A Thousand Words

Visual literacy has been a big theme for me this year.

A long time ago my very forward-thinking English A Level teacher, Mr Carr, taught us John Berger’s Ways of Seeing which gave me respect for visual skills. Yet I tend not to think of myself as a very visual person. I take a terrible photo, I probably prefer music to the visual arts, and I think I have a better memory for what people have said rather than what they look like.

Yet for me, 2012 has been the year of the visual.

  • I love infographics: information is beautiful has been a revelation for me: I’ve realised that I think quite spatially, so seeing information represented as patterns and shapes and relationships really works for me
  • Timelines work so well too, Lou McGill’s OER timeline is great, it is so much more accessible than the same story told in prose
  • I love data visualisations: i first met social graphs through Tony Hirst’s OUseful, and that partly inspired Lorna Campbell and I to commission Martin Hawskeys Visualisation of the UK OER programme
  • I like the way visual.ly works: another example from Wizard Hawksey was the ukoer vs score twitter analysis
  • I loved Suzanne Hardy’s suggestion (during a chat) that we should understand colour theory so as to read statistical visuals more carefully: that effective colour use sways the way we read graphics
  • I listened to a great podcast recommended, I think, by David Flanders, by Dan Roam. He suggests that we think visually and verbally with two different parts of our brain and that being able to take an image from verbal to visual and back again is a useful tool to hone the real meaning of what we are thinking about
  • I can’t tell you how much I love the animations from the OER IPR Support team, the one on turning a resource into an open educational resource, (and there is a new one on licensing open data, not yet launched* UPDATE: here it is!). I love the humour in the line drawings and the way they communicate some quite tricky concepts in a digestable way.
  • A while back I sketched a diagram and realised that rather than spend hours making it all proper and glossy it might be better to just take photos of my sketch as it developed and use it like that. That became my work post on connecting people through content.
  • I’ve also wanted to do more polished images though, so I have had a good play with easel.ly, which reinforces how much I have to learn.
I used easel.ly to make this:

C21st_Scholarship_and_Wikipedia title=

Brian Kelly recently wrote about the strong feelings people have about infographics, responding in part to discussions around the one I made, above. Various people said it wasn’t an infographic. He concluded that:

The accompanying image does, in the depiction of the education level of Wikipedia users, a certain amount of ‘infographical’ information, but the remainder is a poster. I think we can conclude that there are fuzzy boundaries between posters and infographics.

This is probably, however, less fuzziness between those who find infographics useful and those who dismiss them as marketing mechanisms for presenting a particular viewpoint, but hiding the underlying complexities.

In his post Brian referred to an incident where two of my favourite people, Tony Hirst (Open University and amongst other things, maker of social graphs) and Mark Power (JISC CETIS mobile web expert and a photographer) were snapped earlier this year having a mock argument about infographics 🙂

More seriously, I think there is a really interesting technology story here too.
It’s very fashionable in tech circles to sneer at QR codes. This tumblr did make me laugh: pictures of people scanning QR codes (the inference being, of course, that no-one uses them). Regardless of whether QR codes are useful of not, I have a theory that the real legacy of QR codes will be that that have driven image recognition apps on my mobile phones. They have connected the marketers, the hardware, the software and the smartphone user skills that are required for a richer visual technology stack.

And enter the news that Facebook was buying instagram. Photographs are rich in data, about what people are wearing, eating, reading, making … If I was a company trading on data about consumers, I would want to get access to photos too. Instagram is trendy, and people use it on  their smartphones, so there is plenty of geo-tagging too. How long before our photos are scanned for logos: car brands, soft drinks, fashion labels? The amazing thing is that as well as those brands being placed in films and TV to convince us to buy them, the marketing people instead will be analysing our photos to find out who their consumers really are. Images are data, and speeding up the ways to decode, tag, map, correlate that data is big money. “A picture is worth a thousand bucks”.

As an aside, I’ve said on this blog before, I am not opposed to the Facebook business model, as long as we understand the trade-offs we’re making. I’m pointing out the instagram story because I like to understand the way technology things develop. This is not a rant, it is an exploration. I’m not really interested in comments about the pros and cons of facebook and instagram.

Back to talking of images as data … I find it really interesting that at the same time technology is/will make it possible to derive text from data, we are also seeing text being mined and represented as visuals. Text becomes data becomes images becomes data becomes text. (“A thousand books is worth a picture”?) Technology is gradually going to enable much fluidity between formats and I find that really interesting.

All of this fell into place for me this evening reading this thought experiment: essay on a universal language of images by Trey Ratcliff. Imagine the human race had never started writing things down, and instead developed photographic techniques. I recommend this essay to you.

As we’re sliding through the second decade of the new millennium, something new is happening. We all have cameras in our mobile phones and taking a photo of something is far more efficient than typing a sentence about it …

As our streams become more about imagery than words, all of us will evolve a new sense of visual literacy. It is important to note that imagery is not better or worse than text — it is simply different …

Billions of people now have a totally new way to communicate, and we will all discover this new visual literacy together. Now, finally, our ideas and thoughts and feelings and stories can effortlessly travel across borders, cultures, and time …

If that doesn’t make you curious about the way the technology is developing to support visual literacy, I don’t know what would.


3 thoughts on “A Thousand Words

  1. it’s late amber but I want to say yes fab post!
    but I should say it visually
    this is an interesting one
    Life as a boy
    it has a tag photophilosophy which I thought might appeal to you.

  2. Hi Amber, really good post and v helpful for me. I always edge away from images for work stuff. I feel graphs are beyond my control, I can’t draw and I always think of myself as a ‘word person’. However, I realised recently that I get an awful lot out of images in the work of other people. So I’ve resolved to explore images of all kinds in work. This post is great starting point 😉

    Oh – also thought you might like these book posters I found recently – http://www.spinelessclassics.com/ – I emailed asking if they’d consider my favourite book and they are actually looking into it!! 🙂

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