Poster designed by Julius Friedman. Image is a pencil. Text reads "to 27 million American workers this is a useless tool."

Take Action on International Literacy Day

Today is International Literacy Day, which highlights the importance of literacy to individuals and to society. In 1991, designer Julius Friedman addressed the problem of adult illiteracy in a series of posters, four of which are on view at the Denver Art Museum in Drawn to Action: Posters from the AIGA Design Archives. Using striking graphics and the shocking statistic that 27 million American adults couldn’t read, Friedman alerted the literate public to this national problem.

The message of Friedman’s posters was that illiteracy not only affects the quality of life of individuals who can’t read, but it also affects the larger population who can. In the 23 years since Friedman created these posters, adult illiteracy in the United States hasn’t improved much. You might be surprised to learn that according to a 2013 study 32 million adult Americans (14 percent of the population) are illiterate.

About International Literacy Day

While 32 million illiterate adults is a significant number, it’s important to note that the United States has one of the highest literacy rates in the world for both men and women over the age of 15. Literacy rates around the world, especially in developing countries, are much lower. Two-thirds of illiterate adults in the world are women. For these reasons, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) started International Literacy Day in 1966. UNESCO reminds UN member states each year on this date of the status and importance of literacy.

The notion of literacy has evolved over the years to include diverse skills needed to thrive in a globalized, knowledge-oriented society. In the United States, celebrations of Literacy Day revolve around a theme created by the International Reading Association. This year, the theme is Lift Off to Literacy, which asks teachers to commit to helping their students’ literacy habits by devoting an additional 60 seconds to literacy activities for 60 days. When young people develop these habits early in life, they are more likely to avoid the serious consequences of adult illiteracy.

Statistics

Illiteracy has significant implications for those living with it. The standard definition of literacy includes reading, writing, and numeracy skills, as well as the notion of functional literacy, which links the three skills together. Illiteracy correlates with underemployment, poverty, crime, and substandard health and nutrition. The income of a person with poor literacy is shown to be stagnant throughout their working life, while literate individuals can expect to double or triple their income over their career.

Children of illiterate parents are more likely to drop out of school, continuing this cycle. In 2006, the National Institute for Literacy estimated that low literacy skills costs businesses and taxpayers $20 billion in lost wages, profits, and productivity each year.

How You Can Help

So, you might be wondering what you can do to help promote literacy in your community or around the world. Here are a few tips to get you started:

  1. Read to a child you know and take him or her to the library or a bookstore.
  2. Check with your local library and schools. They might have adult or family literacy programs with which you can volunteer.
  3. Donate to or get involved with one of these literacy charities.
  4. Read! Your commitment to literacy will inspire others.

The DAM is closed on Mondays, but you can see Drawn to Action and make your own poster (about literacy or other social problems) Tuesdays through Sundays through January 18, 2015.

Image credit: Julius Friedman, To 27 Million American Workers This is A Useless Tool, 1991. Offset lithograph. © Julius Friedman. AIGA Design Archives: Gift of AIGA. 2007.6160.7

X This Is the Way 27 Million Americans Sign Their Name design by Julius Friedman

Julius Friedman, This Is the Way 27 Million Americans Sign Their Name, 1991. Offset lithograph. © Julius Friedman. AIGA Design Archives: Gift of AIGA. 2007.6160.4.

Ripped newspaper ad image with text "27 Million Americans Can't Read This Ad." Design by Julius Friedman.

Julius Friedman, 27 Million Americans Can’t Read This Ad, 1991. Offset lithograph. © Julius Friedman. AIGA Design Archives: Gift of AIGA. 2007.6160.6.

Image of a pencil. Text reads "To 27 Million American Workers This is A Useless Tool." Designed by Julius Friedman.

Julius Friedman, To 27 Million American Workers This is A Useless Tool, 1991. Offset lithograph. © Julius Friedman. AIGA Design Archives: Gift of AIGA. 2007.6160.7

Image of English alphabet and Chinese characters. Text: To 27 Million Americans Both of These are a Foreign Language. Designed by Julius Friedman.

Julius Friedman, To 27 Million Americans Both of These are A Foreign Language, 1991. Offset lithograph. © Julius Friedman. AIGA Design Archives: Gift of AIGA. 2007.6160.8.

Image of blank paper with line for name. Text: 27 Million Americans Can't Fill in the Blank. Designed by Julius Friedman.

Julius Friedman, 27 Million Americans Can’t Fill In The Blank, 1991. Offset lithograph. © Julius Friedman. AIGA Design Archives: Gift of AIGA. 2007.6160.9.

Kati Woock is the curatorial assistant in the architecture, design & graphics department at the Denver Art Museum. Kati has been at the DAM since 2014 and her favorite collection here is Design Before 1900. She enjoys visiting art storage as often as possible.