“Every object in any environment may be considered a nonverbal message input, subject to decoding by any suitable receiver within range,” writes George Nelson in How to See: Visual Adventures in a World God Never Made. The book, originally released in 1977 and now out in a new edition from Phaidon, is a “road map,” as the industrial designer puts it, to better visual literacy. Four decades following its initial publication, and in a world even more saturated with advertising, images, and consumer objects, How to See remains relevant in its consideration of our complacency and the value of paying attention.
“Nelson’s fascination with images proceeded from his obsession with something he called visual literacy, ‘an ability to decode nonverbal messages,’” writes Pentagram partner Michael Bierut, the designer of the 2017 edition, in an introduction. “He saw this as indispensable to our ability to think critically about the built environment, so often referred to as ‘man-made’ but which he wittily called ‘a world God never made.’” Nelson argues in How to See that “an overwhelming majority of adults, way over 90 percent, cannot see except in the most primitive sense, such as identifying the neighbor’s dog, or a traffic light.”
Nelson was especially equipped to write on critical looking; in his industrial and furniture designs, he left behind a vibrant legacy of playing cleverly with shapes and forms. His 1955 Coconut Chair is formed like a triangular slice of coconut, combining comfort with freedom of movement; his 1956 Marshmallow Sofa involves 18 padded discs hovering over a tubular steel frame. How to See was initially published by American furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, where Nelson was director of design from 1945 to 1972, influencing the aesthetics of midcentury interiors.
“It was Nelson’s central belief that design at any scale is a form of social communication and that, in his own words, ‘what matters is not so much the importance of the object — that is generally out of the designer’s control — as the emotional intensity with which the essentials have been explored and expressed,’” writes Karen Stein, executive director of the George Nelson Foundation, in a foreword.
Similar to Bruno Munari in his 1960s books on the square, circle, and triangle, Nelson is omnivorous in his taste for examples. The “visual interruption” section includes an old Long Island windmill nearly hidden by modern cars and street lamps, as well as the harmony of a Henry Moore sculpture disrupted by chaotic streets signs and traffic. Nelson acknowledges that a more accurate title for the book would be How I See: as Bierut notes, the designer never went out without a camera around his neck, and all the photographs reflect his view of the world as he sifted observations from the visual pollution. “Does anyone ever notice a street corner, judge it in terms of decency, effectiveness, amenity? I don’t know. Have you ever really looked at one?” Nelson asks.
The new Phaidon edition restores original content that was missing from recent reissues, while also reinstating the subtitle of the first hardback edition: “Visual Adventures in a World God Never Made.” And it is very much about the human-made environment, with its repetition, anomalies, and objects all screaming non-verbally for attention. The last visual exercise in the book is simply “bread,” a study of the symbolism, tastes, commercialization, and shapes of the food, which so often in the 20th century comes as a packaged, mass-produced loaf. “So the long and glorious history of bread ends with it as the perfect textureless standardized loaf, predictable, fabricated with trustworthy synthetics, the dream food for the nonpeople,” Nelson writes, before adding “that quite a few people are learning to bake, again.” Bread, like any sewer cover, street bench, traffic light, or public sculpture, is always being reinterpreted by its beholders.
George Nelson’s How to See: Visual Adventures in a World God Never Made is published by Phaidon.