle" with concepts and tools. I think emergent patterns are uncovered while we doodle, yes, but they're also invented in the process. One of the reasons I think this behavior is so universal and relentlessly valuable.
  • Nov 13 2011: I found this article this evening, every day I search for new information on visual literacy in the hope that somebody has realised the importance of it and will have gone on to develop a suitable visual literacy reading programme! As I have found this question and read the answers I thought you may like to hear why it is so crucial. Imagine a child who is so disabled by his dyslexia that sounds mean nothing to him, despite years of specialist teaching and numerous phonic based programmes, his brain does not allow the sounds to blend, imagine recognising c-a -t but not hearing or seeing cat after 7 years of being taught the sounds systematically! Now, put a picture of a cat incorporated into the word, show it 3/4 times and the visual memory remembers the shape and pattern of the symbols! Imagine the importance of finding a visual approach to teach all words/ morphemes in this way, remember the picture/ icon has got to relate to the group of symbols! The obvious picture word cards is not enough in this case! The problem being, there does not seem to be such a programme which is accessible to all, the whole focus in schools is to teach children phonics! Due to this child's illiteracy he cannot lead a normal life, imagine having a high IQ but cannot access the written word, IF only there was an alternative. In fact imagine if there was an alternative and you absolutely knew 100% it would work and this child could learn in a different way using a visual literacy programme but due to years of failure and the fact he is to far behind, he and everybody involved in his education had given up on him! Unfortunately, this story is true and we will keep searching in the hope that soon, somebody in education will want to see the whole picture of illiteracy in children and adults and want to do something different to help. I have through research and desperation found a way to develop a programme but time and ability does not allow me to do so.Any suggestions? Yes please.
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    Nov 13 2011: I just found a TEDx Waterloo talk that I thiink will be of genuine interest to this group. I hope it is helpful to you. It is a talk by Miriah Meyer - Information Visualization for Scientific Discovery

  • Nov 13 2011: and yet the vsiuals live on in our minds...the day the towers no longer existed, the man walking on the moon, the convertible driving on a dallas street, the tanks on tiananmen square, the wall coming down....
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    Nov 10 2011: Do you not think it is deeply linked to the greater difficulty (for many in these establishments) to objectively assess progress and capability in visual areas? Equally, perhaps it is the stereotype of value of certain skills within business?
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    Nov 9 2011: With so much of the world even in developed societies still illiterate, visual literacy can feel as though it is primative or preliterate. It is not of course, but until we have become secure in our literacy, it might feel that way.

    I think people have worried so much about raising literacy that we have neglected to just communicate any and every way we can. Many times it is more effective to communicate in visual imagery. This TEDx talk, recently featured on TED because it is so excellent addresses clarity of communication and it reminded me of your question.

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    Nov 8 2011: Promote comic books for adults.
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    Nov 8 2011: The power of visual communication is that it triggers an emotional response almost immediately. Emotion is the key to real learning and stimulating commitment to action.

    As a business consultant, I've had the good fortune to put this insight to good use. I integrate a comprehensive suite of visual tools to engage teams in creative thinking and action planning. Using pictures torn out of magazines to form a collage of customer experiences. Filling giant, concentric circles with colourful sticky notes to represent lifecycle stages. Building operational solutions out of household items. Using metaphors as a visual device to establish hardcore corporate objectives. Plus dozens of other visual techniques.

    What I've discovered from working with individuals, small and large groups of people, in every type of industry, is that we all share the ability to communicate quickly, efficiently and most important, inspirationally using visuals. Whiteboards, flip charts and sticky notes, even napkins during lunch, provide the canvas to share ideas and spark new ones. It's really amazing how a mind map can provoke even the most linear individuals in the room to "see" the concept forming and triggering them to add incredible value by building the idea.

    More and more schools are equipping classrooms with smart boards, which is an awesome tool for creating, building and interacting with ideas in a very visual way. Companies are hiring consultants who bring a process for different thinking using techniques like the ones I described. Infographics are turning dry data into exciting concepts. The inclination to display and comprehend complex information in visual formats does not disappear with childhood. We only need a little stimulation to get us right back there, and I see it happening all around us.