There is a certain, abstract absurdity in discussing visual literacy and visual communication using text. But perhaps, in this absurdity we can see the first lesson of a discussion of visuality. To discuss this we must first turn to Scott McCloud and his Vocabulary of Comics. In chapter 2, McCloud discusses the idea of icons and iconography.
To understand McCloud’s initial point in regards to what an icon is and what it can mean we could look at the idea of trying to make a generalized point about a concept through an image alone, such as the graphic included in the edutopia article, “Common Core in Action: 10 Visual Literacy Strategies”, by Todd Finley.
Image credit: Veer
Now, Finley’s article is accompanied by text, but, judging by its inclusion, the visuals are meant to comment upon the ways that students are meant to interpret and critique images. From the image, we can see that computers, reading, education, science, thought and cooperation are involved in thought process.
Or can we?
The abstractions of the 6 ideas mentioned in the paragraph above come from visual representations, but can we really say, for example, that we’re meant to see science in the beaker and flask filled with liquid, or cooperation in a handshake? In reality, we can’t, because there are no beakers and no hands in the image above.
To echo McCloud, what you’re seeing are not arrows, is not a computer, is not a book, is not a brain. They are a digital copy of a drawing of those things, but more so over, the images themselves are simply lines and colors arranged in what could be, for all we know, a totally arbitrary fashion.
That’s why talking about visuals with text is useful and useless at the same time. McCloud’s discussion of iconography- what we get from seeing “realistic” images to cartoony images and what the utility of cartoons are- reveals the idea that the image is inherently distinct from text (though text itself has a visual quality that is related to the point that is to follow).
If you can’t identify any of the subjects in the graphic above, or can’t relate them to anything significant with respect to the point you think the image is trying to make, then the image’s communicative effect is altered entirely. We can see the effect of this in McCloud when he “humanizes” a series of blobs by drawing eyes on them. To communicate visually is to present icons, after which the audience must interpret the image to identify its form and critique its effects.
Contrast this with textual communications. Text itself is iconographic, with the distinction being that provided you ascribe to the language the text is conveyed in, you can form words, where words have meaning. A textual author can string characters together to form words, and put words together to make a point. This is not to say that textual communication is more efficient or superior to visual communication, but that text and visuals have different mechanisms by which the author creates content and the audience receives and interprets the content.
The idea that we can get from McCloud is that there is a certain nebulousness to reality as we present it through visuals because of the nature of the icon. This is interesting when paired with some of the ideas handled by Keith Kenney in his discussion of visual communication theory. Kenney’s piece is primarily concerned with building up the generalized theory of visual communication and as such covers a wide range of topics. One section asks the question “Can visuals form rational arguments?”. Kenney states “Some scholars deny the possibility of visual arguments because visual images do not have explicit meanings.” but goes onto refute the claim, suggesting that visuals form rational arguments when audiences are given “the ability to choose” and “provide reasons for choosing one way or another, counter other arguments, perhaps via substitution of transformation; and cause s to change our beliefs or to act”(Kenney).
To come to his conclusion Kenney cites examples of visuals that make arguments against racism and in support for abortions. What we in these examples is that for the visual texts to present rational arguments, the audience must understand the forms and understand the point each piece attempts to make in its presentation of forms. In a sense, this suggests that visual language has to adopt some of the ideas of textual language to successfully argue or communicate; the forms have to have some definitive meaning or representation that is understood by audiences in the same way as one must understand words to read a textual piece of some kind.
This is not the point that Kenney attempts to make, nor is it the end-all-be-all claim to justify visual capability of conveying argument, but still the conundrum remains that one must consider what an audience will get out of an image. McCloud, however, gives us an interesting tidbit of information that is really quite powerful. In his presentation of images of a can of food, a car and an electrical outlet, McCloud states “We see ourselves in everything.”
In the identifiable images of food, car and power outlet, McCloud shows that images can display a degree of identifiability while still resonating with an audience for reasons beyond being identifiable; Humans have a natural reaction to other humans, typically through facial recognition. This goes so far as to allow people to unconsciously, “see faces” where there are none. From here we can come back to Kenney and bring in his presentation of archetypes and “culturetypes”. Between the two authors we can see that images have a unique potency in regards to the versatility, but this versatility makes communication more abstracted than in vocal or textual communications. What we have to consider though is that humans are visual creatures much of the time. We can craft images to fit or counter expectation based upon how we think audiences will react. To use one more comparison, this is the same for a textual piece as well. Putting words together in a certain way is no guarantee everyone will get the same thing out of a piece.
Visuality is an important tool both for communication and for rhetoric, given how sight for those that possess it is a major sense and a majro means of interpreting the world. Those with sight are born capable of processing visual information; it’s intrinsic to the human experience. To echo points made by (arguable) masters of visual storytelling Martin Scorsese and George Lucas, visual content is important in regards to knowing how people communicate and convey information. It’s something that needs to be deeply considered for every person, as opposed to being relegated to the realm of filmmakers and artists.