Breaking Out of the Visual Box



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Did you know there is a professional organization that encompasses multiple disciplines?

Disciplines in the spectrum of education (all levels), instructional technology, sensory arts, art history, product design, graphic design, culinary arts, food science, textile technologies and visual arts, all find a comfortable fit in one place.

The IVLA is the International Visual Literacy Association. Founded in 1969 as an interdisciplinary collective of scholars and practitioners inspired to explore the commonalities of the visual within their different domains. My working definition of visual literacy is:

The ability to read, interpret and create visual imagery, works, projects, art, and communications including the activation of sensory and cognitive processes that are engaged in the decoding and coding of such messages presented in any media.

Doesn’t that sound like some aspect of your work? Visual literacy seems to be used by everyone who communicates using media, but without an appreciative understanding of the power of the visual language. Education systems devote extensive learning time to the written language, but not enough time for teaching students how to communicate visually. That seems to me like speaking and writing with only half of your vocabulary. I’m not talking about teaching visual literacy in art classes. I advocate that every elementary and secondary teacher introduce visual literacy in every subject. That idea has transformative potential for how students “see” the world and create their own impression upon it. The results would be divergent and out-of-the-box imaginative.

How might teachers get turned on to the idea of visual literacy?

Recently, I attended the 48th Annual Conference of the International Visual Literacy Association, “Engaging the Senses” at Concordia University, Montreal (October 5-8), where I experienced multiple mind-blowing sessions, demonstrations, plenaries (yes, they use that word), and experiences designed for all the senses. Hosted by Dr. David Howes, Professor of Anthropology at Concordia University and led by IVLA President, Dr. Karen Tardrew, National-Louis University, the 3-day event featured a breadth of presentations, papers, workshops, forums, and demonstrations to fill each day with surprising visual, taste, and auditory experiences. In the small intimate environment, I met colleagues from around the world who shared a similar passion and focus on the importance of visual literacy for understanding our world. They presented photographic literacy, digital media representation, creative digital activism, comics, and early childhood writing. I found my people! A tribe of diverse scholars and practitioners, who boldy venture across cultural and social barriers to reach youth, indigenous people, even the blind. Yes, sensory literacy because eyes are not the only way of “seeing.”


Jason Edward Lewis delivered the opening keynote session, “Populating the Future Imaginary,” which impressively connected visual literacy, social justice, and indigenous people. It was a fascinating description of his work with indigenous youth to claim their stake in the silicon soil of cyberspace in which they can wrinkle their to
es and tell their stories for future generations. Take science fiction and mix it with ancestral legends and traditions to create the legacy that become the stories of future generations of indigenous people. See his work at Initiative for Indigenous Futures an Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace production.

Give a careful review of the conference website and  to get a better understanding of the diversity of content.

Since returning, I have thought of all the disciplines that were (or should have been) represented and uncovered plenty of inspiring connections between my work in instructional design, educational technology, teaching at all education levels, and academic scholarship all within IVLA. The peer reviewed publication is “Journal of Visual Literacy,“ published by Taylor and Francis.

I enthusiastically encourage you to explore the possibilities of IVLA for your own professional learning. I feel confident you will be inspired to see your work, craft and scholarship through new sensory lenses. I know you will find colleagues who can help connect you more deeply into visual literacy and elevate your passion for your work.

The next conference is September 14-17, 2017 at Lesley University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The theme will be “Designing Visual Literacy Experiences” hosted in collaboration with the Harvard Art Museum (HAM). The call for proposals will be posted in early spring 2017. Mark your calendars and look for updates on the IVLA website.

I wonder what you might present to inspire IVLA 2017?