Graphicacy is concerned with the capacities people require in order to interpret and generate information in the form of graphics.
Our society is becoming increasingly reliant on graphics to communicate information. Until recently, words and numbers were the main vehicles for communication - compared with graphics, they have long been relatively easy to produce and distribute. However, advances in information and communications technology and visualization techniques now mean that graphics are far more readily available and widely used than ever before. The 21st century is an age in which graphic communication is becoming essential for informed citizens, much as those in previous centuries needed to be literate and numerate. Today's citizens must be able to comprehend the information graphics produced by others and this requires that they interpret such information appropriately. However, it is also becoming important that people can present information effectively to others by means of graphics they have generated themselves.
Interpretation of graphics is loosely analogous to the process of reading text, while generation of graphics is the counterpart of writing text. However, these analogies should not be taken too far because text and graphics are based on very different symbol systems. For example, whereas text is structured according to formal organisational rules that apply irrespective of the content, this is not the case for graphics. With text structure, the units of information (words) are expected to be organised according to broad conventions (such as being sequenced in orderly rows starting from top left and progressing down the page). However graphics are not subject to a similarly stringent set of structural conventions. Instead, it is the content itself that largely determines the nature of the graphic entities and the way they are arranged. For example, the form and spatial arrangement of the items that comprise the actual subject matter being represented in the graphic are used as the basis for the graphic entities and structure that are displayed in the graphic. This is not the case with written text where the words and their arrangement bear no resemblance to the represented subject matter. Because of these and other fundamental differences between text and graphics, it is appropriate that the processes involved in comprehension and production of graphics are clearly distinguished from those involved in comprehension and production of text.
The interpretative components of graphicacy skills are particularly important in the increasing range of situations where graphics carry the primary responsibility for communication. Early recognition of the importance of graphicacy came from disciplines such as geography, science and mathematics in which graphics play a key role. Educators in these and similar disciplines have become increasingly concerned with the capacities of students to comprehend information presented by way of graphics.
There is a growing realisation that conventional wisdom about pictures being "worth a thousand words" is a gross overgeneralisation when it comes to informational graphics. Rather, the interpretation of certain types of graphics can sometimes be a very demanding process indeed. In addition, it is becoming clear that graphicacy skills are largely learned rather than innate and that a viewer's capacity to interpret particular types of graphics has a great deal to do with their background knowledge. There are two main types of background knowledge that are important in comprehending graphics:
Severe deficiencies in either of these aspects of background knowledge can mean that a viewer finds a graphic utterly incomprehensible. Alternatively, the depiction may be only partial understood or it may be misunderstood.
Here's an example that highlights some of the fundamental differences between written text and a graphic representation. First, a brief explanation of the structure of a particular type of bridge (a bowstring arch bridge):
Spanning the river is the bridge’s arch structure with its ends carried by abutments on each bank. The deck of the bridge is suspended by struts attached to the arch and runs between the banks. Each end of the deck is connected to the arch’s legs.
If the main items mentioned are extracted and arranged in their order of mention in the text, this is what we get:
River; Bridge; Arch; Ends of arch; Abutments; Banks; Deck; Bridge; Struts; Arch; Banks; Ends of deck; Arch legs
It's obvious that the signs used to represent parts of the bridge in words are very different from the signs used in the picture of the bridge. Notice also that the same item (Bridge, Arch, Banks, etc.) is often mentioned more than once in the text version. This is necessary due to the constraints of text as a representational system. However, in a graphic of this bridge, such information needs to appear only once. The arrangement of these items is also different in the text from what it would be in a graphic. To appreciate this, compare the order of mention in the text with this depiction. You can see that the text is not arranged in a way that would directly map onto the bridge. Rather, it presents the bridge's components in a linear sequence that gives no visual indication of the bridge's structure.
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