Yellowfıelds* Lab

Graphicacy

Origin

The term ‘graphicacy’ was first coined way back in 1965, by geographers William Balchin and Alice Colemann, as a characterisation of visuospatial and cartographic abilities. Considering that was almost 60 years ago, it is a surprisngly little-known term, but one that seems more approporiate today than at any other time. Despite the growing ubiquity of online mapping, there is surprisingly very little discourse anywhere about the term and its relevance.

Essentially, graphicacy is defined as the ability to understand and present information in the form of sketches, photographs, diagrams, maps, plans, charts, graphs and other non-textual formats. Balchin and Colemann defined it as:

“The communication of spatial information that cannot be conveyed adequately by verbal or numerical means.”

In fact, graphicacy embraces a wide range of subject fields, including the graphic arts, geography, cartography, computer graphics, and photography, as well as the more recent inventions of GIS and information design.

The word graphicacy is clearly analogous to the terms literacy, numeracy and articulacy, but the concept of graphicacy also acknowledges the need to distinguish it from these as a complementary skill type that has its own contributions made through the composition of graphics, words, and numbers.

Structure

The interpretation of graphics is loosely similar to the process of reading text, whilst the generation of graphics is the counterpart of writing text. Text and graphics are based on very different symbol and structural 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 textual structures, the units of information (words) are expected to be organised according to broad conventions. In the English-speaking West, words are sequenced in orderly rows [normally] starting from top left and progressing down the page.

Graphics are not subject to a similarly stringent set of structural conventions, being non-linear. Instead, it is the content itself that determines the nature of the graphic entities, along with the way they are spatially arranged; the (carto)graphic representation of the subject matter, if you like. This is not the case with written text where the words and their arrangement bear no resemblance to the represented subject matter.

With this now understood, the term graphicacy has particular resonance and embodiment in the practice of cartography, as the discipline that also gave genesis to the term. But, iven the democratisation of mapping today, it should be more self-evident. Therein lies the rub. Modern tools don't demand the knowledge or understanding once needed, and increasingly so with the adoption of AI.