We Need to Teach Visual Critical Thinking

By Spencer Critchley
March 16, 2009 | Comments: 4

I was just looking at yet another vacuous presentation graphic, this one purporting to illustrate the SMART test for defining objectives. It looked something like this:


This is of course rubbish. Infographics guru Edward Tufte would object strenuously to its low information density: in place of the pretty picture we could simply say "these characteristics are related" or better yet, just list them, which implies the same.

It occurs to me that at this point in history this kind of thing is more than just bad graphics. Graphics are so often seen as illustrative, not primary, content - many of us still habitually think of the text as the main thing. But whole generations have by now grown up with multimedia, and express themselves quite naturally in images, video and sound. By now, bad graphics are bad communications, period.

And yet arts education is under threat, because aesthetics are still seen as expendable, especially when money is tight. It's time for us realize that not only is art valuable in its own right, but that we need visual skills in order to communicate effectively - text alone, in Tufte's terms, no longer achieves an adequate information density. Speaking only in words is too slow.

To succeed in life, we need to be able to see through empty, wrong or dishonest verbal expression, and we need the same skills with visuals. For centuries all schoolchildren have been taught grammar, logic and debate. But developing and critiquing visual constructions remains a specialist skill, practiced by artists, designers, data viz geeks, and not many others. Society attaches a far higher utilitarian value to, say, legal analysis. Thus otherwise educated people may be vulnerable to cant and sophistry when it's presented in non-verbal form.

Visual critical thinking is not simply aesthetic appreciation or cultural criticism, but a practical, analytical skill for coping intelligently with an expanded world of information.

There is an academic field of study called Visual Rhetoric, allied with semiotics. As described by Wikipedia:

The study of visual rhetoric... emphasizes images as rational expressions of cultural meaning, as opposed to mere aesthetic consideration...

Some examples of artifacts analyzed by visual rhetoricians are charts, paintings, sculpture, diagrams, web pages, advertisements, movies, architecture, newspapers, photographs, etc.

Professional designers take a more pragmatic approach to similar material. But the crossing is seldom made to applied, critical decision-making in the realm of business and power - beyond "Do you like this version, or that one, oh client?" It is all too often seen as a matter of taste. And for some time now, even as our access to creative expression has expanded, it seems to have been accompanied by a more and more pervasive fuzzy-headedness. Too many discussions now stall at "it's cool" or "it's all good." We could use some help making, dare I say the word, judgments.

I think with more study of visual critical thinking in our schools, the next generation would be better equipped to apply concepts like clarity, validity and significance to the modes of expression they will rely on as much as or more than text alone.

And then unpersuasive graphics like my SMART diagram above would be more quickly and widely recognizable as the visual equivalent of "blah blah blah blah."

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I see somewhat what you're talking about with this diagram, could you possibly elaborate more or dissect what exactly makes this diagram flat out wrong? I think that would be immensely more helpful than just labeling it as rubbish!

Sure. One way of judging the value of a graphic used to display information is its "information density", as Tufte would put it, and which I mention briefly above. How much information is being shown for the amount of space being taken up by the graphic? If it's less than what would be accomplished by using words, it's likely that the use of a graphic isn't adding any value, except maybe as decoration. In the case of my example, all we're learning about the ideas Specific, Measurable, etc is that they're related to each other. That can be shown just by listing them.

Another guideline is the meaningfulness of graphical elements such as shape, position, size and color. The fact that we have circles in this graphic seems to be irrelevant, except for some kind of vague suggestion of holism, which is not otherwise developed. The arrangement of the circles also seems to be pointless, as does the placement of "achievable" in the center. The circles are different colors, but this doesn't seem to signify anything either - we already know these words are different from each other.

I think this kind of critique matters, because sloppy graphics, like sloppy logic, contribute to sloppy thinking.

The biggest problem, in my mind anyway, is that this diagram precludes an objective from having all five elements, when, of course, it should.

By this chart reasoning, if an objective is Specific, Realistic, and Achievable - then it can not be Measurable or Timed.

Does that make sense to you? May it is true in quantum mechanics, but not in business.

Good point! It's another example of mental sloppiness slipping by in the visual domain when we would probably spot it quickly in the verbal domain.

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