The term visual literacy refers to our ability to interpret and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image. It is an extention of literacy which describes our ability to interpret letters (characters) into language and meaning. Visual literacy in conjunction with the semiotic model:
As you can see visual literacy takes into account the way in which the meaning is conveyed; the medium and the way that medium is used.
The Big Mystery
Very often I see people looking over the shoulder of a designer and marvel at how they can immediately pick out the flaws in a design, or make an entire design come together and feel resolved. Of course this is due to experience, but a big part of that experience is visual literacy.
Just as a copy writer is concerned with the syntax and rythm of a sentace, the designer is concerned with the balance, symetry, proximity etc. Each one excels at communicating the idea or message. They are considering the way in which it is communicated.
Actually the model above can be slightly deciptive in that it implies the final stage (Signified) has no influence on the creation of the message, when it is one of the most important to consider.
Correlations can be drawn directly between writen and visual literacy. Lets compare a poet and a graphic designer.
- A Poet uses words; Designer uses shape / line / colour / texture.
- A Poet crafts words into a sentace that has structure; Designer constructs a visual that has a viewing order / heirarchy.
- A sonnet consists of fourteen decasyllabic lines; A (lets say) poster has a heading / a primary visual / body copy + supporting copy.
These things exist apart from the message. Each dicipline has a set of guidelines, some explicit but mostly implicit. The same message can be conveyed in both mediums, they just use different methods.
Visual Literacy of the User
Now consider the user. What level of visual literacy do they have? One of the biggest flaws a perfectly acceptable piece of communication can have is to simply under or over-estimating the users visual literacy.
This can result in spoon feeding the message or worse leaving the message too ambiguous or complicated. Getting this balance right requires you to have a good understanding of who is using your product.
Rooney, Rooney, Rooney, Rooney!
For the record I’m not a sports fan. But I wanted to break down the message being conveyed in the top poster using visual literacy. First have a look at the image and see how much meaning you can derive. This will give you an idea of just how much thought goes into something before it is released, but also that you can't control every interpretation.
I will start with the most obvious interpretation. Lets se how deep we can go:
Firstly this is an advertisement for Nike (sports gear) an officail sponsor of the World Cup. The billboard advertisement features the foward kicker for the English football team; Wayne Rooney.
The lack of specific Nike products means that they wanted to focus on tying their brand to the World event. In rhetorical terms Nike is prodominatly using Ethos (the credibility of the speaker) because Rooney is a renowned celebrity of England. Rooney is representing England, and now Nike; they are now both inextricably tied together.
The poster itself uses Pathos (persuasion through emotion). This pose is iconic of winning, as football players often pose this way after kicking a goal. On a more fundamental level however, this pose symbolises pure elation. Studies have actually shown that blind people after winning a race will do this pose, having never seen it before! It shows that this poster taps into the primal side of people.
Touching on symbolism now, Roonies body has been blown out with flash photography (intentionally) to make him seem more white than he actually is. You could say that this symbolizes a “white and proud” statement, but it has more to do with the st. George flag. The figure / field of the poster, ie the red and white, are centered to create a semilance of the English flag. Once again this is English patriotism, and the fact that it is literaly painted on Rooney once again brands him as such.
On a side note, the entire image is centred and the Nike tagline has been place asymmetrically. Although this follows billboard conventions it makes Nike stand out without interfering: but it's also the last thing the viewer sees because of this misalignment.
In an interview, a Nike spokewomen stated the red paint represents the paint that the fans wear while attending the matches. However metaphorically speaking there are a number of interpretations.
Firstly, the red paint could be a representation of the crusade wars. Their flag was also a red cross on white. England is prodominantly Christian and the world cup is a battle between european nations.
Secondly, the red paint could be interpreted as a representation of the Crucifiction. The paint has a noticibly “wet” look making it appear as blood. There is a lot of validity to this interpretation as Rooney has just taken a period of time to recover from a serious injury and was potentially Englands best hope for winning the World Cup that year. Arguably Christs greatest feat was reincarnation and he was the saviour of Christians. This positions Rooney as Christ, which is somewhat backed up by his complete nudity (Renaissance artists portrayed perfection as white marble nudes).
My Point is...
There are ever-more obsure interpretations I can give you but I’ve run out of space. You may have noticed by the end that you were starting to dissagree with what I was saying?
The interpretations I represented the variety of ways that people can interpret a single graphic. You may not agree with all of them and in fact Nike didn’t even intend for them to happen, their was a significant community backlash when this advertisement came out.
A good designer, who does their research, will understand the scopeof interpretation before publishing. The way you convey your message can often be just as important as the message itself. Which is why finding a designer with a high visual literacy will reduce a lot of risk.