Robert L. Peters

25 June 2008

Decoding Design (book review in CA Magazine)


Decoding Design: Understanding and Using Symbols in Visual Communication

“Our culture has lost touch with the archetypal principles that underlie simple numbers and shapes,” writes author Maggie Macnab “…principles that lie deep within the unconscious and have a psychological and spiritual impact on us.” A longtime designer and teacher immersed in symbolism and visual literacy, she delivers the leitmotif with fervent zeal: “As designers, it is our responsibility to create conscious and lucid communications. We can’t afford to contribute to information junk….”

This engaging design theory book fulfills its stated purpose, to: “connect us back into the language of nature, to revive our understanding of source, and to create communications that flow unobstructed by an intelligence that has lost its way in the world.” A quote attributed to Galileo Galilei sums the author’s intentions in “demystifying and decoding” visual language—“You cannot understand the universe without learning first to understand the language in which it is written…” without which “we wander in a dark labyrinth.”

Having made the case for more cogent design at the outset, the book delves deep into symbolism, pattern awareness, and “the recursive nature of nature.” (I love that line). Ten subsequent chapters (each introduced with a compelling illustrated plate by Joel Nakamura) illuminate the subject by “bringing shape to meaning,” and vice versa by means of case studies, “deconstructions” of well-known logos, and depictions galore—all-the-while demonstrating how visual communication can “tap into the dynamic energy of the collective psyche.”

The sources Maggie cites are wide and varied (Jungian psychology, Aztec shamans, Unitarian Universalism, Sufi Enneagrams, sacred sexuality…) and visuals draw from a vast treasure house of the familiar as well as the unexpected, arcane, and esoteric (DNA helices, Buddhist mudras, Arachnid webs…). Through it all, she weaves together a persuasive narrative to support her rubric that what sets humans apart from other mammals is our ability “to understand how basic patterns connect, allowing us to alter our experience…” and thereby to symbolize.

Decoding Design will appeal to anyone interested in the “why” behind effective graphic design and communicative form-giving. Well researched, well designed, well referenced, and with hundreds of visual entry-points for the reader, it successfully achieves its claim—a must-buy for design students and visual communication practitioners—even the best-read in our field are sure to learn and benefit from it.

—Robert L. Peters, FGDC
224 pages, softcover, $35
Author: Maggie Macnab
Published by HOW Books

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The book review I wrote appears in the July 2008 ‘Illustration Annual’ issue of Communication Arts (#361). Decoding Design’s innovative cover lets you “dial in” a selection to “reveal the relationship between numbers, concepts, & symbols.” 

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