Kofi Annan famously described literacy as “a tool for daily modern life in modern society.” He proclaimed, “for everyone, everywhere, literacy is along with education in general, a basic human right…literacy is finally the road to human progress.”
At the time he spoke these words in 1997, there was no way to know how profoundly the concept of literacy would evolve. In 2014, illiteracy doesn’t necessarily mean the inability to understand a text. It encompasses a great deal more. How should we describe someone, for instance, who can’t operate an iPad? Or how about someone who simply doesn’t know what the Twitter bird is?
Now, it might be a bit early to call these folks ‘illiterate’ (Luddites, definitely). But with the rapid-fire pace of technology and the need for instant-adoption to new advancing platforms, the truth is, achieving literacy in purely written and spoken arenas no longer suffices. We have to understand a whole lot more to be able to interact at the same capacity as the technology we’re creating. As our ideas become more complex, and harder to define, it’s imperative that we find fluency in a more ubiquitous form of communication — visual literacy.
Art is an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to synthesizing abstraction. Think of the anarchy ‘A’, President Obama’s campaign logo, or the WiFi symbol. Visuals can transcend the bounds of language barriers, and traditional concepts of literacy, to quickly connect with audiences on an emotional level.
Engaging copy and witty taglines certainly have their place, but visuals are especially useful in instant engagement. Visuals allow consumers to form their own associations and to delight and engage not just the mind, but also the imagination. In short: visuals inspire.
And a quick survey will prove that companies agree. Look no farther than the awesome chicken-laden Mercedes-Benz ad to see an example of visual literacy at work. After all, what better way to explain Mercedes’ Magic Body Control Intelligent Drive system than by way of gloved hands moving chickens synchronously to a Diana Ross hit? Or reference Lexus’ recent Art is Motion campaign, wherein precision steering is excellently exemplified via digital brushstrokes generated by the way a person drives.
The need to quickly and clearly convey hard-to-grasp ideas and complex technologies has enabled car companies to slyly become unexpected experts in the realm of visual literacy. But they’re far from the only ones. GE’s Industrial Internet and IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative have released a flurry of creative ads to capture the crux of their complex ideas.
Lastly, let’s look no farther than the art world for proof of the astronomical successes of visually immersive installations. After the massive success of MoMa’s Rain Room, to the Guggenheim James Turrell show, to the long lines snaking into Yayoi Kusama’s recent Infinity Mirrored Room — The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away exhibit, it’s clear hyper-immersive visual installations are the big draws, and unexpected cash cows, at some of the biggest museums in the world. And the trickle down is swiftly underway: Soon daily NYC commuters will be able to catch Michael Rees’ 3D art on their Metro Cards, thanks to the ActivatAR project, a growing movement that aims to ‘activate’ public spaces with augmented reality. And Artkick, a new Spotify-like art service has officially arrived, allowing users to stream works of art onto digital screens, curtailed to your taste.
Blame Instagram, SnapChat, Vine, Emojis — or all of them — for forging a new mass hyper-visual means of communication, but chances are, if you aren’t literate in the visual realm, you just might be left out of the picture.
In this issue of Unfiltered, we take a look at the ways in which visual literacy is staking its claim in the zeitgeist. From a look at how healthcare is implementing creative visuals, to a meditation on the future of the infographic and a somewhat necessary defense of the written word; we hope our insights, musings and recommendations inspire you to take a closer look at the visual realm and challenge you to think differently about the future of communications.