Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Negative Views of Visual Communication

Click on the image on the left to see it flash from positive to negative. OK, so I too have some negative views about the annoying flashing graphic on the left but I wanted to call your attention to one of the challenges facing design educators. While we work to teach our students knowledge and skills, it is dispositions that may be one of our biggest challenges. Specifically the negative disposition by a portion of the population against visual communication as a serious or useful means of learning, thinking and communicating.

Here are some of the ways I see that negative opinion about visual images being expressed:

Education journals are minimally designed and contain few images. This signals the idea that words are more appropriate for serious thinking than images.
Color photos are reserved for "popular" publications. USA Today is criticized for its use of photos and graphics while the more "serious" Wall Street Journal still uses line art in place of many photos.
People lament that young people aren't reading enough and blame television and video games. This signals the negative idea that students aren't learning and thinking while watching TV and playing video games.
Even some art students express the belief that time spent graphically designing text (like lesson plans or papers) is a waste of time and detracts from the importance of the words on the page.

Some of the positive dispositions toward visual images are:

The public attitudes about war changed when wars became televised (starting in Vietnam). Reading about war is not nearly as powerful as seeing what it is really like.
Visual images in science, like the photos of Earth from space and the visual model of the DNA double-helix, forever changed our understanding of important ideas like the fragility of our planet's atmosphere and the structure of the basis of life on our planet.

Part of our job as visual educators is to help people see that our growing access to images, photos, Google maps, YouTube, Vimeo, simulations, information graphics, etc. are a tremendous boon to human intellectual growth and capacity. Books were incredibly important when we didn't have the technology needed to create and distribute images, but now we should celebrate the power of visual images rather than lament the decline of communication by words.


Patti Siegel said...

I'm sorry, Martin, but although I LOVE visual images I cannot be happy about the decline of compelling, coherent communication using words. You are setting up the same polarity the language arts people do when they ignore the illustrations in a story and teach only the text. We should be promoting collaboration, not competition. It DOES matter that our children don't want to read anymore. Although they do learn things from playing video games, too many children opt to ONLY play video games at the expense of developing other skills. And not all images are worthwhile--we need to bring to imagery the same critical thinking skills we (should) bring to text. These things should work together.

Martin said...

Hi Patti,
Thank you for illustrating my point. I look forward to a time when someone will come to the same fervent defense of visual communication as you do for verbal communication. I look forward to someone reaching the same level of indignation about the fact that students, if they are lucky, will get 1/8 the amount of visual instruction as they get verbal instruction in 12 years of school. It is pretty hard to collaborate when, for every 60 minutes of instruction in language arts, students receive less than 8 minutes of instruction in visual communication.

Patti Siegel said...

Martin, I was for the most part in agreement with you until the end of your post when you opined that books are dead now that we have computers. Books aren't dead, they're just online. I also see a lot of websites filled with text, and one of the design slideshows you posted a link to has as many or more words as images.
My oldest son is an online video game developer, and I stated in my previous comment that I do believe that children learn from playing video games. However, when they become obsessed with using certain types of imagery, such as video games or television, to the exclusion of other activities, including reading, it becomes a problem. You did not cite any studies to support your statement "People lament that young people aren't reading enough and blame television and video games." I don't have studies to cite either, but I believe that when people blame television and video games for having negative effects on children (and adults) they are speaking of the amount of time spent watching TV/playing video games--i.e. the addictive nature of these activities.
Yesterday I got a commitment from our school counselor that ALL freshmen will be scheduled for a semester of visual art and that this will be a priority--art won't be the first thing to be bumped when they have scheduling discrepancies. It took me six years to accomplish this, and I didn't do it by going into rants about how the kids don't really need to read that much anymore. I actually enjoy reading--ALMOST as much as I enjoy drawing, clothing design, and messing with my photos in Photoshop. And now I think I should go on the treadmill (where I think I'll watch a video while I jog) because you really can be on the computer TOO LONG.

Martin said...

Hi Patti,

Thanks for the lively exchange. It appears to me that we are in agreement on most things.

Congratulations on getting the guidance counselor to agree to encourage all students to take a semester of art. If successful, that would meet the standard I mentioned that students get about 1/8th of the instruction in art as in verbal communication (1 semester as opposed to 8). The fact that it took six years of hard work to get this verbal agreement from a guidance counselor is an indication of just how tough a sell this is.

We are in agreement that even art teachers sometimes feel students spend too much time with visual media at the detriment to verbal communication. You make good arguments for why this is so. You also make good arguments for why students should read more and spend less time watching visual media. This supports my observations and provides insights into why people believe this.

You point out that much of our reading is done online now so that even digital media is still largely devoted to words. I'm glad that you opted for watching visual media while you work out on the treadmill because sometime we can just be reading and writing too long.

Tonight I'm looking forward to seeing which designers win the Academy Awards in categories such as Art Direction, Special Effects, Costumes, Cinematography, Editing, Animation, etc.

Enjoy what's left of the weekend!