A Brave New Visual World (apologies to Aldous Huxley)

This Community of Practice does not arise in a vacuum. It is in some large part a response to a social, political and technological world that changes at an astonishing rate. This post addresses the wider context from which the idea of visual communication in Higher Education has come.

Instant access to billions of images. Copyright

Only a few years ago, in 2008, Peter Felten talked about a ‘pictorial turn’ in human history and evolution. This ‘pictorial turn’, first enunciated by WJT Mitchell, is the outcome of a combination of factors that have taken us to a point where the use of imagery in many walks of life is in the rapid ascendancy. It’s not difficult to see why someone might draw such a conclusion. But it has greater meaning than just being a new or recent social phenomenon, because it presents as a challenge to conventions in literacy that famously claim written language to be paradigmatic to the conveying of meaning. In common parlance, there’s a new kid on the block. This does not necessarily infer that images have or will take over entirely from the written word, but it does suggest to some that a ‘multimodality’ of communication is evident and required. James Paul Gee (2008: 210) argues that in this era, ‘meaning and knowledge are built up through various modalities (images, texts, symbols, interactions, abstract design, sound, etc.), not just words’. In short, the hegemony of the written word is being challenged to the extent that it could now validly be partnered by an additional range of mechanisms able to communicate the kind of meaning once understood to be accessible only or primarily through text. This is the ‘pictorial turn’ in the evolution of human communication.

Famous representation of evolution, adjusted to suggest visuality in Facebook is the latest development. Copyright David Roberts 2015

There are various factors at work of a political, social and technological nature, and their convergence has great meaning for the idea of visual communication within and beyond the academy. The political structure of our world entered a transformational phase when the great Cold War conflict that characterized the post-WW2 period drew to a close with the demise of the former Soviet Union (FSU). The FSU had kept from spreading a range of values, ideas and technologies developing primarily in the West. This sea-change in world affairs coincided loosely with the rise of digital communication technologies that could transcend national geographies at an accelerating rate, shrinking the physical gap between dominant regions and their counterparts around the world. This departure from analogue to digital communications that had largely begun and been developed in the West and the East enabled near-global coverage and access. Places once out of bounds geographically because of political concerns were exposed to external gaze and then digital capture; and the rise of cheaper air travel brought more people to more places, recording images digitally.

Suggests the world has been shrunk by a combination of digital telecommunications and cheap air travel. Copyright

The story is completed to some extent with the rise of the World Wide Web, which accelerated connection between places and people and then provided the infrastructure to carry and display the increasing number of images recorded by the emerging trend towards digital photography combined with cheaper travel to more places. Innovation in hosting platforms encouraged the uploading of millions, then billions, of digital images, accessible to an increasing number of people via PCs and then mobile phones, which themselves evolved to carry cameras of increasing quality and versatility. Images are everywhere, according to the New York Times. As the trend developed momentum, new software systems like Photoshop and its cheaper counterpart, GIMP, evolved that allowed regular folk rather than studio-based professionals to adapt, manipulate and represent imagery. I was able to make or adapt most of the images in these posts and here.

But it would unwise to hold too tightly to the view that this is only a recent phenomenon. Our distant ancestors began communicating through imagery before written language evolved; ‘parietal’ art on the walls of paleolithic/prehistoric cave-dwellers is testimony to this. And on emergence from the womb, we begin to learn visually long before we develop writing skills. For the remainder of our sighted lives, we continue to interrogate and interpret the world around us visually.

Prehistoric rock paintings in Algeria. Copyright

This generation is almost certainly the most visual of all. Having grown up knowing only the expansion and preponderance of digital environments, it has become accustomed to a remarkable degree of ‘visuality’ at all stages in life. Peter Felten, assistant provost for teaching and learning at Elon University in North Carolina, maintains that this generation’s  socio-visual experiences mean that various forms of visual literacy must be a key imperative for how we think about education. Others take seriously the idea that such substantial change in communication media as we are presently experiencing deserve serious consideration in Higher Education. This is not presently a mainstream view, however. There has been little to suggest inside the academy that we should seriously engage visuality as a legitimate co-medium to support text and words, and there may not be for some time to come because this is a matter of orthodox hegemony and tradition in what remains, despite its relative digital modernity, a relatively conservative space of thinking framed by neoliberal discipline and prescription in the western hemisphere.

Weds the ideas of text and tradition. Copyright

Beyond the academy, visual communication is an ever-increasing norm. Product advertising has shifted towards the use of images, where once text dominated them. Of course, product advertising is not the same necessarily as the communication of a complex idea or argument. But even this is not beyond the remit of imagery. Creative advertising, made familiar by the American TV miniseries ‘Madmen’ in the noughties, has evolved in line with creative talent’s ability to market, or communicate, abstract and otherwise distant and unfamiliar concepts to people everywhere. In a single image, a complex message concerning domination, consumption, values, scarcity and rights famously brought into our lives the plight of endangered species. Hundreds of examples from an ever-more burgeoning creative design industry can be seen here. I’ve included two early and quite well-known images that convey great complexity with ease and simplicity.



Conveys the idea that although domestic violence is most commonly understood in physical terms, the spoken word can be just as harmful. Copyright


This image was used by an NGO to highlight the harm being done by people buying exotic pets on the endangered list. There are tens of thousands nor of this ilk. Copyright

The world beyond the academy has taken enthusiastically to the ascendancy of visuality in the digital era. From ‘selfies’ to Manga comics, from Facebook to Flickr, from digital art galleries to wedding records, from home-made websites to companies and universities avidly promoting themselves online visually, our environment is ever more visual, and the trend is set to increase as more people gain access to more phones and as Wi-Fi and broadband spread to and connect ever more remote locations and people.

The academy is less enthusiastic. Logocentric education remains hegemonic, whilst images are routinely treated with a range of reactions from ambivalence through distrust to outright hostility. Lectures, especially those done in PowerPoint, remain dominated by words, despite the platform’s visual versatility. Pedagogy too often takes a back seat to our chosen research areas anyway. But it is not as if universities are Luddite bodies. They are not. Universities lead the world is various areas of research. They have thoroughly and interrogatively embraced digital communications, so that academic journal articles that once took months to locate, order, photocopy and have delivered arrive after a few clicks. E-learning is a hallmark of the neoliberal university. Student records have been expanded to include attendance, sickness reporting and personal tuition in innovative and sometimes invaluable ways. But the same cannot be said for HE’s attitude to the use of images in communicating meaning as a valid counterpart, rather than an occasional adjunct, to the written and spoken word. We seem not to recognize or respect the experiences and expectations of our students, despite claiming to centre them in all aspects of our engagement with them. And most importantly of all, we are not taking seriously an opportunity to match how we teach, to how they learn.

Suggests that two processes are out of line or sync with one another, like teaching delivery, and how it is received, according to MML theory. Copyright David Roberts 2017

It is hard to deny the reality of this most visual of eras, nor to contrast this digital  visual revolution with the persistence of textual hegemony in HE pedagogy. It isn’t just HE. In most places where PowerPoint is used as the primary projection platform for knowledge, protocol, instruction, data, information or learning, people privilege text. I suspect this is partly because although we are increasingly conscious of imagery around us, most of us don’t critically process the communication implications of this phenomenon (apologies for any readers who are not academics at this point; I’m coming to an end here). Nor, I suspect, do most of us have the time to engage in years of reading, thinking and experimenting when the pressures on academics – and probably most professionals involved in presenting – leave precious little time to indulge ourselves in the luxury of such pursuits. Ever-increasing demands for efficiency and cost-cutting, coupled to diminishing revenues for many institutions, places a premium on quality but without proper parallel investment in testing and developing new pedagogies fit for purpose and fit for the times. This is particularly important in light of the imminent arrival of the Teaching Excellence Framework, set to measure teaching ‘quality’ in a system that too frequently doesn’t or can’t privilege it in pedagogy. I’m reminded of a Viet Namese saying, from some time spent in Hanoi in the early 1990s: ‘you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it’.

King Canute by Brauner, Luis Arcas (1934-89). Copyright CC 2.0






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