Friday, December 28, 2007

Visual Thinking - Media literacy, appreciation, mastery, and learning

I read this post from Tony Karrer a few weeks ago and was quite perplexed. I was so confused that I rambled on in a comment followed by many other comments from others I'm certain were equally confused. I will not recap the entire conversation however nobody really seems to be able to help Tony feel better about visual thinking and what it has to do with eLearning.

I stepped out of the conversation because, quite honestly, it felt like one of those conversations where one person tries to convince another about global warming. It was actually more fun to read the other comments and blog posts about visual thinking and Tony's quandary.

Christine Martell posted several times in an attempt to answer Tony's questions:
Can you learn to think visually?
Where do you start with visuals?
Does it have to be attractive to be effective?

Marilyn Martin created Tony's learning graphic HERE.

I was very excited to hear that one of my favorite bloggers, David Grey of Communication Nation, had offered to do a Q&A webinar with Tony about Visual Thinking and eLearning.

I missed the live part but watched the recording. Christine posted her thoughts on the discussion here. A great quote:
"The other thing that jumped out is how frustrating this visual stuff can be for people. Tony is a highly respected e-learning professional who knows the value of visuals. I could really hear the frustration in not being able to make the leap from where he is to where he wants to be in producing visuals to enhance his messages."
She goes on to talk about visual language...with a VIDEO! A killer video! Nice job Christine!

I too sensed the frustration during the webinar conversation. It was, at times, quite painful to listen to the conversation. But after thinking about it for several days I have these points to add to the conversation.

Visual Language - Let's not forget that the act of writing in any language is an act of creation/creativity. You are applying ink to paper in different shapes and forms that have meaning...if organized correctly. This "art" form, writing, is developed throughout our entire lives and HEAVILY focused on in elementary school. The funny thing is that if you give a kid a crayon and paper before he/she learns to "write" they first create graphical representations of the world as they perceive it around them. Our innate urge is to draw NOT write. Yet, as we move through elementary school we draw pictures less and less in favor of writing letters to form words in order to express our newly found complex thoughts.

Printing vs. Cursive - This has always confused me. Why after mastering the art of creating the alphabet in both small and capital forms do we then force children to learn another form...cursive. It seems an awefully cruel joke to spend so much time on letter writing, and forming words, to only then pull the rug out from under our students by giving them new shapes and forms to represent the same letters they just mastered. Yet, we do. And we all learned them both. If you have kids, you know the long and painful process of "getting your kid up to grade level" in both printing and cursive. Once our kids have become proficient they spend the rest of their academic lives, and beyond, doing nothing but expressing themselves through the art of creating shapes that are combined to form words.

Bad vs. Good
Do you have good or bad penmanship? At your current age does anyone care? I know I can't read my doctor's prescriptions AT ALL! But the pharmacist still gets me the correct meds. So they must know the secret art form of the doctor that is a foreign language to me. I must say, the elegant waves and slashing lines are flowing and elegant to look at and dare I say artsy with design style familiar to many...most importantly the pharmacist.

Appreciation vs. Mastery
When a person has spent 30+ years of their life drawing only a limited number of shapes and forms in an organized linear flow at the expense of all other shapes and forms then we can't expect those adults to be able to THINK much differently either. Complex thoughts and ideas are rarely linear. Expressing them requires an art form beyond the constraints of the written word. Which art form is it? Which ever new media you can find the time to master. After all, you did spend -insert your age- years (un)consciously mastering the written word.
But before mastering a new medium you must first learn to appreciate it. A healthy appreciation for the skill of others requires a certain level of basic understanding. The basic understanding that many, many, years of experimentation, practice, discipline, and failure led to their mastery of a media form that you have not yet mastered. Remember, you spent your entire life mastering letters and words in both printed and cursive forms. We no longer appreciate the time and effort it took for each of us to master this simple art form.

New Media and Visual Language
So you've spent your whole life mastering writing. Can you learn a new method for expressing your ideas? Can you use that same ink and paper to create new shapes and forms that express ideas that help others understand? Can you make your own video that tells a compelling story? Of course you can! Can you master it with a 2 day workshop, NO. Can you learn to appreciate the multitude of new media options available in 2 days, SURE. Can you expose yourself to thinking non-linearly from those who have mastered the skill, ABSOLUTELY! And why not?

Why is there an expectation that we should just be able to draw something immediately and if we can't then we must not be creative? Or even worse, why should there be a simple training course that instantly makes us non-linear thinkers with new skills to conjure up images other than letters and words?

I don't know any writer that doesn't write, re-write, then re-write, and re-write some more, and more, etc. That's just the process. All artists do the same thing in all media forms; video, audio, playwriting, miming, animation, cartooning, and all the others. We focus so much on the lead left on the page that we often forget about the battered and abused eraser left alone on the end of the pencil. After all, it is the eraser that refines and perfects the sloppy work of the sharpened tip on the other end.

In the 21st century New Media literacy will become a critical skill. Understanding the importance of imagery, both still and motion, will be as important as writing. If you can take a series of pictures and send them around the world to those who need them...why not do it? Or maybe its a video. Maybe you have 100 hours of video depicting a certain problem or situation. Do you write about the problem or simply edit it down to the critical 10mins that accurately, passionately, and effectively tell the story? The physical tools are no longer the barriers to mastering new media and new forms of communication and story telling. The barrier is our willingness to take the time to master their use. Or at the very least appreciate the time that others have spent to master an alternative communication medium.

Here is my point. Add up all of the hours you've spent writing in your life. Now start drawing pictures, taking pictures, shooting video, or all of the above. Then when your hours devoted to your new medium of choice equal that of your time spent writing then ask yourself if learning it was possible.

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Christine Martell said...

I was talking to a colleague last night about how she learned to see. For her is was drawing the same tree for a year in art school. I remember having to draw 100 pictures of an oyster shell in three days. So, you are right, these skills do take practice and lots of it.

Thanks for your video encouragement. That I have only been doing in the last two weeks. Lot to learn.

KateGladstone said...

As CEO of a handwriting improvement service (and Director of the World Handwriting Contest), I agree with you about the cruel pointlessness of print-then-cursive. For more on the matter (and what I do, teach, and recommend instead), please visit my Handwriting Repair web-site at

Rowan said...

I think that visual thinkers are the most common, and have been since the dawn of time (think cave paintings before the written word). One interesting thing about writing... most writers try to paint a picture with words, emulating visual communication with colorful, descriptive writing. But visual communication seems to be the hardest to create as ID's. I am reminded of Sir Ken Robinson at DevLEarn and his book on creativity... we can and must become more creative in our industry. Incidentally, my favorite CBT that I developed had an interactive workflow animation that showed workflow from a document viewpoint (remember "I'm Just a Bill" by Schoolhouse Rock?). The users liked this visual represntation most of all the CBT content and gave oodles of positive feedback on it. Yay visual!

Brent Schlenker said...

Hi Christine, Kate, and Rowan! Thanks for joining the conversation. I thought I might be just babbling to myself. Phew. ;-)
Learning to see is a challenge and must be learned. But I don't think there is any other type of thinking other than visual. I'm not sure, but if you know anyone that thinks/dreams/ponders in long sentences, let me know.
I think the skill that needs to be mastered is in getting our minds eye transfered into/onto media that can be shared with others.
We should be equally interested in mastering all forms of media...not just in writing text. Yet, sadly the writing of text is the most highly regarded as an indicator of intelligence.

Rowan! I'm glad you brought up Sir Ken. I'm still re-reading his latest book and he talks about ALL of this a lot. I would encourage others to read it. He has a wonderful perspective on the subject of creativity.

Happy new year to you all!