Penn State University Press

The communications goal in University Studies was defined quite broadly to include not just writing, but oral, numerical, and graphical modes as well. The latter proved especially challenging; fortunately, in the first cohort of faculty to teach in Freshman Inquiry, we had the resources of a cartographer, an artist, and a member of the dance faculty, each of whom was highly aware—in his or her own different ways—of the pedagogies of visual communication. Yet, however well we have succeeded in defining, operationalizing, and teaching them—and our efforts are mixed at best—these alternate forms of communication still compete with writing for equal recognition and implementation in the classroom.

In a 1997 article on curriculum reform, Diamond lists “skills in communicating” as first among the competencies that college graduates should have. The specific communication skills he identifies are “writing, speaking, reading, and listening.” While these skills are indeed important, University Studies recognized from the start that they are only a portion of those that are needed. The skills Diamond names all concern words, either written or spoken. Missing are skills based on 2 other key modes of communication—graphic and numeric.

Our framework for identifying this larger set of communication skills appeared more than 30 years ago in a piece in The London [End Page 103] Times, Educational Supplement, titled “Graphicacy Should Be the Fourth Ace in the Pack,” in which Balchin and Coleman (1965) discuss “the essential [communication] underpinnings of a sound education.” They identify 4 modes of communication—literacy, numeracy, articulacy and graphicacy—and note that each mode may be employed for either incoming or outgoing communication. Thus, Diamond’s “reading” and “writing” constitute the incoming and outgoing sides of “literacy,” while “listening” and “speaking” constitute the incoming and outgoing sides of “articulacy.” We might similarly identify 2 sides to numeracy—“solving” and “formulating”—and 2 sides to graphicacy—“viewing” and “drawing.” Thus, Balchin and Coleman’s 4 modes readily translate, in Diamond’s terms, into 8 skills.

Balchin and Coleman argue that “neither words nor numbers nor diagrams are simpler or more complex, superior or inferior. They are only more suitable or less suitable for particular purposes “ (1965, p. 25). From this standpoint, the well-known saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is less a statement about the comparison of 2 modes of communication than a comment on the efficiency of one mode over another in a specific instance. Understanding when one mode is more appropriate than another and how to use each mode effectively become essential knowledge-sets and skill-sets for all well-educated people.

Despite the intuitive truthfulness of this contention, only rarely does a curriculum give proper emphasis to all of these modes; graphicacy, in particular, is often completely ignored. The irony is that this imbalance continues even as graphics have taken on an increasingly important role in our daily lives. Consider the prominence of television in our society, the phenomenal growth of that graphic-intensive medium—the World Wide Web, and the recent interest in “visualization” in science and management communities. A strong case can be made that graphic training is more important today than ever before.

The Fundamental Nature of Graphics

Of the 4 communication modes, graphics was the earliest to evolve, predating numbers and writing by thousands of years and providing [End Page 104] strong support for the idea that graphic images are a fundamental aspect of human communication.

Graphic communication is also universal. Many cultures have evolved rich spoken and written languages in which words have the power to create pictures in the mind. Yet most aboriginal peoples employ graphic images, even if they have not evolved any abstract form of written communication. Many cultures, such as Native American and South Asian, have no words for art, yet they have integrated strong traditions of sculpture, drawing, painting, dance, and drama into everyday life.

Graphic images have the ability to catch our attention. Consider the example of the Pathfinder robotic vehicle that NASA landed on Mars in the summer of 1997. Images sent back from the planet were immediately posted on the Internet and quickly set a record for the largest number of inquiries (“hits”) to that date. Interest in the surface of Mars was a curiosity that purely verbal description would not have satisfied. Once graphic images have caught our attention, they often occasion further critical thinking and reflection: witness the time that a person may spend studying a painting in a museum or watching the spectacular changes in the sunset sky.

Graphic images can quickly communicate relative values, quantitative comparisons, and numerical trends. A pie graph showing the proportion of the federal budget allocated to various agencies can be an instant and forceful civics lesson. The information conveyed by a sharply rising or plunging line on a graph can create elation or fear in the heart of a stockbroker or an investor. While numbers are powerful, they remain abstract to many people; a graphic can make quantitative information resonate immediately.

Since graphic images can illustrate spatial patterns, they can allow connections to be captured, recognized, and quickly analyzed. A classic example is Dr. John Snow’s 1854 use of an incident dot map to record the occurrence of cholera cases. The clustering of the dots in one neighborhood allowed Snow to realize that a single well was the source of a London epidemic (Tufte, 1983).

Graphic visualization stimulates conceptualization and integrative thinking. The complex structure of DNA was rendered immediately comprehensible with the now-classic drawing of the double helix. Albert Einstein reported, “I very rarely think in words [End Page 105] at all . . . I have it in a sort of survey, in a way visually” (Holton, 1995). On a more popular level, consider the use of the squiggly, hand-drawn annotations to enhance the analysis of instant replays during televised athletic events.

Recent Resurgent Interest in Graphic Communication

Another reason for teaching graphic communication results directly from the use of computer technology. The current fascination with “visualization” in the business and scientific communities is simply the recognition of the power of graphics, cast within the framework of a new set of digital tools for producing graphic images. These tools offer tremendous potential; their ease of use and wide availability enable virtually anyone to prepare graphic material in a matter of minutes.

Problems arise with regard to the accuracy and truthfulness of such graphics, since the software also allows users to produce a variety of inappropriate or misleading portrayals. Lacking the relevant understanding of how graphic communication operates, users may easily create impressive-appearing visual displays that are pure gibberish. Software vendors exacerbate the situation with seductive advertising claims, often the graphic equivalent of the notion that someone could write Hamlet by purchasing a word processor. If we are to live in a world where sophisticated tools are the norm, we need to ensure that people are versed in how to use the tools, not simply how to operate them.

Graphic Communication Has Been Overlooked by Educators

Despite the power and ubiquity of graphic images, educational curricula continue to pay little attention to graphics training. In fact, this deficit increases in secondary and post-secondary education. Elementary students are frequently asked to draw pictures as a way of expressing themselves (i.e., to communicate). College students, with very few exceptions, are rarely asked to do so; when asked, they usually produce something akin to a grade [End Page 106] school project. A parallel would be for a college student to write an essay consisting of a series of sentences at the level of “See Jane run.”

Sometimes graphics are viewed as “too easy” or “too simple.” Early elementary school books are full of pictures that complement learning and the newly acquired skill of reading. As the child progresses through school, however, fewer and fewer pictures tend to appear in books. It is almost as though the educational system is seeking to wean the student’s mind off graphics by climaxing in books that are all words and no illustrations.

This pattern of ignoring graphics serves to handicap students and prevents them from developing a powerful and useful skill. Considering the volume of information that humans acquire through the visual/graphic mode and the readiness with which visual information can be absorbed, the failure to integrate graphic communication into the curriculum is surprising. A strong case can be made for requiring students to include graphic elements in many assignments, just as they are required to write frequently in virtually every discipline. Anything less is failing to challenge students to reach their full potential as communicators while sending the message that visuals are not a necessary tool. Instead, we should be reinforcing the fact that graphics can be both satisfying and helpful to learning, thinking, and communicating.

Graphic Communication as Part of General Education

The University Studies program at Portland State is committed to countering the neglect of graphics and to making graphic training an explicit part of both communication and critical thinking goals. The Freshman Inquiry courses provide a variety of opportunities for incorporating graphic elements into the educational experience. This aim is pursued through regular use of graphic images as examples, examination of the principles of visual composition, systematic application of visual design elements for analyzing graphic images, and assignments that involve the production of graphics.

Graphic training plays multiple roles in thinking and learning. McKim (1980) notes the contrast between graphic ideation, or “idea generation and expression by means of drawing,” and [End Page 107] graphic communication, or “an explanatory process concerned with presenting fully formed ideas to others” (pp. 122–23). The contrast provides a parallel to the distinction made by writing instructors between “writing to learn” and “writing to communicate.” In fact, all 4 communication modes include the dual roles of exploration and presentation.

One of the unique aspects of graphics is their ability to communicate both sensory/emotional data (commonly described by words) and measured/quantified data (something described by numbers). In statistical terms, graphics can be used to communicate both qualitative and quantitative information. Examples of qualitative graphics are paintings, photographs, most advertising, and maps indicating the location of places. The content of these graphics may be characterized as relating to “kinds” of things. Quantitative graphics, or what Edward Tufte refers to as “data graphics” (1983), include such items as line graphs, pie charts, and maps portraying statistical information. The content of these graphics may be characterized as relating to “amounts” of things.

Student Responses to Graphicacy Training

As with any subject matter, student success at understanding and applying the conceptions has been mixed. By the end of their Freshman Inquiry year, some students are doing a very effective job of integrating graphics into their oral and written assignments. Others remain uncomfortable with the medium, either including gratuitous graphics (“But you told us to include a picture”) or avoiding the use of graphic materials altogether (“I couldn’t find anything that really worked”).

Yet, overall, informal feedback and anecdotal stories from students and faculty regarding the inclusion of graphic communication in the curriculum has been quite positive. Having been taught basic information about elements of design and drawing tools, students create original and innovative responses that enhance traditional assignments. The planning and designing of group visual projects allows students to collaborate in understanding difficult concepts and to generate work that is satisfying and fun to produce. A professor of history expressed surprise at how much [End Page 108] the preparation and presentation of visual assignments increased the depth of understanding and knowledge that students were able to gain not only in content, but also in valuing each other as individuals. By studying the art of a time period, students and faculty report an increased ability to make connections, for example, between progress in science and social, political, cultural, and artistic movements. We have also found that visually based assignments allow students with skills in those areas—traditionally unrewarded in university evaluation—to excel, which often provides confidence in their academic efforts in other media.

Overcoming Graphic Illiteracy

What will improve graphic communication skills? McKim (1980) identifies three misconceptions that must be dispelled in order for improvement to occur. The first misconception is that visual skill is a genetic gift. This view, if accepted, becomes defeatist because it implies that improvement is not possible. Actually, each person interprets visual images through his or her own unique mental filter based on differing backgrounds and experience. McKim argues that “seeing is an active art to be developed, not a passive experience to be taken for granted,” and therefore, improvement is possible.

The second misconception is that “I have no imagination.” McKim argues that everyone has an imagination, but that most people have not developed the ability “to contact their imagination consciously and to direct it productively” (1980, p. 30). Again, tapping into the imagination is a learnable skill.

The third misconception is that “I can’t draw; in fact, no one in my family can draw.” McKim argues that the notion of an innate ability to draw is simply wrong. Commenting on her own experience as a drawing teacher, Betty Edwards observes that “any person of sound mind can learn to draw; the probability is the same as for learning to read” (1986, p. 7).

Note that all 3 of these misconceptions derive from an implied lack of self-confidence. In working to overcome these misconceptions, it is necessary to lead students through a progression of graphic process lessons in order to increase their confidence levels. [End Page 109] The result is that they develop far more than simply an appreciation of and a facility with graphics; they will also have learned to consider learning as ongoing and integral to the self. The added sense of self-worth and richness of shared understanding that students can achieve may be the most important reason for teaching graphic communication within a general education program.

In acknowledging the range and power that visual information has in our society today, we must also keep in sight the power that results from combinations of communication modes. While each mode of communication is useful by itself, when 2 or more modes are used together, each playing to its strengths, a synergy results that makes the combination far more effective than any one mode alone. Thus, rather than always dealing with the 4 modes separately, students must be taught how to combine 2, 3, or even all 4 modes to produce a seamlessly coherent message. By teaching the integration of modes of communication, we are producing a sturdy multilegged stool for students to stand on throughout their adult lives.

Joseph Poracsky

Joseph Poracsky is Professor of Geography at Portland State University, where he teaches courses in cartography, remote sensing, and urban natural resources. He served on the Working Group that designed the University Studies curriculum and taught for two years in the Freshman Inquiry program in a course called “City Life.”

Emily Young

Emily Young is Professor Emerita of Art at Portland State University. She has taught the foundations of studio and computer art at every age level and taught for two years in Freshman Inquiry. Her specialties are drawing, painting, and designing on the computer and teaching and advising art educators. Since retiring in 1998, she has devoted her time to art advocacy and her paintings.

Judy P. Patton

Judy P. Patton, formerly of the Department of Dance, is now Professor of University Studies at Portland State University. For over four years she has taught in the Freshman Inquiry course “Embracing Einstein’s Universe” at both the Pennsylvania State University and Westview High School in Beaverton, a Portland suburb. She is the Program Director and also directs the University Studies K-16 Reform Initiative. Her current research interests include inividualized teaching, the impact on faculty of teaching in the Freshman Inquiry program, and broader issues of education reform.


Balchin, W. G. V., & Coleman, A. M. (1965, November 5). Graphicacy should be the fourth ace in the pack. The Times Educational Supplement. (Rpt. in The Cartographer, 1966, 3 (1), 23–28).
Diamond, R. M. (1997, August 1). Broad curriculum reform is needed if students are to master core skills. The Chronicle of Higher Education, B7.
Edwards, B. (1986). Drawing on the artist within: A guide to innovation, invention, imagination, and creativity. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Holton, G. (1995). Imagination in science. In Einstein, history and other passions (pp. 160–84). Woodbury, NY: American Institute of Physics.
McKim, R. H. (1980). Experiences in visual thinking, 2nd ed. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing.
Tufte, E. R. (1983). The visual display of quantitative information. Chesire, CT: Graphics Press.