Better in Pictures

Visual Literacy and the Cosmopolitan Imaginary

How to Cite

Holleran, S. (2021). Better in Pictures: Visual Literacy and the Cosmopolitan Imaginary. M/C Journal, 24(4). (Original work published August 12, 2021)
Vol. 24 No. 4 (2021): design
Published 2021-08-12 — Updated on 2021-08-19

While the term “visual literacy” has grown in popularity in the last 50 years, its meaning remains nebulous. It is described variously as: a vehicle for aesthetic appreciation, a means of defence against visual manipulation, a sorting mechanism for an increasingly data-saturated age, and a prerequisite to civic inclusion (Fransecky 23; Messaris 181; McTigue and Flowers 580). Scholars have written extensively about the first three subjects but there has been less research on how visual literacy frames civic life and how it might help the public as a tool to address disadvantage and assist in removing social and cultural barriers. This article examines a forerunner to visual literacy in the push to create an international symbol language born out of popular education movements, a project that fell short of its goals but still left a considerable impression on graphic media. This article, then, presents an analysis of visual literacy campaigns in the early postwar era. These campaigns did not attempt to invent a symbolic language but posited that images themselves served as a universal language in which students could receive training. Of particular interest is how the concept of visual literacy has been mobilised as a pedagogical tool in design, digital humanities and in broader civic education initiatives promoted by Third Space institutions. Behind the creation of new visual literacy curricula is the idea that images can help anchor a world community, supplementing textual communication.

Figure 1: Visual Literacy Yearbook. Montebello Unified School District, USA, 1973.

Shedding Light: Origins of the Visual Literacy Frame

The term “visual literacy” came to the fore in the early 1970s on the heels of mass literacy campaigns. The educators, creatives and media theorists who first advocated for visual learning linked this aim to literacy, an unassailable goal, to promote a more radical curricular overhaul. They challenged a system that had hitherto only acknowledged a very limited pathway towards academic success; pushing “language and mathematics”, courses “referred to as solids (something substantial) as contrasted with liquids or gases (courses with little or no substance)” (Eisner 92). This was deemed “a parochial view of both human ability and the possibilities of education” that did not acknowledge multiple forms of intelligence (Gardner). This change not only integrated elements of mass culture that had been rejected in education, notably film and graphic arts, but also encouraged the critique of images as a form of good citizenship, assuming that visually literate arbiters could call out media misrepresentations and manipulative political advertising (Messaris, “Visual Test”). This movement was, in many ways, reactive to new forms of mass media that began to replace newspapers as key forms of civic participation. Unlike simple literacy (being able to decipher letters as a mnemonic system), visual literacy involves imputing meanings to images where meanings are less fixed, yet still with embedded cultural signifiers. 

Visual literacy promised to extend enlightenment metaphors of sight (as in the German Aufklärung) and illumination (as in the French Lumières) to help citizens understand an increasingly complex marketplace of images. The move towards visual literacy was not so much a shift towards images (and away from books and oration) but an affirmation of the need to critically investigate the visual sphere. It introduced doubt to previously upheld hierarchies of perception. Sight, to Kant the “noblest of the senses” (158), was no longer the sense “least affected” by the surrounding world but an input centre that was equally manipulable.

In Kant’s view of societal development, the “cosmopolitan” held the key to pacifying bellicose states and ensuring global prosperity and tranquillity. The process of developing a cosmopolitan ideology rests, according to Kant, on the gradual elimination of war and “the education of young people in intellectual and moral culture” (188-89). Transforming disparate societies into “a universal cosmopolitan existence” that would “at last be realised as the matrix within which all the original capacities of the human race may develop” and would take well-funded educational institutions and, potentially, a new framework for imparting knowledge (Kant 51). To some, the world of the visual presented a baseline for shared experience.

Figure 2: Exhibition by the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum in Vienna, photograph c. 1927.

An International Picture Language

The quest to find a mutually intelligible language that could “bridge worlds” and solder together all of humankind goes back to the late nineteenth century and the Esperanto movement of Ludwig Zamenhof (Schor 59). The expression of this ideal in the world of the visual picked up steam in the interwar years with designers and editors like Fritz Kahn, Gerd Arntz, and Otto and Marie Neurath. Their work transposing complex ideas into graphic form has been rediscovered as an antecedent to modern infographics, but the symbols they deployed were not to merely explain, but also help education and build international fellowship unbounded by spoken language. The Neuraths in particular are celebrated for their international picture language or Isotypes. These pictograms (sometimes viewed as proto-emojis) can be used to represent data without text. Taken together they are an “intemporal, hieroglyphic language” that Neutrath hoped would unite working-class people the world over (Lee 159).

The Neuraths’ work was done in the explicit service of visual education with a popular socialist agenda and incubated in the social sphere of Red Vienna at the Gesellschafts- und Wirtschaftsmuseum (Social and Economic Museum) where Otto served as Director. The Wirtschaftsmuseum was an experiment in popular education, with multiple branches and late opening hours to accommodate the “the working man [who] has time to see a museum only at night” (Neurath 72-73). The Isotype contained universalist aspirations for the “making of a world language, or a helping picture language—[that] will give support to international developments generally” and “educate by the eye” (Neurath 13).

Figure 3: Gerd Arntz Isotype Images. (Source: University of Reading.)

The Isotype was widely adopted in the postwar era in pre-packaged sets of symbols used in graphic design and wayfinding systems for buildings and transportation networks, but with the socialism of the Neuraths’ peeled away, leaving only the system of logos that we are familiar with from airport washrooms, charts, and public transport maps. Much of the uptake in this symbol language could be traced to increased mobility and tourism, particularly in countries that did not make use of a Roman alphabet. The 1964 Olympics in Tokyo helped pave the way when organisers, fearful of jumbling too many scripts together, opted instead for black and white icons to represent the program of sports that summer. The new focus on the visual was both technologically mediated—cheaper printing and broadcast technologies made the diffusion of image increasingly possible—but also ideologically supported by a growing emphasis on projects that transcended linguistic, ethnic, and national borders. The Olympic symbols gradually morphed into Letraset icons, and, later, symbols in the Unicode Standard, which are the basis for today’s emojis. Wordless signs helped facilitate interconnectedness, but only in the most literal sense; their application was limited primarily to sports mega-events, highway maps, and “brand building”, and they never fulfilled their role as an educational language “to give the different nations a common outlook” (Neurath 18). Universally understood icons, particularly in the form of emojis, point to a rise in visual communication but they have fallen short as a cosmopolitan project, supporting neither the globalisation of Kantian ethics nor the transnational socialism of the Neuraths.

Figure 4: Symbols in use. Women's bathroom. 1964 Tokyo Olympics. (Source: The official report of the Organizing Committee.)

Counter Education

By mid-century, the optimism of a universal symbol language seemed dated, and focus shifted from distillation to discernment. New educational programs presented ways to study images, increasingly reproducible with new technologies, as a language in and of themselves. These methods had their roots in the fin-de-siècle educational reforms of John Dewey, Helen Parkhurst, and Maria Montessori. As early as the 1920s, progressive educators were using highly visual magazines, like National Geographic, as the basis for lesson planning, with the hopes that they would “expose students to edifying and culturally enriching reading” and “develop a more catholic taste or sensibility, representing an important cosmopolitan value” (Hawkins 45). The rise in imagery from previously inaccessible regions helped pupils to see themselves in relation to the larger world (although this connection always came with the presumed superiority of the reader). “Pictorial education in public schools” taught readers—through images—to accept a broader world but, too often, they saw photographs as a “straightforward transcription of the real world” (Hawkins 57).

The images of cultures and events presented in Life and National Geographic for the purposes of education and enrichment were now the subject of greater analysis in the classroom, not just as “windows into new worlds” but as cultural products in and of themselves. The emerging visual curriculum aimed to do more than just teach with previously excluded modes (photography, film and comics); it would investigate how images presented and mediated the world. This gained wider appeal with new analytical writing on film, like Raymond Spottiswoode's Grammar of the Film (1950) which sought to formulate the grammatical rules of visual communication (Messaris 181), influenced by semiotics and structural linguistics; the emphasis on grammar can also be seen in far earlier writings on design systems such as Owen Jones’s 1856 The Grammar of Ornament, which also advocated for new, universalising methods in design education (Sloboda 228). The inventorying impulse is on display in books like Donis A. Dondis’s A Primer of Visual Literacy (1973), a text that meditates on visual perception but also functions as an introduction to line and form in the applied arts, picking up where the Bauhaus left off. Dondis enumerates the “syntactical guidelines” of the applied arts with illustrations that are in keeping with 1920s books by Kandinsky and Klee and analyse pictorial elements. However, at the end of the book she shifts focus with two chapters that examine “messaging” and visual literacy explicitly. Dondis predicts that “an intellectual, trained ability to make and understand visual messages is becoming a vital necessity to involvement with communication. It is quite likely that visual literacy will be one of the fundamental measures of education in the last third of our century” (33) and she presses for more programs that incorporate the exploration and analysis of images in tertiary education.

Figure 5: Ideal spatial environment for the Blueprint charts, 1970. (Image: Inventory Press.)

Visual literacy in education arrived in earnest with a wave of publications in the mid-1970s. They offered ways for students to understand media processes and for teachers to use visual culture as an entry point into complex social and scientific subject matter, tapping into the “visual consciousness of the ‘television generation’” (Fransecky 5). Visual culture was often seen as inherently democratising, a break from stuffiness, the “artificialities of civilisation”, and the “archaic structures” that set sensorial perception apart from scholarship (Dworkin 131-132).

Many radical university projects and community education initiatives of the 1960s made use of new media in novel ways: from Maurice Stein and Larry Miller’s fold-out posters accompanying Blueprint for Counter Education (1970) to Emory Douglas’s graphics for The Black Panther newspaper. Blueprint’s text- and image-dense wall charts were made via assemblage and they were imagined less as charts and more as a “matrix of resources” that could be used—and added to—by youth to undertake their own counter education (Cronin 53). These experiments in visual learning helped to break down old hierarchies in education, but their aim was influenced more by countercultural notions of disruption than the universal ideals of cosmopolitanism.

From Image as Text to City as Text

 For a brief period in the 1970s, thinkers like Marshall McLuhan (McLuhan et al., Massage) and artists like Bruno Munari (Tanchis and Munari) collaborated fruitfully with graphic designers to create books that mixed text and image in novel ways. Using new compositional methods, they broke apart traditional printing lock-ups to superimpose photographs, twist text, and bend narrative frames. The most famous work from this era is, undoubtedly, The Medium Is the Massage (1967), McLuhan’s team-up with graphic designer Quentin Fiore, but it was followed by dozens of other books intended to communicate theory and scientific ideas with popularising graphics. Following in the footsteps of McLuhan, many of these texts sought not just to explain an issue but to self-consciously reference their own method of information delivery. These works set the precedent for visual aids (and, to a lesser extent, audio) that launched a diverse, non-hierarchical discourse that was nonetheless bound to tactile artefacts.

In 1977, McLuhan helped develop a media textbook for secondary school students called City as Classroom: Understanding Language and Media. It is notable for its direct address style and its focus on investigating spaces outside of the classroom (provocatively, a section on the third page begins with “Should all schools be closed?”). The book follows with a fine-grained analysis of advertising forms in which students are asked to first bring advertisements into class for analysis and later to go out into the city to explore “a man-made environment, a huge warehouse of information, a vast resource to be mined free of charge” (McLuhan et al., City 149). As a document City as Classroom is critical of existing teaching methods, in line with the radical “in the streets” pedagogy of its day. McLuhan’s theories proved particularly salient for the counter education movement, in part because they tapped into a healthy scepticism of advertisers and other image-makers. They also dovetailed with growing discontent with the ad-strew visual environment of cities in the 1970s.

Budgets for advertising had mushroomed in the1960s and outdoor advertising “cluttered” cities with billboards and neon, generating “fierce intensities and new hybrid energies” that threatened to throw off the visual equilibrium (McLuhan 74). Visual literacy curricula brought in experiential learning focussed on the legibility of the cities, mapping, and the visualisation of urban issues with social justice implications. The Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute (DGEI), a “collective endeavour of community research and education” that arose in the aftermath of the 1967 uprisings, is the most storied of the groups that suffused the collection of spatial data with community engagement and organising (Warren et al. 61). The following decades would see a tamed approach to visual literacy that, while still pressing for critical reading, did not upend traditional methods of educational delivery.

Figure 6: Beginning a College Program-Assisting Teachers to Develop Visual Literacy Approaches in Public School Classrooms. 1977. ERIC.

Searching for Civic Education

The visual literacy initiatives formed in the early 1970s both affirmed existing civil society institutions while also asserting the need to better inform the public. Most of the campaigns were sponsored by universities, major libraries, and international groups such as UNESCO, which published its “Declaration on Media Education” in 1982. They noted that “participation” was “essential to the working of a pluralistic and representative democracy” and the “public—users, citizens, individuals, groups ... were too systematically overlooked”. Here, the public is conceived as both “targets of the information and communication process” and users who “should have the last word”. To that end their “continuing education” should be ensured (Study 18). Programs consisted primarily of cognitive “see-scan-analyse” techniques (Little et al.) for younger students but some also sought to bring visual analysis to adult learners via continuing education (often through museums eager to engage more diverse audiences) and more radical popular education programs sponsored by community groups. 

By the mid-80s, scores of modules had been built around the comprehension of visual media and had become standard educational fare across North America, Australasia, and to a lesser extent, Europe. There was an increasing awareness of the role of data and image presentation in decision-making, as evidenced by the surprising commercial success of Edward Tufte’s 1982 book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Visual literacy—or at least image analysis—was now enmeshed in teaching practice and needed little active advocacy. Scholarly interest in the subject went into a brief period of hibernation in the 1980s and early 1990s, only to be reborn with the arrival of new media distribution technologies (CD-ROMs and then the internet) in classrooms and the widespread availability of digital imaging technology starting in the late 1990s; companies like Adobe distributed free and reduced-fee licences to schools and launched extensive teacher training programs. Visual literacy was reanimated but primarily within a circumscribed academic field of education and data visualisation.

Figure 7: Visual Literacy; What Research Says to the Teacher, 1975. National Education Association. USA.

Part of the shifting frame of visual literacy has to do with institutional imperatives, particularly in places where austerity measures forced strange alliances between disciplines. What had been a project in alternative education morphed into an uncontested part of the curriculum and a dependable budget line. This shift was already forecasted in 1972 by Harun Farocki who, writing in Filmkritik, noted that funding for new film schools would be difficult to obtain but money might be found for “training in media education … a discipline that could persuade ministers of education, that would at the same time turn the budget restrictions into an advantage, and that would match the functions of art schools” (98). Nearly 50 years later educators are still using media education (rebranded as visual or media literacy) to make the case for fine arts and humanities education. While earlier iterations of visual literacy education were often too reliant on the idea of cracking the “code” of images, they did promote ways of learning that were a deep departure from the rote methods of previous generations. Next-gen curricula frame visual literacy as largely supplemental—a resource, but not a program.

By the end of the 20th century, visual literacy had changed from a scholarly interest to a standard resource in the “teacher’s toolkit”, entering into school programs and influencing museum education, corporate training, and the development of public-oriented media (Literacy). An appreciation of image culture was seen as key to creating empathetic global citizens, but its scope was increasingly limited. With rising austerity in the education sector (a shift that preceded the 2008 recession by decades in some countries), art educators, museum enrichment staff, and design researchers need to make a case for why their disciplines were relevant in pedagogical models that are increasingly aimed at “skills-based” and “job ready” teaching. Arts educators worked hard to insert their fields into learning goals for secondary students as visual literacy, with the hope that “literacy” would carry the weight of an educational imperative and not a supplementary field of study.


For nearly a century, educational initiatives have sought to inculcate a cosmopolitan perspective with a variety of teaching materials and pedagogical reference points. Symbolic languages, like the Isotype, looked to unite disparate people with shared visual forms; while educational initiatives aimed to train the eyes of students to make them more discerning citizens. The term ‘visual literacy’ emerged in the 1960s and has since been deployed in programs with a wide variety of goals. Countercultural initiatives saw it as a prerequisite for popular education from the ground up, but, in the years since, it has been formalised and brought into more staid curricula, often as a sort of shorthand for learning from media and pictures. The grand cosmopolitan vision of a complete ‘visual language’ has been scaled back considerably, but still exists in trace amounts.

Processes of globalisation require images to universalise experiences, commodities, and more for people without shared languages. Emoji alphabets and globalese (brands and consumer messaging that are “visual-linguistic” amalgams “increasingly detached from any specific ethnolinguistic group or locality”) are a testament to a mediatised banal cosmopolitanism (Jaworski 231). In this sense, becoming “fluent” in global design vernacular means familiarity with firms and products, an understanding that is aesthetic, not critical.

It is very much the beneficiaries of globalisation—both state and commercial actors—who have been able to harness increasingly image-based technologies for their benefit. To take a humorous but nonetheless consequential example, Spanish culinary boosters were able to successfully lobby for a paella emoji (Miller) rather than having a food symbol from a less wealthy country such as a Senegalese jollof or a Morrocan tagine. This trend has gone even further as new forms of visual communication are increasingly streamlined and managed by for-profit media platforms. The ubiquity of these forms of communication and their global reach has made visual literacy more important than ever but it has also fundamentally shifted the endeavour from a graphic sorting practice to a critical piece of social infrastructure that has tremendous political ramifications.

Visual literacy campaigns hold out the promise of educating students in an image-based system with the potential to transcend linguistic and cultural boundaries. This cosmopolitan political project has not yet been realised, as the visual literacy frame has drifted into specialised silos of art, design, and digital humanities education. It can help bridge the “incomplete connections” of an increasingly globalised world (Calhoun 112), but it does not have a program in and of itself. Rather, an evolving visual literacy curriculum might be seen as a litmus test for how we imagine the role of images in the world.


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