An Argument for Visual Literacy


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Over 99% of people in the U.S. are literate. We can read and write. But as the world produces more and more data, creates infographics and speaks to each other in PowerPoint, how many of us are visually literate? In that analogy, there are probably many more that can read (visually) than can write (visually). This presentation explores the origins of that, and the effect it has on the workforce.

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  • An argument for visual literacy. Today’s workforce, particularly the Boomers, Generation X and even Y, are literate, but not particularly, visually literate. That’s a problem. It will be increasingly important over the coming decade. To understand why, we have to go back…
  • 2 million years. That’s how long we’ve been talking to each other. It’s a long time. Not just talking, communicating, conversing. Grunts, gestures, words. Paintings and pictures. Doodles and hieroglyphics. Rules, commandments and signs. Picture source:
  • Our first “written” languages were pictures. It was a natural way to record our stories, our history, a way for us to make meaning.Source:
  • A blip on the calendar later, in relative terms, the “art” of speaking was codified. Oral tradition had a framework.
  • But artful communication, pictures or words, wasn’t in the everyone’s hands. It was in the hands of the polymaths, the geniuses and creators.Image Source:
  • The rest of us were illiterate. From the wealthiest to the poorest. It wasn’t even a rich man’s game, it was a specialists.
  • That began to change when we had tools, communication and literacy began to spread from the hands and mouths of specialists and experts to a wider audience.
  • Communication became a business, with books and newspapers as the forebear of the media industry today.
  • And business communicated. Telegraphs and Telephones.
  • We communicated in military ways. The corporate structures today were shaped by the military. The greatest generation came back and fueled a post-war boom that changed how we work. Our language changed. We did things ASAP. We had a mission and a strategy to go with it. Tiger teams tackled problems in field operations or headquarters. Marketing positioned products.
  • In the post-war boom, new tools spread and shaped how we communicated.
  • Memos were formal, dictated and typed. Reports were written. White papers were authored.
  • The first computers didn’t help much, they weren’t much more than word-processors
  • Even the first graphical packages weren’t very easy on the eyes.
  • When you think about it, that’s a problem. So much communication, from the non-verbal cues in a negotiation, to the stock symbol on a dashboard, to the billboard for your latest marketing campaign, is visual.
  • Mobile technology is accelerating that. Video cameras that were the province of well-heeled hobbyists and professionals two decades ago, are in everyone's hands. Everyone is a media creator. Everyone is a journalist.
  • More than half of us have smart phones, googling, instagramming, twittering and facebooking
  • Information is exploding. We’ve recorded and produced more information in the last two years than we did in 2 million. We’re not just swapping out hard drives and moving to the cloud, we’re having to invent new words Exa, Yottabyte to describe the amount of information.
  • And it’s not just PowerPoint, we’ve invented new categories like infographics, data visualization and explainer videos.
  • Visuals are a huge part of that explosion of data, both adding to the volume, and in trying to make sense of it. Millions of PowerPoints are produced every day, and business has made it it’s Lingua Franca.
  • And most of them just add to the noise.
  • Some people are trying to fix PowerPoint.
  • Others are trying to fix the people using PowerPoint.
  • So, what do you do, if you’re in that generation that’s literate, but not visually literate? If you’re one of those people that has to get a message out and through, but it’s been swallowed by all the noise?
  • It takes work. Not just on your verbal literacy, but your visual literacy. The rules of rhetoric and visual rhetoric that underlie them both. Working to understand the connection between words, structure and pictures to craft your argument, to make your powerful point.
  • That’s the key to understanding how you break through. The first step in joining the ranks of the visually literate.
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