We Need to Teach Visual Critical Thinking

I was just looking at yet another vacuous presentation graphic, this one purporting to illustrate the SMART test for defining objectives. It looked something like this:

This is of course rubbish. Infographics guru Edward Tufte would object strenuously to its low information density:  in place of the pretty picture we could simply say “these characteristics are related” or better yet, just list them, which implies the same.

It occurs to me that at this point in history this kind of thing is more than just bad graphics. Graphics are so often seen as illustrative, not primary, content – many of us still habitually think of the text as the main thing. But whole generations have by now grown up with multimedia, and express themselves quite naturally in images, video and sound. By now, bad graphics are bad communications, period.

And yet arts education is under threat, because aesthetics are still seen as expendable, especially when money is tight. It’s time for us realize that not only is art valuable in its own right, but that we need visual skills in order to communicate effectively – text alone, in Tufte’s terms, no longer achieves an adequate information density. Speaking only in words is too slow.

To succeed in life, we need to be able to see through empty, wrong or dishonest verbal expression, and we need the same skills with visuals. For centuries all schoolchildren have been taught grammar, logic and debate. But developing and critiquing visual constructions remains a specialist skill, practiced by artists, designers, data viz geeks, and not many others. Society attaches a far higher utilitarian value to, say, legal analysis. Thus otherwise educated people may be vulnerable to cant and sophistry when it’s presented in non-verbal form.

Visual critical thinking is not simply aesthetic appreciation or cultural criticism, but a practical, analytical skill for coping intelligently with an expanded world of information.

There is an academic field of study called Visual Rhetoric, allied with semiotics. As described by Wikipedia:

The study of visual rhetoric… emphasizes images as rational expressions of cultural meaning, as opposed to mere aesthetic consideration…

Some examples of artifacts analyzed by visual rhetoricians are charts, paintings, sculpture, diagrams, web pages, advertisements, movies, architecture, newspapers, photographs, etc.

Professional designers take a more pragmatic approach to similar material. But the crossing is seldom made to applied, critical decision-making in the realm of business and power – beyond “Do you like this version, or that one, oh client?” It is all too often seen as a matter of taste. And for some time now, even as our access to creative expression has expanded, it seems to have been accompanied by a more and more pervasive fuzzy-headedness. Too many discussions now stall at “it’s cool” or “it’s all good.” We could use some help making, dare I say the word, judgments.

I think with more study of visual critical thinking in our schools, the next generation would be better equipped to apply concepts like clarity, validity and significance to the modes of expression they will rely on as much as or more than text alone.

And then unpersuasive graphics like my SMART diagram above would be more quickly and widely recognizable as the visual equivalent of “blah blah blah blah.”

Also posted at O’Reilly Broadcast.

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