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Visual Literacy: The ability to decode non-verbal messages. 

Inspirational thoughts and activities that you can do at home. Break away from your everyday.

This week's Creative Spark synthesized the messages from George Nelson’s book into 6 key principles on increasing visual literacy. See how some local designers participated in a photographic field scavenger hunt to explore these principles and hopefully you feel inspired to do the same.

Some may think that being a visual expert is all about taste, but Nelson disagrees, saying, “Experience is a more reliable measuring yardstick than taste.” And he believes that experience comes first with seeing, which is not a unique God-given talent, but a discipline that can be learned.

How To See Now
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.

The 6 Principles

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.

1 AWARENESS
See with open eyes.
In her introduction, Karen Stein proclaims How to See as a call to action for designers and non-designers alike to open our eyes and look around us. The first step to seeing is having an awareness and curiosity to see something new in our everyday.

Activity: FIND NUMBERS 1–10. Take a picture of each number in a unique context. Why do you think the designer chose the typeface they did?

2 FOCUS
See beyond what you want to see.

Nelson repeatedly acknowledges that what we see is based on our personal experiences and values, yet he also encourages us to challenge those preconceived notions to see what we haven’t seen before simply because our focus was somewhere else.

Activity: SKETCH YOUR SURROUNDINGS. Sketch three elements in the scene around you that stick out the most. Take a picture of these sketch.

3 INSIGHT
See more than meets the eye.

Nelson describes Sherlock Holmes’ unique abilities to uncover truths as something that comes with experience. The more experience we have with seeing, the more needs and opportunities we can identify and the more innovative we can be in our solutions.

Activity: FIND FORM THAT FOLLOWS FUNCTION Take a picture of a space or object that looks like how it’s supposed to be used. Think about the problem the design was solving for. How do you think someone discovered that was a problem?

4 INTERACTION
See that which is unseen.

Nelson introduces an idea that you can use sight to also see what’s not there. He describes seeing as thinking, seeing as feeling, and seeing as understanding. Seeing is more than aesthetics—it’s also about feelings, interactions, and experiences.

Activity: LOOK FOR CLUES OF PAST ACTIVITY Take a picture of physical evidence that indicates some activity occurred. (e.g. footprints or discarded packaging).

5 CONTEXT
See the forest for the trees.

Nelson was known for putting together slide shows of the things he saw. In the images, each fragment on its own has less meaning than the relationships of shapes and patterns they create together. To see the whole picture, we need to look beyond the individual elements.

Activity: FIND A COMMON OBJECT Take a picture of the object and its surroundings. Look around and think about what the environment surrounding the object says about the object itself.

6 MEANING
See it to believe it.

Nelson highlights the ways we communicate in the man-made world, noting that nonverbal messages can often be the most effective. Successful visualizations can communicate highly complex information in an instant, because after all, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Activity: LOOK FOR A SIGN WITH VISUALS AND TEXT Take a picture of a sign that uses both words and images or a visual element of some kind to send a message.