How to See by George NelsonNotable passages from
How to See by George Nelso

Design Within Reach, Oakland, 2003 (1977)

   To see, as Dr. Joshua Taylor of the National Gallery has observed, is to think. To think is to put together random bits of private experience in an orderly fashion.


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   The reason for bringing in the idea of design is that you can't build or make anything without it. A child making a sand castle has some kind of picture in his head that is telling him what to do next. The designer of the first bow and arrow had somehow stumbled on the idea (through observation) that a bent piece of wood with a string in tension attached to both ends will propel an arrow. And so it turns out that if we really want to see the physical environment within which we spend most of our time, we do have to understand something about design and the design process. In other words, seeing and design are related, just as seeing and thinking, seeing and feeling are related.


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   In a functionally blind society, the role of art is widely misunderstood. Art, for the visually illiterate, has some vague connection with "beauty," the "finer things," "aesthetics," and none at all with its real role of coming to grips with various aspects of perceived reality.


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   The high schools are turning out graduates who do not seem able to read or write anymore. There is a theory that TV is the cause of this, that people are taking in more visual information than they used to, and hence tending to put less importance on words. Perhaps this is so, but for me TV is not a visual medium, basically, but a technique of telling very simple, even primitive kinds of stories which are then illustrated by moving pictures. Verbal skills, in this process, are being downgraded below the level of books or radio, but the corresponding upgrading of visual skills is questionable.
   A more believable explanation, in my view, lies in the accelerating tendency of a technological society to turn its people into things. In almost any industrial process, people represent the one element that is not predictable and totally controllable. People come to work late, goof off, make mistakes, sabotage, don't think about what they are doing, get sick. A human individual, compared on this basis with, say, a ball bearing, is a bundle of headaches for plant management. Everything possible is being done to get people out of the process, through automated machines, quality-control devices and computers, and one reads predictions that the factory population will eventually decline to 5 percent of the total population. Until that happy moment, every pressure imaginable is being used to make people more dependable or, to put it differently, to convert them into something that can be processed uniformly, like inorganic materials.


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   In any case, the people are out and the geometrics are in: shining doughnut holes escaping from square doughnuts, teetering cubes, cylinders whittled out like out organ pipes. It is a cool, pseudo-mathematical world, not unlike the bureaucracies themselves, where employees at all levels are given the choice (never said out loud) of excommunication or conformity to management's dream of the perfect cyborg.
   The twentieth century is the first in human history that may end with no image of man in its inventory of creations.


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   Junk is the most pervasive product of the technological society. There is little or no junk visible in backward countries, for everything is cannibalized, cleaned, reused, sold. One might say, with a reasonable probability of being right, that come war or peace, affluence or depression, junk is our ultimate landscape.


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