4 Steps for Visual Literacy

By Jaris Cole

(English Literature, English Builder, ESOL, IELTS, TOEFL, TOK Tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

It’s November and you know what that means: IB English Paper 1 is just around the corner. As you may already know, the IB English Paper 1 is an unseen commentary. The most daunting part about Paper 1 is not knowing what kind of text you’ll receive. While you may have experience with written texts, visual texts may be slightly tougher to analyze. Well, don’t fret because below you’ll find 4 steps that will guide you with visual literacy.

Step 1 – First Impressions

Franz Kafka once said “First impressions are always unreliable.” This couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to analyzing visuals. Doing a quick read of any visual before analyzing its elements is very important. Pay attention to the content of the picture and answer the following questions:

  • Who or what is being depicted?
  • What immediate associations come to mind?
  • Does the image have any emotional qualities?
  • Is there anything interesting about the image?
  • What draws your eye?

Step 2 – Closer Look

After gathering some first impressions, take a closer look. This time focus on the context of the image. The context includes any social, historical, or cultural information about the image. Ask yourself:

  • Is there a title or caption?
  • Is there a date?
  • Is historical or cultural knowledge required to understand the image?
  • Does the emotional quality of the content hint to anything about the context?
  • Is there a relationship between content and context?

Step 3 – Design Elements

Like prose or poetry, an image uses a distinct set of design elements to deliver its message. Many of these elements may already be familiar however you probably don’t think about them when viewing an image. These elements include, but aren’t limited to: color, composition, perspective, shape, and texture. To analyze these elements ask yourself:

  • How would I describe the lines in this image? Do the lines draw my attention to something or someone? Where’s the vanishing point?
  • How would I describe the texture in the image? Does it give the image an emotional quality?
  • What do I notice about the size of objects?
  • What are the predominant colors or tones? What associations do I have with these colors?

Step 4 – Interpretation

Once you’ve jotted down your first impressions, taken a closer look, and considered design elements, time to combine all of your findings to consider the message, meaning, or purpose of the image. Ask yourself:

  • What might the artist be trying to emphasize or communicate through the choice of design elements?
  • What might be the artists’ purpose in creating the work? What’s the message?
  • How do the design elements help support the purpose or message?
  • How do they help the image reach a particular audience?
  • What elements contribute to ethos, pathos, or logos?

These four steps are very useful for extracting meaning from an image. Practice them as much as you can and then you’ll start to notice the images you encounter in your everyday life. You might even find yourself unconsciously analyzing advertisements and billboards that you see on the street or on TV. When that happens, pat yourself on the back because that means you’re officially visual literate!

Read more from Jaris’ previous blog “Textual Healing”


About The Edge

The Edge Learning Center is Hong Kong’s premier Test Preparation, Academic Tutoring, and Admissions Consulting services provider. Founded in 2008, The Edge has helped thousands of students improve their ACT and SAT scores as well as their IB and AP grades. The AC team has just finished off another successful period in which student gained early acceptance to schools such as Columbia, MIT, University of Chicago, and more! Check out the rest of our 2018-9 Admissions Results!

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