It all begins with silence. Muted mouths. Passive pedestrians. Shrugging bystanders. An act of visual illiteracy is committed and nothing is said: A graffiti tag. A carelessly dropped bottle. A dog’s waste left unbagged. A sidewalk cracked into a tripping hazard. A broken streetlamp. A construction project that makes a sidewalk impassable for a year. A facade marred by numerous utility meters. A thoughtlessly designed and placed trash can. A planned development that is driven solely by money and ignores context.
While some of these issues may seem trivial, they accumulate into larger issues. This notion is largely regarded as the broken window theory. The theory postulates that if a broken window is left unrepaired, the perception of the area becomes unfavorable. People litter more. Graffiti increases. Maintenance gets further deferred. And the result, over time, becomes a blighted streetscape. Then, it costs much more to change that perception than the repair value of that first broken window.
Visual Illiteracy is a term to describe visual clutter in any environment. Often things such as signage, utilities, infrastructure are placed without thought to their impact upon the environment. A failure to look at the bigger picture is why this occurs. Often, visual illiteracy (VI) is not intended. VI is usually the result of accumulated matter over time and and placed regardless of specific need or context. And, as is often the case, those that are charged with the development and placement of such infrastructure have had no visual arts training.
VI was coined by the renowned American designer George Nelson. In his seminal book How To See, Nelson offers many examples of Visual Illiteracy from cluttered roadways to strange signage to poorly designed infrastructure. Even so, Nelson does show beautiful examples of urban infrastructure such as manholes, lamp posts, high voltage towers, etc. Often, these works are created by well-trained artisans and engineers.
Visual arts education is often not a high-priority subject studied in primary school. Yet, the psychological impact of a poorly designed or maintained environment stunts growth. If one lives/works in a nondynamic, ugly, ill-suited environment they become anesthetized to their setting. Advancement becomes perceptually out-of-reach. Creativity becomes limited. Alternatively, an understanding of visual arts reveals potential. Once the framework that visual literacy operates within is understood, methods of perception clarify decision making. Plans fall into place. Constituents are accommodated. The future becomes closer.
This blog will address episodes of both Visual Illiteracy and Literacy through written and visual means. We will dive into America’s love of pragmatism and dissect its impact on our environment. We will view instances where the plan looks better than real life implementation. Also, we will show examples of Yes is More (coined by Bjarke Ingels) thinking which attempts to accommodate pluralism often resulting in something entirely new. This process can be regarded as a new form of Visual Literacy as it simultaneously embraces a multi-faceted context (people, site, program.) Lastly, we ask you to send your examples of these conditions to us so we can post them on your behalf.