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What Is Visual Literacy in Business?

Heidi Thorne is an author and business speaker specializing in sales and marketing topics for coaches, consultants, and solopreneurs.

If a company wants to reach customers efficiently, visual literacy is key.

If a company wants to reach customers efficiently, visual literacy is key.

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 and sometimes even replaces text-heavy posts.

So if businesses want to reach and sell to today's customers, building visual literacy skills 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 vs. 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.

My College Example

I had to take an additional communication elective and chose an Art 101-type class. On the 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 eke 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).

Nevertheless, 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 vs. Analytical

Qualifying, quantification, and measurement are aspects of visual content that can perplex business folks. 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, 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 must wonder how the analysis robots assess 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 its value? 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 assess visuals more accurately, how can businesses figure out what works so they can better communicate in pictures?

  • Trial and Error. Like learning any language, visual literacy skills 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 cortex and get picture-happy, posting photos and graphics with abandon. They post without getting proper permission to take or use photos of certain subjects, which can be an invasion of privacy or a violation of copyright. Big mistake! They need to get educated on the 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.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

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© 2017 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 31, 2017:

Hi Blond!

That is a great question! From what I can see on HubPages and elsewhere, it seems that placing the image first, before the text content, is most common on a one-column, mobile friendly layout. This would be a good placement for the reader--especially since the visual can draw them into reading the post--although I'm not sure exactly how the search engines handle scanning of that layout.

You are so right about the portrait versus vertical and size variations issues! Drives me crazy! And what's worse is that these size and orientation requirements can change. Ugh! Having a VA can be a godsend to keep up. But, again, if it's to keep up with EVERY darn social platform, probably not. As with anything else in the social media universe, I'd just concentrate on creating stellar visuals and hiring help for the platforms that give you the most bang for your buck.

Thanks for bringing up the size and orientation questions! I'm sure a lot of people are asking that. Appreciate your support and have a beautiful week!

Mary Wickison from USA on July 31, 2017:

I agree visuals will not only attract a reader or a potential customer but keep them on your content longer.

I do have a question for you Heidi. Since many sites, Hubpages included, are removing side by side columns, should the image appear before the content or after?

For companies using various social media sites, it can be a nightmare with the different sizes required for images and creative banners. Some prefer portrait and others landscape orientation.

I think most businesses know they need an online presence but for many, to stay up to date with the social media promotion they almost need a dedicated VA or employee to keep up with it.

It is a topic which seems to change by the day.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 31, 2017:

Flourish, you got that right! And I've noticed that you usually start your engaging playlist hubs with a photo that clearly helps people get the idea of what it's about. So I know you understand the value of visuals. Thanks for the kind words and stopping by! Have a great day!

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 30, 2017:

I find that visuals are a key ingredient to traffic, particularly given social media. If you can grab someone with a photo and keep their interest by sprinkling fun or interesting photos, it generates more interest. The tags in photos help too. Great article, Heidi!

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