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Visual Literacy — Nicolas A Coia

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The following video will  focus on three topics.

  • Visual literacy in the design of information.
  • How errors create failure.
  • And the education system’s lack of teaching in a visual manner.

This argument revolves around how these three facets of information are intertwined, and through this presentation I hope to provide an example of this argument. Thank you.

We are becoming “thinkers” as opposed to “doers. We read, rather than write. Information needs to be conveyed in logical terms, uphold artistic qualities, and maintain simplicity all while delivering complicated and enriching information. The presentation of information is more important than society understands. Well-delivered information decreases human error and affords the ease of concentration as opposed to increased distraction.

Lack of visual literacy coupled with poor information design hinders our ability to absorb data and increases our level of distraction. Users have set goals in mind when performing tasks and look towards information to accomplish these goals. When information is delivered in a poor manner, the user is more prone to failure at their given task “and thus impinge on information design or interface dependability [and] usability.” (Albers, Design for Effective Support…).

The solution is not simply the implementation of standardized guidelines for consistent and affective information design. We need to understand, as a cohesive body of people, how to portray information for the masses and niche alike. ­­This understanding needs to come from education and its guiding principles.

An educational experience that leverages visual design principles in the portrayal of information to young students can be used as a multi-faceted approach. 1) These educational changes help increase information retention for students as proven in Elizabeth K. Wilson, Vivian H. Wright and Ann-Mari Peirano’s case study, “The Impact of Using Digital Timelines in the Social Studies Classroom” (2007). Their study focused directly on the use of Microsoft’s Photo Story 3 and enabling students to use the program in delivering a visual, audible and sequenced visual depiction of nine historical events of the American Revolution.

2) Educating the young through a more visually engaging experience will train students to better understand how information should be visually conveyed. As adults, these individuals will be better suited for navigating an abundance of information and information layouts. Michael J. Albers “Design for Effective Support of User Intentions in Information-rich interactions” (2009) presents a thorough synthesis of a users intentions with the information world, the goals we have in mind when performing tasks and how poor information design enhances distraction that leads to task failure.

This paper will introduce the concepts mentioned in full detail and explain how visual education will promote a greater understanding of visual design. From which the circle of confusion, distraction and failure will begin to cease.

On a whole, our workforce is focused more on the “thinking” side of Erik Hollnagel’s scale of Human work (“doing” to “thinking”). This scale depicts “doing” as a form of physical action where thinking is considered “diagnosis, planning, and problem solving.” It is important to understand that we have evolved past a culture of makers and into the realm of desk ridden thinkers, producing complex systems analysis, user interfaces, business-to-business solutions and etcetera. With this evolution of focus, the opportunity of distraction has also risen greatly.

In the World Wide Web, there are two types of information portrayal to be considered, “Pure information” and “Information to be acted upon.” Pure information is where the user’s main focus is passive knowledge, nothing more than the gathering of information is performed. Websites depicting information to be acted upon affords the user extraction of information with the expectation of data synthesis, making decisions or taking some sort of action. This essay focuses on sites that deliver the latter, action based information.

First, goals are determined; an individual can have multiple goals at any given time, prioritizing an average of two to the top of their task list. While trying to reach these goals, a person looks for additional information to accomplish the task(s) at hand. But poor information design increases incorrect actions from the individual while achieving her goal(s). This is known as failure or error.

This becomes a negative circle of influence, as designers are distracted in the creation of decision-based problem solving information, they fail in completing their goals, this later allows others to fail in the understanding, evaluating and complex use of this new information, and the cycle continues.

In the realm of failure there are three different types of errors that can occur, Skills-based, Rules-based and Knowledge-based, ranging from unconscious to conscious areas of thought, respectively. There are multiple slips that can occur in Skills-based errors, but from a holistic point-of-view, Skill-based error occurs from the lack of the physical ability or miscalculation from the mind while performing a task. Rule-based errors occur when the individual misinterprets a situation and chooses the wrong rule or structure. And Knowledge-based error is apparent when the individual simply hasn’t the knowledge to solve the problem at hand, but thinks he is adequately prepared. (Milekic)

It is difficult to design for each stage of error, as different stages require different constructs to ensure the rate of failure is decreased. Not to mention those users with different knowledge – visual, professional and the like – need different solutions to decrease their rate of failure.

Rather than rely solely on designers of how information is portrayed to and for the masses, updating the educational system to better influence the progression of visual understanding is of greater value.

Through education, society has immediate access to a toolbox of understanding and problem solving techniques. Visual understanding is one of the most important tools our education system obnoxiously overlooks. Humans absorb 80% of information through our eyes, and yet the education system relies heavily on text based books with some contextual images that don’t necessarily represent in greater detail or a better explanatory way the information being taught.

Wilson, Wright and Peirano’s study is a step towards proving that the education system needs to be updated. Although their study, “The Impact of Using Digital Timelines in the Social Studies Classroom” is focused on one subject, it adequately proves the importance of visual learning. Visual learning helps better instill complex information for recall and analysis in the future while a larger “[repertoire] of cognitive skills [allowing humans to] gain access to powerful new tools of creative thought.” (Messaris, 1998, p.70).

In this study, students used digital media, Microsoft’s Photo Story 3, to compile a visual and auditory timeline based on the American Revolution. After the experiment, students stated they felt more involved in the learning process than with most assignments. However, their interest revolved more around the structure of the timeline, pictures, font, music, and overall visual style, not content.

During student critique, the main focus was on the visual portrayal of information, not the actual context or content of data. The goal of the assignment was not to elaborate on historical context, but to build a visual timeline based on nine facts from the America Revolution. Contrary to the assigned structure of the deliverable, and the resulting critiques, “when asked to write a cause and effect essay on an American Revolution culminating test [the students] showed more sophisticated and higher level thinking than on previous topics.” (Wilson, Wright and Peirano, p.176).

It is not surprising that visual learning affords students a greater ability for information distillation from which they can call upon more easily in the future. A engaging students through visual tools at younger ages will help deter from higher rates of failure, while also eliminating diligent analysis of error proneness.

Since it is more complicated to focus on error resolution – due to the number of different users and failure types – teaching and allowing for visual critique in early education affords a better understanding of visual principles. As it stands, students are not taught good aesthetic techniques and as they become professionals of numerous industries, humans have a great lack of visual literacy.

This illiteracy is what starts the distraction loop. A human has a goal in mind and begins to formulate the way in which she must solve this goal. As she begins the process of solving the problem, poorly design aesthetic information confuses her and one of two things happen. The individual either fails in choosing the correct rule to solve the problem or feels she has gained the correct knowledge and completes the goal in a failed manner.

Now lets say, for instance, that this individual was an information designer. This designed data, now distributed to millions of individuals has been created not only in a visually illiterate way, due to her lack of visual education, but her skill or knowledge based failure is also prevalent. The solved problem in-adequately portrays information while also delivering incorrect data. This is a loop of negative information delivery, endlessly affecting future individuals and the delivery of information.

This proposed situation would need great analysis of where errors occur and why the errors were influenced. Much time would be required, well-trained analysts needed and maintains the propensity of failure. However, proper education would afford a greater visually literate network of people, who would be enabled to deliver more comprehensive and error immune alternatives.


Albers, Michael J. “Design for Effective Support of User Intentions in Information-Rich Interactions.” Web. 27 Feb. 2011.

E. Hollnagel, CREAM—Cognitive Reliability and Error Analysis Method, 2006. Accessed March 27, 2011 at

E. Hollnagel, The Elusiveness of “Human Error”, 2005. Accessed March 27, 2011 at

Norman, D. A. (1986) “Cognitive Engineering.” In D. A. Norman and S. W. Draper (eds.) User Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human-Computer Interaction. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Messaris, P. (1998). Visual Aspects of Media Literacy. Journal of Communication, 48(1), 70-80.

Wilson, Elizabeth K., and Wright, Vivian H. “The Impact of Using Digital Timelines in the Social Studies Classroom.” Web. 27 Feb. 2011.


Written by uartsgr655

May 11, 2011 at 6:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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