What is Visual Literacy in Business?
Worth a Thousand Words... Or Dollars
Instagram. Pinterest. YouTube. Facebook. These social media networks heavily rely on one thing: Visual content, whether that's photos, images, infographics, emojis, or video. And visual content is only getting hotter.
In the text-based world of blogs and Twitter, images are usually an enhancement or afterthought. But in today's social media universe, visual content leads, even replaces, text heavy posts.
So if businesses want to reach and sell to today's customers, building visual literacy skill is a must.
What is Visual Literacy?
Just as literacy is the ability to communicate and understand text-based material, visual literacy can be described as the ability to communicate and understand meaning in pictures.
Visual Literacy Versus Art
In education, developing visual skills are often limited to visual art classes, often with an emphasis on artistic skill. So those students who don't have artistic talent, or any inclination towards the arts, often just take whatever art classes are necessary to pass or graduate, thereby losing out on developing a skill of the future.
For example, in college, I had to take an additional communications elective and chose an Art 101 type class. First day, we were charged with leaving the classroom and coming back in an hour with four sketches of a scene in a dorm room. Even though I love looking at art I, I don't enjoy drawing and just managed to eek out a C in drawing class in high school. I promptly used that sketching hour to march down to registration and switch my elective class to sociology (a class which I thoroughly enjoyed). But I have to admit that with today's need for visual interpretation and communication, I wish I could have explored artistic analysis and interpretation in depth... and not just be forced to develop a knack for putting pencil to paper.
At the minimum, a required course in art history—with an emphasis on determining what the artists of the past were trying to communicate—could help expose students to the importance of interpreting visual content.
Visual Versus Analytical
One of the aspects of visual content that can perplex business folks is qualification, quantification, and measurement. Measuring whether a blog article qualifies as worthy can often be done with metrics such as word count, SEO keyword use (or overuse), and analysis of its structure. Google and its search engine cohorts, as well as social media platforms, just continue to get better and better at analyzing text-based content.
The addition of images can improve the SEO score of online textual content. But one has to wonder how the analysis robots are assessing the included visuals. Image alt tags and descriptions have traditionally been keys to analyzing photos and graphics. However, those text-based tags and descriptions can be manipulated for search engine "reading."
As more and more visual content floods the Internet, independent of textual cues, what frames of reference will the bots use to assess the value of it? This need to filter and frame visual content will drive search engines and social media platforms to develop—maybe even favor—more and more technologies and strategies for visual analysis than ever before.
Thinking in Pictures
While the bots will "learn" to more accurately assess visuals, how can businesses figure out what works so they can better communicate in pictures?
Trial and Error. Like learning any language, visual literacy skill will be developed by trial and error. The point is to start education and experimentation now.
Understand the Legalities and Limitations. Some businesses blithely jump into the visual vortex and get picture happy, posting photos and graphics with abandon. They post without getting proper permissions for taking or using photos of certain subjects which can be an invasion of privacy or a violation of copyright. Big mistake! They need to get educated on legal use of photos and graphics. Consulting an attorney, especially one familiar with media liability and intellectual property, is highly recommended.
The Time Investment. In addition to the learning curve for understanding and using visuals, capturing and editing this material can be very time consuming. Decide on what investment of both money and time can be devoted to the effort, seeking outside professional help as needed.
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Heidi Thorne