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  • Writer's pictureJill Lehman


Visual literacy is the ability to look at the world around us, analyze what is being seen and give it a deeper personal meaning.  

Our eyes are the gift that allow us to constantly view our surroundings, but we rarely take the time to take it in and understand the meaning behind what we see.   Visual literacy isn’t something that is traditionally taught in a classroom or workplace and it’s not as easy as it sounds to develop.  Becoming visually literate requires some discipline and practice, lots of practice!

Imagine if we only took the time to put away our cell phones and just focused on the visuals available to us as we stroll through a park, an art museum or even our own workplaces.  Taking the quality and quantity of time to look around and notice little things not normally noticed or explored.   Instead we tend to always be on the move, easily distracted from the devices we hold in our hands and in a fast-paced world slowing down just feels plain uncomfortable or maybe even a guilt-ridden waste of time. 

What if practicing slowing down and taking in the visuals started as simple as viewing a piece of artwork.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art discovered that the average time spent looking at a piece of artwork is a mere seventeen seconds.  Another study, done by the Louvre museum unveiled that the Mona Lisa painting, as famous as it is, has an average viewing time at only fifteen seconds.  Just to put that amount of time into context, research shows we spend on average fifty minutes per day viewing our Facebook pages and fifteen minutes out of every hour watching thirty second commercials.  Da Vinci, Monet and Picasso get less visual time than an average commercial.

What happens when people look slowly at a piece of art is that they make discoveries.  Phil Terry, the founder behind International Slow Art Day shares the most important discovery we make is that we can see and experience art without an expert (or expertise). And that’s an exciting discovery.  We can create a conversation, have an emotion and narrative around what we are viewing.  It unlocks within us creative energy by creating visual and neurological stimulation connecting the optic cable between our eyes and our brain.  It’s powerful stuff that doesn’t come in the form of written words that lead us to all the answers.

What if we expand what can be learned from viewing artwork to help educate ourselves on becoming more visually literate in general.  Visually literacy helps make sense of the world around us and is powerful in our cognitive development and critical thinking.  According to a statistic, ninety percent of college faculty think critical thinking is the most important skill for a student to learn, but less than fifty percent of those same faculty members will teach critical thinking skills in their classes.   Executives and HR professionals also report that candidates and employees today are lacking communication and critical evaluation competencies needed to innovate and problem solve in today’s face paced and complex business landscape.

While art is one of the best ways to learn and develop visual literacy, like Phil mentions, it’s really about communication, it’s about having conversations, it’s about discovery and that critical thinking component.   If we have the discipline and a little patience, we all can see the world from a different perspective and it can start with one beautiful piece of art.  Henry David Thoreau said it best.   It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.

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