The term “visual literacy” (VL) is credited to John Debes, who in 1969 offered a tentative definition of the concept: “Visual literacy refers to a group of vision-competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences.” However, because multiple disciplines such as education, art history and criticism, rhetoric, semiotics, philosophy, information design, and graphic design make use of the term visual literacy, arriving at a common definition of visual literacy has been contested since its first appearance in professional publications.
Since technological advances continue to develop at an unprecedented rate, many educators in the twenty-first century promote the learning of visual literacies as indispensable to life in the information age. Similar to linguistic literacy (meaning making derived from written or oral human language) which is commonly taught in schools, educators are recognizing the importance of helping students develop visual literacies in order to survive and communicate in a highly complex world.
Many scholars from the New London Group such as Courtney Cazden, James Gee, Gunther Kress, and Allan Luke advocate against the dichotomy of visual literacy versus linguistic literacy. Instead, they stress the necessity of accepting the co-presence of linguistic literacies and visual literacies as interacting and interlacing modalities which complement one another in the meaning making process.
Visual literacy is not limited to modern mass media and new technologies. Understanding Comics, a graphic novel discussing the history of the media as well as serving as a "how to" manual for interpreting comics by Scott McCloud, is an exemplar employing the use of visual literacy. Also, animal drawings in ancient caves, such as the one in Lascaux, France, are early forms of visual literacy. Hence, even though the name visual literacy itself as a label dates to the 1960s, the concept of reading signs and symbols is prehistoric.
Significant authors in visual literacy include Edward Tufte and others.