Possibly as soon as in the next few months, the large hadron collider nearing completion at CERN outside of Geneva will be smashing little tiny particles at obscene speeds into one another in the hopes of finding the elusive Higgs boson, the so-called "god particle" that may provide teleological hope to the Standard model of physics. That said, some pundits (and even a few scientists) have postulated that the tiny black holes that might be created when particles collide in this enormous underground atomic racetrack might not fade away as quickly as predicted, which may pose a very unlikely, but still paranoia inducing risk to mankind.
I bring up this hypothetical of impending doom in part because it's emblematic of pattern recognition. While we don't yet know what the physicists will find, that doesn't mean we don't have guesses (like the doom and gloom above). In fact, several theories already exist, including multidimensional vibrating strings and branes that form the constituent particles of our universe, even though we only exist in three dimensions, plus time. So while there really isn't any empirical data about multidimensional N-space and our puny brains can't even conceive it, we've got brilliant physicists postulating its existence. Even scientists see patterns everywhere. The human condition makes us see giraffes in the clouds, Jesus burnt into our toast, and buy into malarkey like astrology and numerology. I like to think of myself as scientific, but I don't really know much about physics, so I know better than to postulate about whether the large hadron collider will kill us all. I'm simply not qualified, and a large part of science is an awareness of when to suspend judgment.
Maggie Macnab's Decoding Design applies the science of mathematics to design elements of typography and graphics, so it should totally be up my alley. As an occasionally aesthetically-impaired former mathematician who happens to work in design, I love that the restrictive rules of the grid let me manufacture an appealing layout without exercising any artistic judgement. The grid, that end-all-be-all of layout, is modular arithmetic. Decoding Design addresses shape and form numerically, but it also does a lot more, and that's why, as someone who does know something about number theory (as opposed to numerology), Maggie Macnab's book is both wonderfully fascinating and endlessly frustrating.
Macnab structures the book around a numerical theme, with chapters for each natural number 0-10. She begins each with an introduction that often touches on the numerological or mystical properties that numbers have been ascribed through history, from the postulated fifth or quint-essence of matter to the seventh day of rest. The Euclidian polygon for each digit is then presented, along with an assortment of logos with thematic connections to that polygon.
Each chapter also includes a variety of sidebars, like a discussion of color theory (included for the number 3), the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio (5), and buckyballs (6). The scientific sidebars are all profoundly interesting, and the discussions of the technical theory behind them are accurate and enlightening. The golden ratio, for example, is a consequence of the Fibonacci sequence, where each number in the sequence is the sum of its two predecessors (i.e. 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc.). This appears over and over again in nature as it grows, as in the spiraling of plant leaves, where constantly irregular patterns (or irrational numbers) allow for the best passage of sunlight onto lower leaves between the patterned ones above. Macnab illustrates this phenomenon with beautiful accompanying photography of nautilus shells, seed clusters and plant cross-sections.
Alongside all this elegant science, however, is some heavy speculation. The golden ratio's applicability to man-made forms is a little hazier than its observation in nature, and may have some connection to catching glimpses of animals in clouds. Since the ratio is around 1.6, which is pretty close to 1.5 or 3:2, it's pretty easy to catch visually in forms like the Parthenon or the Mona Lisa. There's no question that using the golden ratio as a starting point does indeed produce attractive forms. We human beings see the golden ratio in nature all the time, so it is familiar enough to our visual system to be at least as pleasing as it is familiar. Any observer, however, who goes looking around in the world for the ratio of 3:2 will probably find it with near-conspiratorial frequency.
The trouble is that Macnab presents scientific theory, Euclidian geometry, numerology and mysticism as concepts of equal validity even though they don't operate on the same planes of rigor. Some sections, such as a clear and cohesive discussion of the fundamentals of color theory, fractals or the Fibonacci sequence are truly beautiful and erudite introductions to difficult concepts. References to the "mother circle" or the "virgin number" seven, however, detract from the occasional glimpses of hard science. Macnab is clearly well-read, and weaves philosophy, science, and design into an entertaining narrative. As a mathematician, however, the rapid switching between scientific rigor and casual and occasionally spurious "pattern recognition" that occurs in Decoding Design leaves me flummoxed. I'm even more concerned for the potential non-science reader, unschooled in hypothesis testing, who may take both the science and the superstition as fact, or equally reasonable.
For example, while I understand an analysis of polygons and natural numbers, I'm not quite clear on the need to discuss Jungian archetypes next to an analysis of the Mastercard logo. I would guess that the logo was inspired by set theory where the buyer and the merchant intersect in that perfect little center that happens to be Mastercard's business, but until I speak to the designer about his or her inspiration, it will remain, only a guess. Consequently, without the establishing of clear boundaries between science and pseudoscience, I felt that the Esalen-catalog tenor of the philosophical digressions detracted from the scholarly ambitions of the science contained within.
The graphic design content, however, is rather exceptional. Anyone who's perused graphic design books in libraries (or even read any of my reviews) will know that most books on design largely ignore "process." Praise should be heaped upon Maggie Macnab for avoiding this cardinal sin. Virtually every case study she shows includes hand sketches and process. The Eveready logo, in particular, shows each and every clearly defined radius and curve that formed the gracefully jumping cat; I'd honestly frame it on my wall if I could get it in high enough rez. Macnab's personal work, too, is uniformly appealing. Even if I don't entirely agree with her analytical abilities, I have to admit that the results are often quite pleasing. So while I'm certain that I could not author a work that included both The Shamans of Prehistory and Fractals: The Patterns of Chaos in its bibliography, perhaps the collision of two so very different worldviews will prove as interesting to some holistic readers as the results of CERN will to scientists like me.
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