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TEDxDartmouth – Brian Kennedy – Visual Literacy: Why We Need It

Translator: Ryan Kelly Horner
Reviewer: Tatjana Jevdjic I’ve been involved in visuals all my life,
so have you. But it was brought to my attention pretty early: My father practiced as an architect. So, quite early on, I learned the difference
between a segmental and a triangular pediment, gables, a mansard roof. When I was thirteen, an aunt of mine
sent me an art postcard for my birthday and she said, “I’ll send you one a month
if you’d like to collect them.” So, I started collecting,
she slowed down sending. I started to go to art classes
at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin with Dr. James Wright, the Director,
who is an enthusiast for artworks. And by the time I went to college
I had 5,000 postcards. Now, think about a postcard;
it’s not like ripping things out of a book, or slides or anything,
they are all the same size, so that’s a manipulation.
The shape, the size is made the same. But, you can take 40 Rembrandts
and put them all on a table, and you can write the dates of them all,
and you can see the progression of an artist’s career
right in front of your eyes. The imaginative process is something
that happens with our eyes, our actual eyes seeing,
and the eyes of our minds: the blind Milton,
able to create such visual poems. What do we really see?
Why do we use the word visionary? Visionary: farsighted. Well, the issue is that
everything is an image. Everything we see is an image. We see it binocularly and with a retina,
it’s upside down, connecting to our optic nerve,
to our brain cortex. We see millions of things every day, but unless we connect
cognition and memory, we don’t remember what we see. So, visual literacy, what is it? It’s the ability to construct
meaning from images. It’s not a skill; it uses skills as a toolbox. It’s a form of critical thinking
that enhances your intellectual capacity. It’s not a new concept. In 1969, the International Visual Literacy Association
was established. It has an annual conference; it has a journal. But something happened on the way
from there to here. And we kind of lost visual literacy
amid visual studies, and visual culture, and visual communications, and visual graphics. And what’s necessary now,
surely it seems to me, is that we integrate, that we re-integrate
the capacity of our senses. And why? Because we are now in the digital age. I am so excited for college and university students
all over the world. In December 1991, the World Wide Web went live. That means that eighteen-year-olds
going to college everywhere are digital natives and I am one
of the before-and-after people. I know what it was like before
and I know what it is like after. I’m one of what you might call
the Gutenberg people. Can you imagine what it was like,
you had all these illuminated manuscripts It’s fascinating, in the near-Eastern world
you have this great invention of cuneiform writing and it took us 2,500 years, whether in Korea or in Germany,
to develop a printing type that would change everything. And it took us only another 500 years to get to where we are now: the digital age. So, what indeed was visual literacy like
in a pre-literate past? We understand sign language
before we understand the printed word. When you think about those cave paintings
in the Dordogne region of France, what were people painting? There are no figures in them;
they were looking out, they were looking out
at the landscape and at the animals. They were looking out at the world. And when you think of those wonderful
stained-glass windows that we hardly give time to now,
but people read one pane after the other, the entire story. We fast-forward to the graphic novel,
to cartoons. We need integration now of text and image. I’ve been finding our text scholars,
they say, “Everything’s a text.” And I’m equally imperious because I’m saying,
“Everything’s an image.” The truth is everything’s an image and it’s a text. Visual literacy is multi-modal, it’s multi-disciplinary, it’s interdisciplinary and it’s collaborative. It’s actually a universal language. Now think about universal languages:
dance, mime – universal languages. Visuals: universal language.
You don’t have to know Japanese or Gaelic or Polish. We can understand visuals all over the world. So if that’s the case that we can enhance
global understanding with visuals, what is it we are doing to learn
how to really see visually? When we were babies, we took in everything. So much so that we actually used up brain cells. Today we use them up for different reasons. We learn the difference between
marked and unmarked space. Can you imagine the difference
between one face and another? Basically they all look the same!
So, how did we learn the difference? Well, let’s try a little game. Clifford Geertz, the great anthropologist
in the interpretation of cultures, he quotes a story which is the story of the wink.
So let’s try it. People at home looking in the mirror,
you’re looking at me. OK, what I want you to do is twitch your eye.
Go on, twitch. Now, just wink. Now, I want you to wink conspiratorially. Try winking romantically. A wink can have multiple meanings and means different things in different cultures. The thing about the visual is
90% of all the information we take in from the world we take in visually. Now, I’m not saying that that makes that 90%
more important than the 10% that isn’t taken in visually, and of course those who cannot see
learn to enhance those powers of the other senses. But I am noting the percentage;
a full 30% of the brain cortex is given over to vision. We actually read non-text 60,000 times faster
than we can read text. So what I’d like to advocate
is a little bit of slow-looking. I’d like all of us to be able to look
so that we would really, really see, just like we hear
so we could really be listening. Why? Because we need to put some order
on our chaos and we like the idea of harmony
among our disharmony. Here’s a method for slow-looking; you can all use this
anywhere – see this thing here? Look at it. When you’ve actually looked at it,
you can begin to see it. And when you see it,
then you can begin to describe it. Quite difficult. And when you can describe it,
then you can begin to analyze it. What’s it made of, for example? And only after looking, and seeing,
and describing, and analyzing, can you begin to interpret it,
to construct meaning from it. So how much do we look at
where we don’t engage that process? What we actually need is the alphabet
and the grammar of visual literacy. I’ve worked all my life in art museums –
most of it anyway. And I actually believe in the elements
and principles of art. There was a time we all used to know them.
Here’s a little painting I painted earlier. How is it that we know digits and we know letters,
but we don’t know what ways to approach that? There was a time we would’ve. We could begin to talk about
that in terms of its shape, and its form, and its volume, and its line, and its composition, its color, its rhythm, its pattern,
its movement, its composition, its unity, its value, its hue, its intensity…
and so on. A visually literate person can read
and write visual language, can encode and decode visual language. You know there’s lots of help available,
especially with the Internet. There’s a fantastic thing on the Internet,
you can all look it up, it’s called The Periodic Table
of Visualization Elements. No matter what subject you’re using,
you can go and look at that. It’s fantastic, puts Mr. Tufte and all the people who’ve worked on visualization
into full focus for us. What visual literacy does – it helps us with classification,
that’s what I learned with my postcards, the similarities and the differences
between things. Stars, cells, flowers, trees; When you walk out on the green
and all those poor trees are saying, “They didn’t notice me!” Every one different: photographs. All the ways throughout curriculum
that we engage the visual. Two towers and a plane…
the power of visual images. Did you feel your response
as I evoked that image? Visual images have the power
to bring our senses together simultaneously and to impact viscerally our emotions. There’s a book called Crashing Through. It’s an incredible story. It’s about a man called Mike May. He had sight until he was three.
He lost it. But it was in a chemical explosion,
so, when he was forty-three, through stem cell technology,
his sight was recovered. Can you possibly imagine what it would be like to find that sight again and to begin to negotiate the world? Close your eyes: go on, close your eyes. What color is my tie?
How would you describe me? What number is on the side of the,
I hope, the racing car? I hope you noticed. What was on the top of the shelves,
on the cases? Open your eyes. OPEN your eyes! The visual is learned before the verbal.
We then start to learn digits and letters. Why is it that we study and are tested
for textual literacy and for computer literacy,
but not for visual literacy? We need to train our visual capacity. We need to train our ability
to construct meaning from images. What we actually need is leadership
that recognizes that visual literacy is needed in the curriculum,
across the curriculum. We need a visual literacy curriculum. And I don’t mean what generally happens
in art education, I mean across the whole curriculum. How did it happen that we didn’t train everybody
to be visually literate? I’d like us to be able to use our greatest gifts
as fully as possible. I’d like us to recognize that 90% of what
we take in in the world, we take in visually. I’d like us to really think about
how extraordinary it is to be in the digital age. How exciting! Hundreds of years pass
and then suddenly something happens that really has changed everything. If we have something that is capable of
enhancing our communication across the entire world,
something truly universal, if we have something
that can truly promote communication, if we have something in visuals
that can quite simply change your life, it can change the way that you live,
as we walk out of our house, as we walk out into the world
and start to look, and see, and describe, and analyze, and interpret. My simple case: visual literacy, we need it. Enjoy your life. Thank you. (Applause)

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