This article reports on a research project aimed at determining the scope and nature of
differences in picture comprehension between literate and low-literate audiences in the
context of HIV and AIDS. Structured interviews were held with 30 low-literate and 24 literate adult speakers of African languages. The responses were coded and analysed both qualitatively and quantitatively. Consistent with previous research, we found that purely analogical visuals pose relatively few interpretation problems across the literacy spectrum. Literate and low-literate respondents recognised human beings and familiar
analogous objects equally successfully. The interpretation of abstract items was
problematic for respondents at both literacy levels, but relatively more so for low-literate respondents. Purely symbolic or conventional abstract elements, such as speech and thought balloons, and purely mathematical symbols are difficult for low-literate individuals since they do not have any analogical residue that will trigger relevant meaning aspects of the visual. Metaphors are difficult when they require culture-specific knowledge. The results strongly suggest that designers should exploit the expressive power of the human
body in constructing (abstract) meaning. All humans have comparable experiences with
associated basic actions and bodily expressions. Therefore, facial expressions and body postures and positions are powerful in transferring complex messages. We advise that pictorial metaphors, art styles that distort objects, complex pictures with partially symbolic content, as well as abstract symbols borrowed from written language should be omitted where possible.