More ways of seeing: Paul Belford on George Nelson’s How to See

A new edition of George Nelson’s insightful 1977 book, How to See, shows how visual literacy can be learned –and its teachings have never been more needed

This book, intriguingly titled How to See, begins with the incredible, yet true assertion that 90% of people cannot see.

I had the same issue myself until my late 20s. Not having had the benefit of an art school education or, indeed from my early teens, even school art classes. I spent much of my 20s surrounded by men in white coats (in a science lab, not an insane asylum – although there were similarities).

George Nelson’s photography features throughout How to See. For example, he makes use of images that illustrate how we ‘focus’ on a subject – in each case, be it the building or the pigeon, “we see what interests us,” Nelson writes. The book also presents the manhole cover as art; shows the unifying ‘gingerbread’ theory of decorating wooden dwellings all over the world; offers up a series of non-verbal “prohibitions”, such as barbed wire, barriers and fences; and looks at signage co-opted by interventionist “informal” messages

My visual literacy, such as it is, was therefore largely self-taught and developed via galleries, cinema, magazines and books. Although I was unfortunately unaware of this particular book. Which is a shame because it’s great. First published in 1977, How to See by George Nelson has just been reprinted with a nicely updated design by Michael Bierut.

“The good news is that seeing is not a unique god-given talent, but a discipline. visual literacy can be learned”

Nelson was a trained architect. He also worked in the fields of industrial design, exhibition design, graphic design and interior design. And in 1952, he and Charles Eames created an art programme at the University of Georgia predicated on a vision of multimedia-based education, easily half a century ahead of its time. He was also the design director of furniture manufacturer Herman Miller and was responsible for the design of some of the 20th century’s most iconic objects.

Opening spread to Communications section of How to See

And in addition to being visually literate, he could write. The reason the world needs this book is bluntly stated in the introduction: “… way over 90% of adults cannot see, except in the most primitive sense”.

As designers I think we often forget this when dealing with clients and presenting work. They invariably genuinely have absolutely no idea if what we are showing is any good or not (same applies to D&AD juries … only kidding).

And the reason for this is visual illiteracy. It’s basically why the world mostly looks like shit. Well, the man-made environment that is, or as George Nelson poetically puts it, “the world God never made”. And it’s the reason that people generally react to ‘newness’ in art or indeed design and art direction, with nervous hostility.

A spread from How to See which illustrates a visual analysis of numbers

Reading images

In his introduction, Nelson goes on to explain that the majority of people believe that reality can be measured, tested and proven in terms of numbers. And the trouble with matters such as visual pollution is that it cannot be measured.

The good news though is that seeing is not a unique God-given talent, but a discipline. And the reason most people are rubbish at it can be blamed on our outdated education system (sadly still true, 40 years later). Visual literacy can be learned.

Precisely what we mean by visual literacy, is the language of vision: light, shape, colour, texture, lines, patterns, similarities, contrasts and movement. Or, an ability to decode non-verbal messages. As Bierut explains in his introduction to How to See: “We can learn to read images the same way we learn to read words: through experience, exposure and practice.”

The Art section features a spread of ‘double takes’, the “trick[s] used by merchants, makers of chocolate cigarettes, pranksters, Dadaist and Surrealist artists”

Seeing suddenly

The intention behind this book is admirable and simple. To help the reader sharpen their visual skills. It is arranged into eight chapters: Communications, Art, Old Stuff, Mobility, Geometrics and Other Exercises, City, Survival Designs and Standardisation/Variety/Evolution.

Thankfully the writing style is anything but stuffy and academic. In fact it doesn’t really even matter what order you read the book in. Dip in and out at will. You’ll always find an insightful nugget and an entertaining piece of wisdom.

“We can learn to read images the same way we learn to read words: through experience, exposure and practice”

Such as the following: “People who buy things make decisions on the basis of whether they like the design or not, since they rarely have any way of knowing how well the product will work after they get it home. The trouble with such design decisions is that visual illiterates have no way of knowing whether a design is any good. This is why the interior of most houses look as if they had been put together by the blind.”

And observations such as: “A thing that does not look like what it does, such as a television set in a cabinet that tries to look like a relic from a château on the Loire, is a bad joke and it merely reveals the illiteracy of the owner and the cupidity of the manufacturer.”

There’s useful advice, too. And interesting exercises such as looking for hardness and softness and the contrasts between these two qualities. Isolating the qualities of hard and soft gets us to look in a special way. So suddenly we see: soft lips, hard teeth; soft flag, hard buildings; and so on. There are many more. For example, looking for circles: beer cans, tyres, manholes, eyes, buttons, traffic lights, doorknobs etc etc. Try the exercises, they can lead to ideas and they’re fun.

It’s hard of course to avoid appearing somewhat pompous whilst accusing the general population of being visually illiterate. But this terrific book pulls it off spectacularly well.

Buy one. And buy another for your worst client.


How to See: Visual Adventures in a World God Never Made by George Nelson is published by Phaidon (£19.95) and features texts by Michael Bierut
and Karen Stein.

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