A memory of George Nelson: Important conclusions about the special relationship we know as mentoring.

Of the many creative mentors to whom I am indebted, one of the most generous and articulate was the architect and industrial designer George Nelson (1908-1986).

Nelson came of age during the great depression when, as he put it, “no architects were being called.” So he expressed his talents as editor, journalist, industrial designer, product and graphic designer. Fortunately, the demand for architecture returned just when he was reaching the height of his powers.

Dialogues With Creative Legends grew out of my own search for design employment and mentoring. Often the search was as educational as the interview! Despite the great connectedness of the current business world — perhaps because of it — aspiring design professionals today face new challenges in the age-old problem of getting noticed, especially by the elite practitioners. My relationship with George Nelson, excerpted below, marked a turning point; he followed my work and his terse, eloquent letters of recommendation opened many doors. Nelson’s wit and insights helped me — among a great many of his students — understand design as both a serious profession and a creative adventure. I offer here a few choice Nelson observations, leading to some important conclusions about the special relationship we know as mentoring. 

January, 1977

My boss plunks on my desk an article from ID magazine about George Nelson; he is teaching an evening class at Pratt Institute. After calls to Nelson’s office and Pratt Admissions, I receive permission to audit the class. Until this time, my primary way of approaching my design idols has been by trying to reach them by telephone and ask for an interview. With my relative inexperience, it was the coldest form of cold calling. So this opportunity to learn from a top flight designer seems like a real gift. It turns out to be that and much more.

Philosophy of Design becomes the high point of my week. It’s an evening class, and I quickly see I am not the only student who sometimes arrives feeling wrung out, but Nelson — then 68 — keeps up a full head of steam throughout the two-hour session. He has a gift for encouraging student participation and weaving it into his extemporaneous discussion. Raconteur, storyteller, evangelist of good sense — here is a man who has assumed the role of spokesperson for the design profession, yet rarely mentions the word design. After several classes, I marvel to Nelson about his ability to talk about design so fluidly, to discuss complex design problems and make the solutions understandable. He squares his shoulders to me like Napoleon bucking up a scared young artilleryman before battle.

“Public speaking is not an innate talent. It’s just practice,” he says matter-of-factly. I find this simple bit of mentoring very reassuring. The extraordinary speaking skills of leaders like Charles & Ray Eames, Saul Bass and Buckminster Fuller, make it look easy, but experience teaches otherwise. The idea that, with preparation and practice, I could become as eloquent as they about this profession lifts my courage.

Nelson’s mission as a design spokesman is to convince his listeners that world-class design is within reach for anyone with good sense and a passion for quality. A world traveler, he sells his design services not by showing his own projects, but by screening his show The Civilized City, which consists of several hundred visuals of amenities that make urban spaces come alive.

In one class he talks about his youthful admiration for great architecture, and how he traveled Europe, seeking out famous European architects, and later how he met Frank Lloyd Wright. I feel a link, through Nelson’s vivid stories of mentoring layered back through time.

At the beginning of one class, a young architect asks about streamlining. Nelson pronounces it one of the master ideas of twentieth-century design, and proceeds to devote the rest of the two-hour lecture to that subject—what an extraordinary memory.

“Streamlining began as an engineering technique, but quickly became a driver for style.  Such a movement begins with a philosophical zeal, proclaiming a new scientific basis between form and meaning. As it is assimilated into the mainstream, it becomes a vernacular, something applied more and more carelessly. Even things that did not need to move through air or water were subjected to wind tunnels — furniture, toasters, even parking meters! Eventually it becomes a form of visual pollution, until some new innovation captures the popular imagination with a new, world-changing design philosophy.”

Assigned to write for Time-Life the book that became Tomorrow’s House, he filled many chapters easily but when his press deadline loomed, he was stuck on the topic of storage. He recounts, “I found myself staring at the wall, idly wondering how thick it is. Six inches, maybe? Then, for no reason at all, it hits me: add three inches on either side and you have a cubic foot, times the dimension of the wall, more volume than the average closet.” This line of inquiry leads to some quick prototypes, and he writes a chapter about “The Storage Wall,” which becomes the most influential part of the book and a signature of post–World War II interior design.

As product designer and architect, Nelson is unabashedly consumerist. “I’m comfortable with my role helping people feel good about their material surroundings,” he says, “about helping them find an identity in the things they need to live. Remember that design has only recently become an academic subject, taught in universities. It began as a survival skill, before recorded history. Design should be a force for good, of course, no one argues with that. But design is all about selling survival strategies—for countries, for companies, for products, but ultimately it is always funded by people.”

In one Philosophy of Design lecture, a student asks if there will ever be another Venice. Nelson turns the challenge around, placing the responsibility on the design community.

“Venice was a unique collaboration. There were visionary designers there, capable of painting word pictures of things that had never been dreamt. They convinced their bankers that through design, they could establish a mercantile empire, drawing customers to their own, uniquely irresistible headquarters. Those boys down on Wall Street have the money to build Venice ten times over. If New York isn’t as spectacular as Venice it isn’t the bankers’ fault! We in the design community must not be making a compelling enough case for the power of visionary design.”

One of the students asks Nelson how to decide, from a daily flood of ideas, which ones are most worthy of developing.  Nelson is emphatic:

“All the good ones! Often, you think you have too many ideas, but they are really variations on the same idea. Other times, you realize that of a hundred ideas, eighty have been done already and eighteen are original but on quick examination they fall somewhere between mediocre and stupid. That leaves you with two good, original ideas! You have been given great talent: with that gift comes the obligation to use yourself up! Don’t die with a single good idea left in you untried.”

Nelson gets started talking about the creative process, how one idea leads to the next. He is very animated on the science of heuristics, which he describes as an enthusiastic intellectual wandering. The mind, Nelson contends, makes connections between things seemingly unrelated. Why, he poses to the class, when you are working on a problem, do unconnected thoughts pop into your head? He believes that these thoughts, far from being disruptive, are gifts. The connection may be obvious, or may require time to puzzle out, but it’s there.

“Bucky Fuller describes (in Nine Chains to the Moon) his creative process as laying out a problem in a workroom in his mind, then leaving the room. A mental force Fuller calls his ‘phantom captain’ solves the problem and leaves the solution lying on the table, for his conscious mind to pick up and execute. Charles and Ray Eames talk at length about ‘finding the connections’ as an enduring theme in their work.”

Nelson is a storehouse of information about creative people; I ask him about this. He “went through a phase” where he couldn’t read enough biographies of famous creative people. He wanted to see the big patterns in their lives. He never tires of talking about the creative process, about how creative ideas occur.  
“To succeed in design, you must develop your own resource library. Collect now, and make the connections later. The time you invest in processing the things you find intriguing will yield big dividends. You can, of course, begin with an intention to seek out and study certain things. But you can work the other way: keep your eyes open, and when something knocks you over, sketch it or photograph it or write in your diary. You don’t think your way to creative work. You work your way to creative thinking.”

I participate energetically in Nelson’s discussions and assignments. He recognizes that I am a working designer auditing out of interest, and he responds with an invitation to visit his office and show my portfolio.

The door to his office says “Nelson Design.” Next to it is another door that says “Nelson and Chadwick, Architects.” On closer examination, I see that the second door is meticulously painted on the wall, not a real door, but a trompe l’oeil rendering. Nelson jokes his way through all design subjects, humor is perhaps the one constant across the wide range of his activities. I begin to see that his ability to make serious subjects seem lighthearted and fun is a key to his success with clients.

Nelson’s office is an open plan. I’m surprised that it is not slick. No two chairs are the same. There are components of many different office systems. A menagerie of clocks and lamps can be seen. He sees me taking it all in.

“We do a lot of corporate interior design,” he explains. “I never like to specify something as intimate as a chair unless we have lived with it ourselves to make sure it sits properly.”

I venture, “Having taken Philosophy of Design, I thought your office would be filled with Rietveld chairs and Futurist paintings!”

A smile appears fleetingly at the corner of his mouth. “Try to snuggle with your honey bun in one of those chairs! Who wants to sit on a manifesto? Design is first and foremost about serving the needs of the user; only then is it about expression. In the best design, the two appear effortlessly combined. But any seasoned designer knows it is rarely effortless.”


I left New York a year after the Philosophy of Design class ended, though we corresponded occasionally. I last saw him at the opening of a Herman Miller factory, in 1983. He was still as jovial as ever then, and as I look back over the years of his on-again-off-again mentoring, humor was a constant. In his designs as well as his writing, Nelson had a knack for wrapping a deep idea in a lighthearted story or example — perhaps that is why it took a while to fully realize how far reaching many of his attitudes could be. Many are still yielding new Aha! Moments, even today. Such as:

Public speaking proves to be a crucial career skill; since verbalization is the first step toward actualization. Nelson also suggested to the class that getting practice alone in front of a mirror is helpful, but actively seeking opportunities to engage with audiences is better still. The ‘public personality’ needed to build excitement around innovative work. As new media appear and transform public dialogue, the types of publicity available to design professionals are also filled with new opportunities. Every time I step in front of a mic or camera, Nelson’s encouragement to practice and actively engage in public dialogue takes on renewed meaning.

Nelson was an early example of what is now dubbed ‘content marketing.’ He had brochures, but he attracted a large and diverse client base through his writing and his slide show. This show, which he dubbed The Civilized City, was in fact constantly evolving. In it, he discussed neither product nor process, but rather the benefits of good design to society as a whole. Of his books, Problems of Design and George Nelson On Design are worthy of a place in every design library.

As the evolution of styles accelerates, I think frequently of Nelson’s quip about streamlining toasters and parking meters. New trends in visual design are frequently driven by ideas. When the look is copied without regard for the suitability of the idea, it not only results in a clichéd design, but it hurts the efforts of thoughtful designers everywhere. Nelson might say “Sure there is some way to teach thoughtful, rather than thoughtless, application of styles?” His book How to See deals with his campaign for the teaching of what he liked to term Visual Literacy.

I suggest above that Nelson was unabashedly consumerist — this is my wording not his. Dialogues with Creative Legends begins with Victor Papanek and Bucky Fuller — both of whom had their impatience with overly commercial design. After hearing them, Nelson’s philosophy struck me as very centrist. That said, I believe he would feel right at home with much of the discussion of sustainable design going on now. Nelson quoted frequently from E.F. Schumaker’s little manifesto Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, still a very provocative and relevant book for those interested in inventing Capitalism 2.0.

I never heard Nelson say, directly, that having talent carried with it an obligation to society. That is, nevertheless, the pervasive feeling I have from the variety of his challenges to our class. His exhortation to “Use yourself up” and to take responsibility for convincing the prime movers in society that — like the example of Venice — design is at the center of civics and of life well lived.

When I asked Richard Saul Wurman to write the introduction to Dialogues, he read the manuscript and objected to my description of Nelson’s method for going from 100 ideas to two  actionable ones. “I knew Nelson well,” Wurman objected “and I don’t believe a word of that description.” Though I stand by my transcription, I am grateful to Wurman for pointing out a crucial omission of mine. Central to Nelsonian design thinking — probably all design — is the role played by intuition and passion in selecting which ideas to carry through. Some ideas may have immediate commercial applications but we choose instead to devote energy to ideas that are exciting more for their social, intellectual or aesthetic value. I confess that some of my best ideas are things I pursued without being sure where it would go, solely because it was intensely interesting. Sometimes, of course, we go for the gold.

When Nelson suggested that designers work their way to creative thinking, not the other way around, I believe now he was trying to say that too much forethought is as troublesome as too little, and that quick thinking, then quick visualization of ideas, then quick critical analysis, in as many iterations as needed, was his suggestion to his students. Nelson described a day he was invited to visit the new products lab at Sony. He observed that the Sony team met early and tossed around dozens of ideas for new portable radios, then management picked one. Sony’s policy, he observed, was to have a working breadboard and prototype by the end of the same day!

Nelson’s story of developing the storage wall stayed with me for a long time before I figured out why. Many designers wrap their work in a process with research, flow diagrams and secret sauce. His willingness to admit the haphazard nature of his creative process is very disarming. It is not that he eschews process, but he seems to be saying “recognize that talent and a deadline can sometimes produce work as good as or better than a structured and scheduled effort.” Aha!

—This article is based on Dialogues with Creative Legends: Aha Moments in a Designer’s Career by David Laufer. Copyright © 2013. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders.

David Calvin Laufer’s designs first came to international attention with his rebranding of Oxford University Press for its 500th anniversary. This launched a career that includes branding, interactive and product design; his clients include the Government of Indonesia, Unisource, The Coca-Cola Company, Bentley Prince Street, and The Museum of Modern Art, New York.