Visualizing Visual Literacy

Visual literacy is a concept that has been reshaped and nuanced according to various factors through time, such as the increasing prevalence of contemporary visual technologies and evolving notions of literacy. This dissertation explores the mobilization of this concept through the last century and addresses the implications of its interdisciplinary and polysemic nature. By tracing the evolution of this term, as well as some of its correlates in English, I map the concept of “the visual as a literacy,” in the process addressing the following questions:

  • How do notions and theories of visual literacy differ through time and across disciplinary fields?
  • How have different historical approaches shaped the understanding of visual literacy?
  • What practical outcomes could a comprehensive overview of visual literacy bring to teaching the concept?

To answer these questions, I first completed a comprehensive search of available databases for all uses of “visual literacy” in English, in the process of compiling a working bibliography of 2400 documents. Subsequently, I created a full-text database of 330 representative documents I deemed most central to the mobilization of visual literacy. I employed text visualization approaches combined with close reading to understand trends and patterns in my datasets. Beyond using available tools for text visualization, I also worked with a team to design and program a tool specifically for analysis of my full-text corpus: The Glass Cast (Peña, Juárez, Dobson, & INKE Research Group, 2016). This tool is a plug-in for the open-source reference management software Zotero. It allows researchers to visualize relationships between documents in a bibliography over time. In itself, this tool is a unique contribution to scholarship and a key outcome of this study. It and other supplementary materials are available here:

Findings of this research included the revelation of a rich history of visual literacy dating to 1939, the identification of three virtually independent historical avenues, or waves, of mobilization of visual literacy, and the coexistence of at least two confounding understandings of the concept. Ultimately, I address these two different understandings in an attempt to inform the work of educators invested in the topic.

Visualizing Visual Literacy is my PhD dissertation. You can find the entire work here.

Peña, E. (2018). Visualizing Visual Literacy (PhD Dissertation). University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C. Canada. Retrieved from