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Origins of graphicacy

The word graphicacy was first coined by geographers William Balchin and Alice Colemann, back in 1965, as a characterisation of visuospatial and cartographic abilities. Considering that was nearly 60 years ago, today it is a surprisngly little-used term, but one so very relevant to this era. Also and equally surprisingly, there is very little discourse online about the term.

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 define it as:

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

Graphicacy embraces a wide range of fields, including the graphic arts and much of geography, computer graphics, photography, and cartography.

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

A structural system

The interpretation of graphics is loosely similar to the process of reading text, whilst the generation of graphics is the counterpart of writing text. However, 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, such as being sequenced in orderly rows [normally] starting from top left and progressing down the page.

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

With this in mind, the term graphicacy is particularly relevant and descriptive in the practice of cartography, and as the discipline that gave genesis to the term. It is a skill we should all be encouraged to acquire.


The Cartographer
A Map-making Practice
Selected Map Works
Mapping Insights
Map Art


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