04 August 2008
Paul J. Nini, Professor of Visual Communication Design, Ohio State University
Paul J. Nini

This weeks' Feature looks at the recently published "Decoding Design: Understanding and Using Symbols in Visual Communication" by Maggie Macnab. The author, Paul J. Nini, is a Professor of Visual Communication Design at the Ohio State University.

Decoding Design:
Understanding and Using Symbols in Visual Communication
Maggie Macnab, in her book Decoding Design, asserts that by using natural patterns and symbols that have existed for centuries, designers can "tap into the dynamic energy of the collective psyche," and that "universal cultural concepts" can be imbedded in the communications that we create. An intriguing idea to be sure, but one that is easier to put forth than it is to prove.

I find it interesting that such grand claims are fairly common in much graphic design literature geared to professionals and students. It's a type of marketing- speak often seen in our profession -- suggesting significant benefit, but carefully worded not to be too specific. Any design student writing a thesis paper would be forbidden to make these kind of statements without definitive proof, yet we routinely encounter them in graphic design books, magazines, etc.

Above: Two-page spread from Chapter 0: Pattern : Laying the Groundwork
for Design

But the good news is that Decoding Design stands up quite well even after the rhetoric is discounted. The front cover's embedded wheel turns to reveal a series of shapes and patterns, effectively illustrating their application in a variety of corporate identifiers, and bringing Macnab's central tenet to life in a simple and direct way. From there she does an admirable job of explaining the historical uses and traditional meanings of basic patterns and symbols, and clearly demonstrates their continued relevance in contemporary design.

Macnab also provides detailed background information and numerous examples of pictorial-marks, letter-marks, and logotypes that employ natural patterns and structures based on the decimals one through ten, with a chapter devoted to each. Helpful comments from the designers of these examples are included, as are her insightful "deconstructions" of other well-known identifiers.

Above: Two-page spread from Chapter 6: Design Principles of Six

Of special note is her analysis of US pharmacy chain Walgreen's mark, which uses a "magical" mortar and pestle to suggest better living through its products. Issues concerning audience manipulation and the creation of "false need for the sake of profit" are raised, challenging us to think carefully about the roles we designers play in our consumer society.

It's to Macnab's credit that she attempts to build an ethical foundation for the approach advocated within. She urges us to "create conscious and lucid communications," and states that "we can't afford to contribute to information junk." One assumes that such ends are achieved by connecting back to "the language of nature" explained so well throughout.

While it's clear that the profession must indeed move in a more socially-
responsible direction, it's not so obvious that Macnab's proposals will actually achieve that end. Still, it's important that we try, and there is much to recommend to those willing to access the fascinating and useful content found in Decoding Design.

Decoding Design:
Understanding and Using Symbols in Visual Communication

Author: Maggie Macnab
Publisher: HOW Books, 2008