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Visual Literacy: What is seen and what is perceived

Visual Literacy: What is seen and what is perceived

A recent creative on the ‘impact of plastic’ by the National Geographic Channel made waves on the social media. What looks like the tip of an iceberg in the ocean at the first instance, on closer inspection, is actually just one of the thousand plastic bags in the ocean! The message was loud and clear, without much being explicitly said/written. 

‘Visual Literacy’ (VL) is this ability to read and create communication that uses visual elements. It combines the skills of traditional literacy with knowledge of design, art, graphic arts, media and human perception. Understanding many of the elements of our visual world are deliberate constructions that rely on the elements of ‘visual literacy’. The elements should encourage us to take a deeper look and better understand how we may read and author visual texts to maximum effect.

It is built on the understanding that images can be ‘read’ without having anything explicitly said. To train & tune the senses and the mind to follow a certain pattern to decipher the meaning hidden in an image is the true essence of visual literacy. A beautiful example of visual literacy is the imaginative and visually splendid texts created by author/illustrator Shaun Tan. Shaun Tan’s books and multimedia works are full of detail and exhibit a mastery of visual literacy. According to Tan “Neither text nor image explains each other fully, and the reader must fill in the gap of meaning with their own theories, based largely on an emotional reaction – fear, curiosity, amusement, bewilderment and such emotions.”


Visual literacy as a concept has evolved in the 21st century. We live in a visually-dependent world. There is a difference between what is seen ‘with our real eyes’ and ‘with the eyes of our minds’. It is seen that 90% of the information that we take from the world is through our eyes, it sends information to the brain which serves as a great bank of memory and designs the way we look and perceive the world.
Digital technology has hugely influenced our understanding of VL. We are witnesses to the way the current generation kids are visually literate, largely with the help of gadgets.


There is a difference between just looking at something and really understanding and appreciating what you are looking at. To truly be able to enable the world to understand and comprehend your communication, one should be able to avoid the elements which are disruptive, disorderly or simply irrelevant to your message. At this point, visual literacy comes into focus. An image or a creative need to communicate what is exactly required, without distractions, without obstruction or confusion. It is the difference between what you see and what you perceive. Your creative should communicate, should be comprehensive, should be readable without words i.e. understanding an image in its entirety. 

However, to be truly visually literate we must practice projecting meaning into every visual we communicate through. To understand the semantics, i.e. the grammar and vocabulary of an image. A visually literate person should be able to "understand how people perceive objects, interpret what they see and what they learn from them".

True visual literacy employs multiple disciplines such as visual literacy in education, art history and criticism, rhetoric, semiotics, philosophy, information design, and graphic design. A simple news broadcast has the potential to be visually appealing, along with communicating the required information. To read the images rather than the text as an image is imperative.

Our world has a history of communicating through images. From cave-paintings to modern-day graffiti, people have been expressing themselves through images. In present times, we are heavily dependent on images or videos to grab the attention of a fast moving community. An image must communicate in a clear, crisp but comprehensive manner. There are innumerable distractions in this modern world, and a well-constructed visual has the potential to collectively communicate, to hold our wandering attention in a fashion that makes the desired impact.