It’s More than Just Identifying, it’s Comprehending! Developing Visual Literacy Skills within a Design History Curriculum in Higher Education

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Research by Koroscik, Desmond & Brandon (1985) suggested that comprehension of art involves a complex interaction between encoding its structure (or formal qualities) and its meaning (or semantic characteristics). When teaching design history in higher education it is often taken for granted that students can ‘comprehend’ the visual images that are used to teach design history and that students are visually literate, as they are interested in design and have obtained a basic knowledge of the elements and principles of design. When teaching design history to novice learners the first aspect of a design work they usually identify is its elemental structure, many never move beyond this to fully comprehend the semantic information, which requires a more in-depth reading. Sless (1977) said that art has failed to educate vision, and one of the reasons could be that the “visual literacy movement.... has demanded a break of the traditional links between art and visual education” (Sless, 1977, p.5). Though Sless’s comments are dated, they still can be applied to teaching design history in the 21st Century. As design has a logic that can be understood in form and content, visuals communicate meaning and this form of visual communication has a grammar that can be learnt. Most educators teaching design history have the aptitude to teach both disciplinary knowledge and provide learning activities to assist students towards further developing their visual literacy skills. This paper will discuss the importance of teaching students in higher education the skill and knowledge needed to critically read visual images within a design history curriculum and also analyse various methods that can be used to achieve this objective.


Keywords: Visual Literacy Skills, Visual Literacy, Visually Literate, Teaching Design History, Design History Curriculum, Teaching in Higher Education, Novice Learners, Comprehending Design Works, Reading Visual Images
Stream: Creative Arts and Learning
Presentation Type: Virtual Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Dr. Arianne Rourke

Lecturer, The School of Art History and Art Education
College of Fine Arts, The University of New South Wales

Sydney, NSW, Australia

My research interests are in online teaching, visual literacy and the application of Cognitive load theory to improving instructional design in higher education specifically in the area of improving the teaching of undergraduate design history and postgraduate arts administration towards the long term retention of learning.

Ref: L08P0058