A Call for Visual Literacy

From Dave Gray, a call for visual literacy:

…we have, over time, become more sophisticated in our reading of visual information. In a world where information is digital, where photos can be altered in Photoshop and where films can show impossible things like dinosaurs and talking animals with a high degree of realism, we understand that seeing is no longer believing.

But this kind of visual sophistication is not literacy. Literacy is the ability to both read and write. If a child could read written language but not write it – if he could read a mathematical equation but not perform such operations himself – then we would not consider him prepared for success in the world.

In our school systems we teach our children the three R’s – reading, writing and arithmetic, because we believe them to be fundamental skills for successful integration in society. But the three R’s are no longer enough. Our world is changing fast – faster than we can keep up with our historical modes of thinking and communicating. Visual literacy – the ability to both read and write visual information; the ability to learn visually; to think and solve problems in the visual domain – will, as the information revolution evolves, become a requirement for success in business and in life.

Chuck Frey sees mind mapping as an answer to this call. This may be a place to start, although the need is much broader than simply thinking visually. Data presentation and interpretation are even more important. (I, for one, don’t remember ever encountering a histogram in high school.)

Should Tufte (or the like) become required reading in secondary education? What would be the actual result of implementing “visual literacy education” in our schools?

For those with something to say:


  1. I taught the physics of shuttle takeoff to high schoolers in the 90s. I wish I had known about Tufte then. In one of his books, he presents the tragic consequences of poor data visualization: the 1986 Challenger launch decision. Engineers had decisive data to call a halt to the launch, but their presentation was unpersuasive to the decision-makers. Tufte’s redesigned graphics make the no-go decision seem obvious. But that’s not what happened. How interesting that would have been for my students.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Dave. By some coincidence, I just read that case study last week. It goes to show how critical information presentation can be. (The excerpt is available here.)