To be or not to be a Visually Literate Design Student: Should Teaching Design History Include Teaching Visual Literacy Skills?

By Arianne Rourke.

Published by The Design Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

There have been a number of theorists who have outlined what visual literacy is and what objectives educators should work towards in order to develop visual literacy skills in students (Ausburn & Ausburn, 1978; Wileman, 1980; Boughton, 1986, Giorgis, Johnson, Bonomo & Colbert, 1999 etc.). However when it comes to teaching design history in higher education how are these objectives met? What does visual literacy mean in this context? Visual literacy is an important skill for design students to develop before entering their future design professions. Teaching visual literacy skills is an objective largely overlooked, a 'taken for granted' area of design education. Debes (1972) outlined the characteristics of visual literacy by listing the skills that needed to be developed in order to become visually literate. These included having the ability: to read visuals with skill; to write with visuals expressing oneself effectively; to know the grammar and syntax of visual language and be able to apply them; to be familiar with the tools of visual literacy and their use; to appreciate the masterworks of visual literacy, to be able to translate from visual language to verbal language and vice versa. Debes' list of characteristics describes an individual with a sophisticated level of visual literacy who has already acquired an extensive knowledge and understanding of the visual world. The skills required towards becoming a visually literate person need to be conceivable in practice, relative to the visual world, not only within an elite cultural art and design context, but also within daily life. This paper discusses the importance of developing visual literacy skills in design students and outlines what learning objectives need to be integrated into a design history curriculum in order to promote the acquisition of visual literacy skills.

Keywords: Visual Literacy, Visual Literacy Skills, Visually Literate, Design History, Design History Curriculum, Grammer and Syntax of Visual Language

Design Principles and Practices: An International Journal, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp.49-56. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 542.371KB).

Dr. Arianne Rourke

Lecturer, The School of Art History and Art Education, COFA UNSW, Sydney, NSW, Australia

My research interests are in online teaching, visual literacy and the application of Cognitive load theory to improving instructional design in higher education specifically in the area of improving the teaching of undergraduate design history and postgraduate arts administration towards the long term retention of learning.


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