Understanding Visual Literacy through
Publishers' Bindings Online

Communication Evolution
The ways which knowledge or information are shared and consumed by society are constantly evolving along with social culture and its customs. Throughout human history, cultures have adapted to create new beliefs and systems which correspond with their contemporary customs. Culture is comprised of behavior patterns and may manifest its self through arts, beliefs, institutions and other products of human creativity and thought. Examining the development of communication systems such as language illustrates how knowledge and invention have developed. Characters in alphabets proceeded symbolic pictures, thus the ways in which knowledge is shared have transformed from an image based information transmission system to a text based information transmission system. The earliest language systems in human history were comprised of combined symbols and images.

3200 BC Symbols, ancient language (carving, painting, writing )

Replica of Lascaux Cave Painting
Scribal Culture

Early communication systems were painted on cave walls, etched in stone, and written on scrolls and papyrus. As European civilization developed into the fifteenth century, skilled craftsmen (usually monks) spent hours carefully replicating and illuminating ancient and new texts into manuscripts so that they might be preserved and shared through generations. These manuscripts were supplemented by the addition of elaborate decoration or illustration. Illuminated manuscripts took a long time to complete; consequently they only circulated among clergy and wealthy elites.

1150 Illuminated Manuscripts 1455 Gutenberg Press

Scribal Culture
Gutenberg Press

This literary and religious elitism came to an end with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1445. The press gave the Western European community at large an opportunity to interpret information for themselves. Imagery and illustration slowly fell by the way side within these printed texts.The printing press revolutionized early European communication, culture, and knowledge systems because it allowed for a much faster, more efficient reproduction of texts. Books and literacy quickly gained in popularity resulting in what is referred to by scholars as a culture shift. The printing press brought about revolutionizing changes spawning literacy, scholarship, political empowerment, literary art, and the ability to individually consume information.

Culture Shift in the 21st Century
Today our educational system primarily shares information through print, however, text is slowly being displaced from its dominance in our communication methods. New communication innovations such as the World Wide Web are challenging traditional forms of print communication (newspapers, books, etc.) just as the printing press challenged image based communication in the fifteenth century.

Recent developments in technology have instigated a reversal in the separation of text from the image as our economy is increasingly dependant on the ability to communicate quickly and globally. Information communicated via digital imagery can more quickly communicate complex data. Links between visual, oral, and textual communication methods are therefore the most proficient method for communicating information. Image based mechanisms of communication such as television, film, photography, and the internet are the current preferred mediums by which our society broadcasts our culture. Text based literacy skills such reading, writing, counting, and text memorization are still vital skills in our society and must be included in our educational curriculum. However, visual analysis skills are also becoming a vital communication need that must be taught in schools.

Visual literacy is the term used for this new form of communication understanding. Visual literacy is defined by the International Visual Literacy Association as "a group of vision competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences. The development of these competencies is fundamental to normal human learning. When developed, they enable a visually literate person to discriminate and interpret the visual actions, objects, and/or symbols, natural or man-made, that are [encountered] in [the] environment. Through the creative use of these competencies, [we are] able to communicate with others. Through the appreciative use of these competencies, [we are] able to comprehend and enjoy the masterworks of visual communications (Fransecky & Debes, 1972, p.7)."

Visual Literacy Education
Educators have a responsibility to teach students how to discern from the wealth of images directed at them daily: what is true, false, and opinion. This is known as imagery decoding, it equips students with the skills needed to discover patterns and relationships in visual communications so that they may construct meaningful knowledge in the context of imagery.

Although visual literacy is not yet federally mandated to be taught and measured through standardized testing in our educational system, it is an essential and growing proficiency that will determine how effectively one navigates communication systems in contemporary society. Visual literacy skills can be integrated into a regular classroom curriculum or self-taught by the eager learner. Online digital projects such as The Publishers Bindings Online Project are an ideal tool for teaching visual comprehension. Teachers can integrate visual literacy syntax into their standard History, Language Arts, Communication or Fine Arts curriculum.

Analyzing the publishers bindings images and their connected historical significance allows students to objectively acquire a new set of skills that are needed to successfully interpret and communicate visual information. Students will also be able to transfer these new skills into active communication transactions which will enable them to have a deeper, richer, more aware understanding of images in their present society.

Visual Analysis
Visual analysis or decoding involves interpreting and creating meaning from visual information. The same standardized methods that are used in extracting meaning from written or verbal texts, such as letters, words, spelling, grammar, and syntax are needed for interpreting visual cues. The compositional sources for everything visual can be found in the most basic visual elements and design principles. Active construction is the term used to label the process of seeing, processing, analyzing, and, constructing meaning from visual images. Visual communication is not limited to visible data; it includes subjective processing where-in critical thinking works to collaborate with perception and cognition.

Visual Elements:

Dot: a pointer, marker of space
Line: creates form, can either stand alone or create an edge where two lines meet
Shape: the basic outlines which create a form such as the circle, triangle, and square
Value or Hue: the presence or absence of light, the lightness or darkness of a color, also known as tone

Direction: all lines have a direction; horizontal (calm), vertical (balance), or oblique (movement or action).

Saturation: the intensity of a specific hue based on a range of gradation scale: from the most vivid hue of a color to the mutest hue of a color
Texture: visual or physical surface characteristic of a shape such as rough, smooth, soft, hard, glossy etc.
Size: the relationship of the area occupied by one shape to that of another, aslo known as perspective

Principles of Design:

Rhythm: the regular repetition of elements of art of produce the look and feel of movement. An artist creates movement in illustration by repeating colors, shapes, lines, or textures.

Movement: guides a viewer’s eye through the work, usually to a focal point. Depicts a change in the position of a body relative to a reference point

Balance: there are three forms of balance; regular, asymmetrical, and radial. Balance is the overall weight of a composition


Harmony and Unity: harmony in painting is the visually satisfying effect of combining similar, related elements. Adjacent colors on the color wheel, similar shapes, etc.
Repetition: the use of repetition of an element such as color, or shape creates interest, emphasis, and variety
Contrast: an abrupt, unexpected change in a visual element. Contrast can be created thorough value, color, texture, and shape.


These elements and principals of design contain the basic resources necessary to achieve and comprehend all levels of visual communication. Educators will want to integrate this vocabulary into their lessons when discussing the Publishers’ Bindings Images.

Visual Literacy Teaching Resources based on Publishers' Bindings Online

PBO Visual Literacy 6-12 lesson plan: Word document or PDF file

Major Bibliography

Related online resources:

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