Visual literacy is the ability to see, to understand, and ultimately to think, create, and communicate graphically. Generally speaking, the visually literate viewer looks at an image carefully, critically, and with an eye for the intentions of the image’s creator. Those skills can be applied equally to any type of image: photographs, paintings and drawings, graphic art (including everything from political cartoons to comic books to illustrations in children’s books), films, maps, and various kinds of charts and graphs. All convey information and ideas, and visual literacy allows the viewer to gather the information and ideas contained in an image, place them in context, and determine whether they are valid.

Visual literacy is an important component of literacy learning in the 21st century due to the proliferation of images for obtaining information and communication through the new technologies.

The UNESCO chair in arts and culture in education leads the (EU-funded) research program “European Framework of Reference for Visual Literacy” which includes aspects of assessment of competencies (also in respect to heritage education [art history]).

The European Network of Visual Literacy (ENVIL) has been working since 2013 on the project of a “Common European Framework of Reference for Visual Literacy “.

This framework describes competencies that European citizens must have in the field of fine arts and applied arts (architecture and design) as well as the everyday visual culture when they participate in society and culture as responsible citizens.


ICH and visual literacy

Specific forms of ICH may include tangible elements. For example, traditional performing arts may include musical instruments, masks, costumes, body decoration and theatre props. These ‘tangible’ elements in traditional and cultural manifestations encode meaningful visual messages for the community that practice and keep alive such cultural heritage. They can be defined as a form of visual communication where the tangible elements describe a process for sending messages using visual images.