We Are Illiterate

We are illiterate.

We have no design literacy. We lack a basic functioning literacy about the big, broad discipline of design: the ability to see, judge, appreciate, and communicate through design.

We even lack a literacy of design literacy. Most of us know what it means to read, write, speak and listen in order to participate in the world; but what are the equivalent verbs for design?

The conversation around design literacy, if there is one, usually starts and stops at the consumption of objects of desire. We buy things based on how they look, and that’s a big part of the way we participate in the culture of design. Consider shoes: a “hypebeast” is a certain type of “sneakerhead” – someone willing to wait in long lines to shell out hundreds of dollars for a pair of shoes they’ll never wear, just to own them. It’s a collection, but one that’s embedded directly in popular culture. Kanye West’s “Yeezy x Adidas collection” sold out in five minutes, with each pair selling for $625. (www) We see the same behavior in the long lines at Apple after a new product release: we have a need to own designed things. Having them doesn’t just mean benefiting from their look. It means benefiting from their style. Owning objects of desire is a form of brand transience – we become the brands we buy.

When Kanye is the brand, and you buy a pair of his shoes, you have a little bit of Kanye in you.

Consuming things is a legitimate form of design literacy, but it’s a basic one, and if it’s the only one we have, that’s a problem. It equates design to nouns, not verbs, and it’s built by an arguably unhealthy relationship to celebrity. Kanye West probably has little to do with the actual design of his shoes, in the same way that will.i.am, a creative director at Intel, likely has nothing to do with anything there. Lady Gaga was creative director at Polaroid, Rihanna was creative director at Puma, and, of course, Beats by Dre was “designed” by Dre. This seems to imply that the act of creating artifacts of desire are limited to the rich and famous, out of reach out Joe Everyman, and Joe Everyman is only able to buy them. And because many of these objects are expensive, consumption as design literacy means that only people that can afford to buy things can even claim the benefits of that most basic form of literacy.

A literacy of design built only on consumption means that most of us can’t actually use design to our advantage. We can’t benefit from design as a personal problem solving methodology. We can’t fully judge the relationship between usability and functionality. We have trouble questioning and understanding why the built environment is the way it is and how it got to be that way. We have an impoverished ability to appreciate and enjoy interactions, situations and experiences.

It’s not surprising that design literacy is low, considering overall literacy is pretty abysmal too. In the United States, over 30 million adults cannot read, write, or do basic math above a third grade level. (www) But we know that a lack of reading and writing is a problem, and we continually work to improve this problem (albeit with mixed results). But there aren’t any government programs aimed at helping the general population gain a depth of design understanding at a broad level, and there are only a handful of private or non-profit efforts in that direction.


I think this is in part because we don’t actually know what “design literacy” is. There have been several attempts to answer that, within our profession.

Designer and author Steven Heller published a book called Design Literacy, with the aim of examining “a variety of individual objects, focusing on their significance in the broader histories of graphic design and popular culture.” This is exactly what our population needs – to understand the significance of the built world – and it offers a starting point for contextualizing objects in the world around us. But the text itself assumes a rich historic literacy, grounding the examples in a thick, complex web of socioeconomic, political, and cultural detail. It demands that we start at a point of curiosity, and that limits the audience to only those who are already engaged. It uses language and ideas that resonate with competent designers but not with the general public.

Author Robin Williams wrote “The Non-Designers Design Book”, which aims to bring design to a larger audience. The book describes, through example, the basics of visual design: type, alignment, contrast, and so-on. But the book focuses on only a narrow audience of people who “need to design pages, but have no background or formal training in design.” It is a starting point for graphic literacy, but a very slim one in a very slim part of design.

Chris Pacione, CEO of LUMA institute (and one of my former professors) authored “Evolution of the Mind: A Case for Design Literacy” (www), an article that compares the evolution of mathematics literacy, from an exclusive art in the 1200s for only a select few, to an applied skill for the masses. He describes that design is in a similar position: “Like arithmetic, which was once a peripheral human aptitude until the industrial age forced it to be important for everyone, recent global changes and the heralding of a new age are positioning design as the next human literacy.” This is the closest we have in our profession to a detailed call for broad education in design.

Literacy is about basic competency, understanding, and participation. Mathematics competency is different than mathematics mastery. Basic competency is critical to get through a day; mastery is not. Understanding is about knowing, both facts and principles. Participation is about contribution. To be literate is to have a voice in society, and to see the things that are happening, build on them, change them, and reject them. Design literacy is no different in this respect than reading or writing. But it is different in how this competency, comprehension, and participation present themselves.


People who are design literate have the ability to:

  1. Notice and explore the human-built environment of artifacts, signs, symbols and experiences, question why it is the way it is, and critique it in a meaningful way. Design blends into culture. A design literacy means extracting individual “pieces of design” from that cultural background, and analyzing their value and efficacy, not just their aesthetic.
  2. Appreciate, enjoy, and reflect upon interactions, situations and experiences. Just as we’re good at buying shoes, we’re also good at consuming pageantry – awards shows, concerts, and contrived experiences like Disneyworld. But design literacy means appreciating or evaluating more boring, common experiences. These are the daily interactions of life for most of us, and a design literacy means noticing how the line at the checkout is organized, how the city streets evolved over time, and how the bank’s signup process works.
  3. Express themselves visually, through sketching, diagrams, and other forms of visualizations. Design literacy is both about a basic competence in form giving, but also a confidence in form-giving: a realization that making things doesn’t mean making works of art. Just as we have no shame in doing basic math to pay our bills, we should have no shame in producing basic diagrams to understand complex ideas.

With these fundamentals, anyone can begin to participate in the designed world, one increasingly driven by technology and complexity. We don’t need to teach everyone to be a professional designer, in the same way that we don’t all need to be renowned authors or award-winning mathematicians. We only need to teach everyone this form of exploration, appreciation, and expression.

Jon Kolko

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