Ways to See: Learn Visual Literacy

"It is baffling to find someone with eyes no better than our own, who sees things we are unable to perceive."

George Nelson

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Born in America in 1908, George Nelson is a central figure in Midcentury century design and one of the founders of American Modernism. A true polymath, Nelson was a trained architect, celebrated industrial designer, graphic designer, teacher and one time Director of Design for Herman Miller where he was responsible for recruiting Charles and Ray Eames, Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Girard. As a furniture designer,  he had the ability to reinterpret everyday items as works of art so it is no wonder that he was responsible for some of the most iconic furniture and home accessories in modernity. Yet in our opinion, his legacy extends his designs.

Most notable to Super Ordinary Life, when George Nelson was not designing or running his office of over 70 members, he was never without his camera. He was not on an artistic pursuit of artful compositions. He was relentlessly snapping away to record the things that caught his eye. It was from this fascination with images that his obsession with what he termed Visual Literacy was born.


is a concept essential to Super Ordinary Life, but what exactly does it mean?

What is Visual Literacy? (Or how to see)

In a highly simplified summary, George Nelson's Visual Literacy boils down to the following:

  • Visual Literacy is the ability to interpret the non-verbal messages that we see in the chaotic manmade environment.

  • Literacy is deemed as one of the central foundations of a civil society yet most people are largely and complacently visually illiterate.

  • In a plea to encourage an education in Visual Literacy, Nelson delivered lectures and wrote books and articles for several publications to encourage us to sharpen our visual skills and challenge us to reexamine the way we see and what we overlook.

  • He was convinced that we can learn to read images in the same way that we read words - through experience, exposure and practice.

  • On the premise that everything in the man made world has been designed, He sought to encourage scholars and designers to use visual literacy to question and evaluate the reasons and results of these things. Vital skills in our ability to think critically about our built environment.

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is an intellectual aesthetic exercise which increases one's inalienable capital, riches that can be accumulated without cost, once acquired, cannot be lost or stolen."

The concept of visual literacy as a means to a sharpening our observational and in fact verbal acuity is hugely influential to almost every aspect of Super Ordinary Life. Noticing, observing, seeing and then evaluating and questioning what it all means are our basic everyday tools. There times that an entire set of photos that we've taken of things that we've noticed during our daily movements or on our travels seem to refer back to what we are learning from Nelson's way of looking at the world.

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"The language of vision...

uses light, shape, colour, texture, lines, patterns, similarities, contracts and movement"

Sometimes we wonder what Nelson would make of today's Instagram crazy world. Would he have an account? Bet it would be incredible. Yet, his legacy has relevant messages for us on this too.  His Visual Literacy serves as reminder in this instagram driven world that what we capture can go beyond looking for perfectly beautiful shots that conform to ideals of how we are trying to present ourselves, capturing pictures can and should be a visual adventure that encourages us and others to interpret our chaotic visual environments. Of course this is rather academic and design biased. Yet it is just the tip of the iceberg. There are more holistic aspects to Visual Literacy, that we discuss another time. 

Curiously, the single George Nelson designed item that we own is his Eye Clock. It is a cherished item and an article of great beauty, constructed in walnut and brass, designed in the 1950's it's retained it timeless appeal.  Long before we dreamed up Super Ordinary Life the clock has been quietly watching over as years pass, inspiring us to look harder and look again at the world around us.

References: George Nelson, How to See ISBN:978-0714873831, George Nelson Foundation, Herman Miller How To See