In honor of its 40th anniversary, George Nelson’s classic book How to See has just been updated and reissued. Here’s what visual literacy means today.
In 1977, architect, designer, writer, and general mid-century polymath George Nelson published his seminal book on visual literacy How to See. Nelson, who served as Herman Miller’s design director from 1945-1972, was a potent and able writer, and this book, which features both his photography and essays, shows him at the top of his perceptive, and persuasive, powers. In How to See, Nelson makes a full-throated argument for what he calls visual literacy, the capacity to make sense of the manmade world, identify and question the ideas that underpin our surroundings, and ultimately make us all better advocates for a beautiful, useful world.
Now, some 40 years on, and several editions later, the publisher Phaidon has engaged graphic designer and Pentagram partner Michael Bierut to redesign—or as he has it “restore”—How to See. WHY asked Bierut about how he approached the project and what Nelson still has to say to us today.
It’s no mean feat redesigning a classic written by a master like Nelson. Where do you even start?
When I got asked to redesign How to See, I have to admit, I was kind of frozen in place for a moment, partly because I had so much respect for the original edition, while at the same time having so many reservations about its design. The trick became creating a book that retains the direct quality, the bluntness and the forthrightness of Nelson’s original idea, but does it in a way that makes a beautiful book that could also be an object of desire to a certain degree. I’ve never done a project that had this weird combination of restoring an icon without just figuring out how to faithfully make it look exactly the way it used to.
So what did you do?
One thing we did was try not to aestheticize the pages, to not make it look like a fine art catalog. Nelson clearly didn’t intend that. So we kept basically the same kind of ratio of image to words, and we kept the same simplicity of presentation of those images. The publisher Phaidon did an amazing job of resourcing and rescanning the images, and they look miraculously better than they look in the original book. It’s a sensational printing job.
Another area where we did some real exploration was trying to figure out how much fidelity to have to the original typography, specifically the choice of fonts that Nelson and perhaps Chris Pullman—a teacher and mentor of mine who had worked with Nelson—had recommended for that first edition.
Not to get too meta, but this book really called on us to kind of interrogate the meaning of the visual choices that were made back in the mid 70s; we really tried to channel our predecessors. We didn’t try to make it into a book that looks like it was designed by me in 2017—it was really trying to remaster the book while keeping the original intent clear.
In a way, you had the operating manual for the redesign right in front of you, no?
Oh, absolutely! I had it right in front of my nose, but I’m ashamed to say that it didn’t occur to me that the instructions for how to redesign the book were right there in the book. Nelson was having a laugh somewhere, I hope.
How to See has such a surprising provenance: It began as part of the process of redesigning some forms for the government.
Yeah, for the Social Security office. Back in the 70s, miraculously, there was this big push to bring good design to the U.S. government. It was under the Nixon administration (excitingly enough), and there was a visionary head of the NEA…I think whose name was Nancy Hanks. Between them, they decided to do things like give NASA a new contemporary logo and, among other things, redesign Social Security forms.
But Nelson and his collaborators took this project to do the forms one step further. His question was, What’s the state of mind of someone getting these forms? Nelson was able to look at the problem empathetically. He asked questions like: What benefit are we trying to provide with this? How can we get people who may have various states of mind, who may have various states of literacy to understand what information they’re meant to provide?
I think that if you took the 10 best user experience designers from Silicon Valley at this moment and put them in a time machine and sent them back to the early 70s and had them observe that process, they would find it illuminating and inspiring because Nelson was able to anticipate experience design without really calling it that specifically. I think he just called it design.
By 1977, Nelson had combined this small effort for the government with some of his lectures and published them as How to See: Adventures in a World God Never Made.
One of the gifts that Nelson gives us in How to See is a key to understanding the world around us. A preliterate person, if she hasn’t learned to read yet, looks at a page of a book and it’s just a bunch of indecipherable little shapes. And the miracle of literacy is understanding that those shapes can be unlocked and turned into words, but not just words, also ideas. And Nelson took that template and transplanted it into the visual world.
He was convinced that everything we saw, every object that God never made, wasn’t just something you could appreciate because of the way it looked but that it had an idea behind it. But our ability to decode those ideas, our ability to read those ideas—and he used the word “read” very specifically—is a key to understanding the world. How to See was his guide book to doing just that.
Nelson was constantly taking pictures. Would he love Instagram?
Oh God! Wouldn’t he be the ultimate Instagrammer? I mean he’d be the most followed, the most liked.
I think where he might have been dismayed about the contemporary world is the degree to which those images end up replacing or inhibiting our ability to see the world as it actually exists. If you’re constantly looking around for beautiful shots you can put on your social feeds, you’re perhaps not alive to the world as it is, and you’re not asking yourself why it’s that way. Instead, you’re trying to make that world conform to some idea about who you are and how you want to present yourself.
Ultimately, Nelson was a thinker and a creator, and he saw the pictures he took as a means to those ends. Though it’s full of his photos, How to See isn’t asking how do I take pictures of the world to make everyone think that my part of the world is better than theirs, which I think is what a lot of what happens in social media. But instead it asks how can we look at the world, see what’s there with very clear eyes, and through those interpretations be inspired to improve it?