Visual Literacy & Communication: An Interdisciplinary Approach

Introduction

I teach at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Georgia, where, if you’ve read some of my previous papers you already know, there is no Art major. The visual art discipline originally existed to fulfill the University System of Georgia’s Art Appreciation requirement and our Information Technology major’s Digital Media concentration requirements of Drawing I and Two-Dimensional Design. We also have periodically offered some art history courses that can be taken as electives and I have developed and taught a Special Topics course on UX Design for the Digital Media concentration. Therefore, coming up with creative ways to grow the visual arts discipline and its curricular options has been challenging.

Fortunately for us, and especially for our students, in 2018, the Georgia Board of Regents approved a new major at GGC in Cinema and Media Arts Production, called CMAP for short. This program is essentially a film major, with the goal to employ graduates in the burgeoning film industry in Georgia. (Within the major, students can choose one of three concentrations: Design & Production, Entertainment Industries Studies, or Writing for Stage and Screen.) My colleagues in Film who developed the major specifically sought to build an interdisciplinary major in the arts and humanities, incorporating the disciplines of film, digital media and technology, theater, music, philosophy, social sciences, and, of course, visual art. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the major, I had the opportunity to write a new permanent course that would serve as a requirement for all graduates of the major: ARTS 3100: Visual Literacy and Communication.

I wrote Visual Literacy and Communication to bridge the gap between students’ knowledge of Two-Dimensional Design principles and what they are attempting to communicate through the films they create, write, and analyze. I experienced a bit of frustration attempting to find a single textbook that would work specifically for a class on visual literacy and communication, and I wasn’t entirely satisfied with any one text. For the course, I used a variety of textbooks, mainly using Visual Communication: Images with Messages by Paul Martin Lester, as well as selections from Visual Communication Design: An Introduction to Design Concepts in Everyday Experience by Meredith Davis and Jamer Hunt, Universal Principles of Design by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler, Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, and Stick Figures: Drawing as a Human Practice, by DB Dowd.

Just a chocolate box sampler here… they’re all filled with tasty gooey art goodness. Nomnom.

(If anyone has textbook writing ambitions for this sort of course, just letting you know there’s an unfilled niche here!) However, using a variety of texts for the course also made building the course a unique creative challenge to undertake, and I feel like I really “own” the curriculum I have created for it. While my students come into the class with a passion for film and creativity, many of them have no background in visual arts and not all of them will necessarily end up in film production. My goal was to inspire a love of visual arts by building off the students’ existing love for film, and retranslating that passion and appreciation back into their medium of film. Taking all of this into account, I wrote the course description for ARTS 3100 as follows:

This course is an exploration as to how people interact with visual media in their environment, both historically and today. This course will use sociological, anthropological, and psychological research to examine the effects of visual media in global societies and cultures as well as individuals. The course will also examine how contemporary technologies are affecting our consumption and production of visual media. Students will explore the content of the course through lectures, discussion, written work and visual projects.

This final component, visual projects, was especially important to me. I knew I wanted my students to have hands-on experience creating visual art projects that would help bridge the gap between art and design concepts and the consumption and creation of visual media. (After all, this is still an Arts course.) While many of my film students were excited about this opportunity, some, especially those in non-production concentrations, were very hesitant to actually create visual work. However, from my experience teaching Art Appreciation, which also often caters to students without any previous visual art exposure or experience, I know the best way for students to value art is to have them create it. Ultimately, I assigned three visual art assignments throughout the semester, plus a final project. These assignments were designed to help more thoroughly examine the content of the course, and whenever possible, to further establish the connection of visual art to film and the film industry.

Note: In addition to these visual art assignments, the students also write two papers, take weekly quizzes, and give an oral presentation to the class. While all of these assignments are important to the course, I will frame this paper around how I’ve connected the visual art assignments to visual literacy, communication, and film concepts. Also note students are responsible for documenting their projects by taking their own photographs, and the image quality often leaves something to be desired. Sorry ‘bout that folks and be kind. These aren’t art majors and it ain’t a photography class.

Visual Art Assignment #1: Sunday Sketches

The first question I ask my students on day one is how many languages they’re fluent in, and remind them that they’re fluent in a language they’ve probably never thought about: the language of images. To demonstrate this, I show them a number of pictorial symbols that they have already learned, such as a no-smoking sign, a Facebook thumbs up, and a peace sign.

While they recognize all of these symbols, without them realizing it, they were culturally learned, and I show them that additional context that can add meaning to the initial read of any image. For instance, this image was taken by Jack Bradley in 1974 of a boy named Harold Wittles.

Harold Wittles, photographed in 1974 by Jack Bradley

The image first reads as a boy who has been surprised, but it gains even more meaning when you learn its context: Harold was just fit with a hearing aid and is hearing sound for the first time.

Some images simply become more entertaining when this context is given. This image of Winston Churchill was taken in 1941 by Yousuf Karsh, just after Churchill spoke to the Canadian parliament.

Winston Churchill, photographed in 1941 by Yousuf Karsh

Karsh was unable to photograph Churchill clearly because of the cloud of cigar smoke encasing him. Right before he took this photo, Karsh leaned over and snatched the Churchill’s signature cigar from his lips, then snapped the photograph of the grumpy Churchill.

In this initial class, I also introduce some of the science behind reading images, including a concept I revisit often throughout the course: the Picture Superiority Effect.

Image courtesy of autogrow.co

The Picture Superiority Effect shows that we retain more information and more readily remember this information when it is visual instead of verbal, and the Effect is strongest when visual and verbal information are paired. This Effect is particularly relevant for film majors, who are using both visual and verbal information in order to create their craft, and also illustrates how context can not only add to our understanding of an image, but actually helps us remember it more effectively.

The first visual art assignment for the class is inspired by a TED Talk by illustrator Christoph Niemann, who explains how the viewer is a critical element in visual communication by participating in the comprehension of visual images, using their memory, imagination, and culture to “fill in the blanks.” Because of my own background in illustration, I enjoy showing this video because, like filmmakers, illustrators also rely on both visual and verbal information in order to communicate with their craft. After viewing the video, I conduct an activity in class asking students to assign meaning to a simple shape such as a circle or another abstract shape. For instance, this shape could be: a leaf, the bottom of a boat as viewed by a shark, a football, an eye, a turtle inside of the shell, sitting on the edge of a lake and reflected into the water, the head of Stewie from Family Guy, or the head of Arnold from Hey Arnold! (who knew the two looked so similar!).

Clearly a sunflower seed! … wait, a dragon eye!

Niemann also concludes that it’s key to have a good understanding of the visual and cultural vocabulary of your audience. For instance, his cover for the New Yorker following the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant requires an understanding of the abstract symbol of nuclear power as well as a background in Japanese art and aesthetics.

Christoph Niemann

This example reemphasizes the need for images to have context in order to be understood. Different people with different cultural backgrounds and life experiences may view images in unique ways.

For their visual art assignment, the students create a set of what Niemann calls “Sunday Sketches,” in which he uses an everyday object and adds a drawing to it to create a visual metaphor.

Christoph Niemann
Christoph Niemann (the one on my left is my all-time favorite)

Upon completion, the students share their work with the class to show how the participation of the viewer is a critical component to visual communication. When the creator has succeeded, the audience clearly “gets” the image, offering an “aaaah” or a laugh upon discovering the visual metaphor.

Student work
Student work
Student work

Visual Art Assignment #2: Data Visualizations

The second visual arts assignment is introduced as a project to test students’ knowledge of the unconscious psychological phenomena that dictate our visual perception. To prepare for this assignment, I focus on the global history of visual communication and its connection to human evolution and psychology. I share with the students the work of Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who created a project called “America’s Most Wanted.” In this project, Komar and Melamid surveyed Americans about their preferred types of art, for instance: art that portrays the indoors vs. the outdoors, art that is small vs. large, what colors one prefers in art, and so on. In addition to Americans, Komar and Melamid also surveyed a variety of populations from other countries, and then created paintings that incorporated the preferred art components of each country’s population. Their conclusions were that not only Americans, but almost all populations, preferred artwork that was: outdoors, included trees and a source of water, and contained evidence of bird and animal life.

America’s “Most Wanted” painting, by Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid (Americans also preferred “historical figures,” hence George Washington hanging out there.)

These preferences, known as the “Savannah Hypothesis,” and are exemplified in our design of parks and golf courses. Using the book Universal Principles of Design, we also discuss how other human instincts also play a role in our visual perception, including the Biophilia Hypothesis (in which we prefer imagery of living plants), Threat Detection, Emotional Recognition, Anthropomorphic Form, the Baby Face Bias, and, of course, the infamous Uncanny Valley. All of this background is presented with the purpose of showing students that unconscious psychological mechanisms are in play whenever we view and process visual information.

We also spend a class focusing on the human perception of color, and apply this to audio/visual media and the use of color saturation in film, specifically looking at the Apple Home commercial directed by Spike Jonze.

It’s, like, the coolest video… art as advertising? Advertising as art?

We connect color to evolution and human psychology by discussing studies on color and how it affects us psychologically and physiologically. For instance, a phenomenon called the Red Effect was coined through studies on the color red, and shows that red signals aggression and power in human and non-human species. However, other colors have much more subjective associations. Green for instance, could symbolize very different concepts, such as envy, money, or nature, depending on its context. Ergo, some color associations are learned and have cultural differences, while others are universal and seem to be more tied to our shared human nature.

To exemplify this, I use one of my favorite infographics, “Colours in Culture,” created by David McCandless’ company Information is Beautiful.

I love this thing so much.

In this infographic, the “rings” of the onion each refer to a different culture, such as American/Western, Muslim, Asian, etc., and the “slices” of the onion refer to different ideas and concepts, such as “love,” “evil,” “peace,” etc. For example, in every single culture that has a color to represent the idea of “passion,” they use the color red. Contrary to this, however, the concept of “death” is represented differently in south Asian cultures than here, using white instead of black to symbolize death. Some South American cultures even use the color green.

We then watch David McCandless’ TED talk on infographics and data visualization and learn how visualizing data is often more effective than describing it with words. Here, as throughout the class, we are reminded again of the importance of the Picture Superiority Effect: visuals within infographics are more easily remembered and speak more quickly to us than words, and, when combined with words, visuals can aid in recall and rememberability. For instance, McCandless notes how we often hear numbers in the news such as 50 billion or 32 million, and how it is difficult for us to truly comprehend these amounts and think about them in a meaningful context. Through an infographic he calls “The Billion Dollar-O-Gram,” McCandless visualizes the relative sizes of different expenditures in relation to one another, making these numbers far more effective and powerful. For instance, while OPEC’s $3 billion climate change fund may seem pretty generous, it pales in comparison to its $700 billion in oil profits.

The Billion-Dollar-o-Gram

One of McCandless’ most innovative infographics is a “balloon race diagram” called “Snake Oil Supplements.” This data visualization describes the viability of the data behind various nutritional supplements. The size of each bubble refers to the number of Google searches performed on a subject and the height of the bubble refers to the strength of the evidence. The chart is actually interactive, and, using a live spreadsheet, McCandless and his team can be constantly updating the data for accuracy.

Snake Oil Supplements… I totes took my omega 3 supplement when I was pregnant!

After watching the David McCandless video, we discuss how Gestalt principles and semiotics are necessary for us to understand and comprehend any data visualization. In his talk, McCandless refers to the language of the eye and the language of the mind. The language of the eye is associated with the sensory theories of Gestalt and constructivism, how our brain “sees” images. In Gestalt theory, our brain automatically groups or clumps visual data and fills in the gaps to form patterns and connections. For instance, in this example, instead of seeing a random clumping of black spots, our brain forms a pattern and we see a dog.

Image courtesy of usertesting.com

This contributes to how we group visual information within a data visualization.

The language of the mind is associated with the perceptual theories of semiotics and cognitive theory, how our mind comprehends these images. In semiotics, visual signs can indicate something that stands for something else.

An icon represents an object directly. An index is an that stands for a different object or concept. A symbol is a sign that must be culturally learned in order to be understood.

The components of semiotic signs: icons, indexes, and symbols, are used extensively in data visualizations and help us to easily and quickly comprehend their meaning.

For their second visual art assignment, students are tasked with taking a data set of their choice and creating their own data visualizations using Gestalt principles, semiotics, and the inspiration from David McCandless and Information is Beautiful. Students choose what type of data visualization best fits their data set (for instance, a bar graph vs. a scatter plot), and are encouraged to experiment with different media. They are required to use at least one example of a semiotic sign, therefore utilizing the Picture Superiority Effect to create interesting and memorable imagery. Students are graded on the efficacy, creativity, and readability of their final infographics. While Gestalt principles and semiotics are used extensively in film in a variety of ways, this specific project prepares students interested in documentary filmmaking with tools that, combined with animation, can effectively and memorably communicate data.

Student work
Student work
Student work
Student work
Student work… they actually CUT the pennies!
Student work… one of my favorites for creativity!

Visual Art Assignment #3: Persuasive Poster

In preparation for this assignment, we take a look at how advertising can affect our psychology and decision-making. This often occurs through the Exposure Effect, when stimuli are repeatedly presented, and, as a result, are increasingly well liked and accepted. We are also influenced by a concept called Stickiness, which refers to the ability of certain ideas to become lodged in the cultural consciousness. In addition, I review the differences between propaganda and persuasion. Propaganda is when an argument uses one-sided or nonfactual information or opinion that appear to be facts, and persuasion is when factual information and emotional appeals change a person’s mind and promote a desired behavior.

For their visual art assignment, students create a poster that uses persuasion and/or propaganda techniques. Their goal is to create an image that persuades an audience towards one viewpoint of a social issue. Students watch Ellen Lupton’s Skillshare series “Demystifying Graphic Design: How Posters Work,” and learn about graphic design principles that could be applied to static graphic design, but also to cinematography and film making. Lupton uses a number of poster examples to illustrate the principles, including: activating the diagonal, simplifying, using overlap, focusing the eye, and using textures. Students use these principles to enhance the most important design principle of all: that of telling a story. As a cumulative project, student apply everything they have learned throughout the semester, using color, mood, and semiotics to create these posters, the visual equivalent of a persuasive essay.

Student work, on climate change
Student work, on marijuana advocacy
Student work, on literacy
Student work, on the #Metoo movement
Student work, on gun violence

Final Project

For their final projects, students have a choice of how to creatively apply what they’ve learned throughout the semester to a project that tasks them with communicating with their fellow students using visuals instead of words. For this project, students have two choices. The first choice is inspired by the project Dear Data by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec. In this year-long project, the two friends recorded data about occurrences in their everyday lives, such as how many doors they walked through, how many times they looked at a clock, or how many times they laughed. The two then created data visualizations of this data and exchanged postcards with one another as a way of “getting to know each other through unconventional means.”

Image courtesy of Dear Data
Image courtesy of Dear Data

My students who choose this option exchange hand-drawn data postcards with a partner in order to reveal aspects of themselves and their days with the other person. The students choose three themes for three sets of postcards and are encouraged to experiment with media and style.

Student work
Student work
Student work

The second option for the final project is based on a project called “Conversations” between Christoph Niemann and illustrator and art director Nicholas Blechman. In this project, Niemann and Blechman, over a period of four months, exchanged a series of drawings and photographs using their smartphones, editing or adding to each others prompts (Blechman used black ink and Niemann used blue). Their only rule for the project was that the conversation had to be non-verbal.

All images courtesy of christophniemann.com

Students who choose this option exchange hand-drawn or photographed images as a visual conversation with a partner. Partner 1 begins by sending Partner 2 a drawing or a photograph, and Partner 2 responds to this image with a drawing or photograph of their own, or alters their partner’s drawing or photograph. Partner 2 then initiates the exchange with their own drawing or photograph, and so on and so forth. Students are encouraged to look for visual similarities in the images in order to come up with their responses. They can also complete the “other half” of an image, as Christoph Niemann and Nicholas Blechman do. Students complete at least six sets of images, for a total of twelve images.

Student work
Student work
Student work
Student work
Student work
Student work
Student work
Student work
Student work (He’s “the King”… get it?? ::rimshot::)

More than any other project of the semester, I think the final projects give the students the most valuable experience for the film industry because of the opportunity to creatively collaborate with their fellow students.

Conclusion

Since implementing ARTS 3100, I’ve received useful feedback from the course evaluations. The students cite the most valuable part of the course as being:

The concepts covered in class are useful in any field of study, not just in the arts.

The course was very informative and allows room for freedom of expression. The course also is useful for other courses and subjects.

The dense information we learned about different topics. I feel as though I thoroughly understand semiotics, persuasion vs. propaganda, and more as a result of our dedicated learning times.

The very foundation. Learning to read images the way one learns to read words is important in a media driven society.

When completing their student evaluations for courses at GGC, students rate the class on a number of different criteria. Previous studio courses I’ve taught, including Drawing I and Two-Dimensional Design, generally get great reviews (if I do say so myself!) and the students enjoy them. However, the scores always go down on one criterion by my students who are non-art majors: “I understand how this class contributes to my college education.”

In my first two semesters teaching Visual Literacy and Communication, however, this criterion was rated just as high as the others, as Film students understand the importance of applying visual communication principles to their CMAP major. It is satisfying for me to be teaching students of this creative major and knowing that introducing them to the visual arts can be an invaluable part of their education. I look forward to “getting out of my lane” more as I continue to collaborate with the CMAP major, as well as other disciplines at GGC, to create new and innovative curriculum.

Citations linked in text.

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