In her new book Design by Nature, Maggie Macnab addresses the importance of metaphor in communication using the natural world as a starting point. For an abstract thought or concept, meaning can sometimes be expressed faster by pairing two superficially dissimilar ideas than by trying to explain it directly using the physical sciences. Consequently, metaphor has existed as a tool for conveying thought since human beings first began to examine the conceptual relationships that underpin our world. Clearly, a mastery of metaphor in the visual arena can go a long way towards effective visual communication.
An early design example Macnab uses is the outline of an animal paw with a Band-Aid on it. Pairing two different concepts familiar to most viewers, she's able to (quite successfully) piggyback upon all of the associations we have. After seeing the logo, hearing that it's meant to represent an animal hospital should come as no surprise.
The idea of metaphor can be traced at least partly to Aristotle's Poetics, and it's no coincidence that the first scientists were called Natural Philosophers. In trying to make sense of the world, they tried to ascribe meaning (i.e. philosophized) about the natural world. Not surprisingly, when viewed through our modern lenses, be they telescopic or microscopic, they got a lot of it wrong. In our prior review for Macnab's Decoding Design, this reviewer expressed a great deal of consternation that she often spoke of both science and pseudoscientific interpretations as equally factual. In that book, however, the focus was on interpreting those concepts (or those of nature) to the artificial forms created by others.
We're happy to report that this time around, Macnab begins with nature and builds from the ground up. While many of the concepts she discusses (e.g. the four elements plus quintessence/ether) have now passed into pseudoscience, at one point they represented significant building blocks in the way that natural philosophers attempted to comprehend the universe. Consequently, even if they don't conform precisely to current scientific understanding, they remain accessible metaphors for communication, and the graphic designer's job is to communicate with a mass audience, not PhDs.
Design by Nature covers a lot of territory, and it's admirable to attempt to rebuild the physical sciences from the ground up in under 300 pages. The book is broken into three sections, and is punctuated with very compelling case studies made in conjunction with some of the most esteemed designers and commentators working in the field today (e.g. Spiekermann, Millman, Lupton, Sagmeister). Each section is broken into thematically divided into chapters that conclude with quizzes and exercise for thought.
The first section of the book is entitled "Memory" and builds up from the natural world and its visual expression. As such, that her word choice of "memory" represents not one individual's life experiences, but instead the "collective memory" of a species. Nature has shaped not only our aesthetic choices, but also the very way that we perceive the world. So to say that nature makes inherently beautiful forms might not be precise, we can say quite comfortably that we evolved to find things that were good for us appealing on an emotional level. Macnab articulates the tools for good designers to piggyback on precisely that emotional base.
The sections build in complexity with the second section, entitled "Matter," exploring form. Her examination of color in this section highlights some of the difficulty in mixing metaphor with hard science. An early chart displays the range of hue, saturation and value in a color spiral, and includes the caption, "a range of colors visible within the human color spectrum and some of their more universal human associations." Then, off to the right, it includes descriptions of (for example), Turquoise as "Peace, Clarity." Only nine pages later, however, she includes a diagram of "Colors and Culture," where for white, blue, silver and gold are all used to represent peace, but by different cultures. Such conflicts underscore the importance of cultural awareness as an overlay to biological absolutism.
The third section, "Motion," delves heavily into pattern and form, and that's where things get interesting. Because traditional logo design is static, Macnab uses concepts like the figure/ground relationship and repetition to give the illusion of motion or dynamism. Later, she discusses symmetry and natural balance for more static or harmonious graphics, and gets deeper into the mathematics of balance via the golden ratio. Along the way, she provides Illustrator tutorials and striking visual case studies like Liz Collini's hand-drawn deconstructions of text written in Times New Roman.
In her last book, we were most impressed with a deconstruction of the Eveready cat logo into its requisite curves and arcs. Here at Core77, we often complain that books are short on "work-in-progress" sketches and photos that designers might have used to reach their end product. Often, when work is presented in a finished form, viewers have no way of knowing what means designers used to get there. This time around, not only does Macnab provide case-studies with robust process sketches, but she also offers viewers a large toolbox (ratio, pattern, symmetry, color) with which to inquire, analyze or speculate about the process used to get to a finished result, even if actual step-by-step analysis was not available. While none of these tools will provide a foolproof means of deducing design intent, most viewers remain unaware of design intent anyway. Consequently, graphic design and product design remain open to interpretation because they are interactive arts.
Hearing that BMW designer Chris Bangle used flame as a metaphor for his car design didn't make people enjoy it any more. Bangle's problem was that his metaphors were too ambiguous. Reading books like Macnab's shows that there are a myriad of different ways to analyze visual cues. For our readers, the most significant takeaway is that while you, as a designer, are entitled to use any visual metaphor you desire to craft a design, potential viewers are equally able to take any (different) schema to attempt to understand your creation. Consequently, if you want people to be moved by precisely the metaphor of your desire, you must scour your design with the whole toolbox to ensure that there's no ambiguity in your design intent.
Additional author information, screenshots and video are available at the book's website.