Frank Chimero has a way with words.
As I cracked open The Shape of Design, his Kickstarter-funded, self-published treatise on the fundamentals of design, I realized that he was the design professor I always wished I'd had. Diving into his prose felt like sitting in my favorite class and eagerly wrapping myself up in the idyllic, poetic, passionate words of a wise, insightful man. I might go so far as to admit that I have a design-y crush on the guy.
The creative process could be said to resemble a ladder, where the bottom rung is the blank page and the top rung the final piece. In between, the artist climbs the ladder by making a series of choices and executing them. Many of our conversations about creative work are made lame because they concern only the top rung of the ladder—the finished piece. We must talk about those middle rungs, understanding that each step up the ladder is equal parts Why and How. To only entertain one is to attempt to climb a ladder with one foot: it may be possible, but it is a precarious task.
A designer once said to me, "Designers don't read. They're too caught up in visual inspiration and stimulation. They don't read the copy they're typesetting into a document, and they have too much ADD to sit down and focus on books or essays about their trade." I think that's probably what frustrated me the most about my time studying design—those around me weren't interested in reading, researching, or learning about the fundamentals. Call me a traditionalist, but we cannot get too caught up in what's hot, what the season's colors are, and which fonts are blazing a trail to success. We must saddle ourselves in knowledge of history, concept, and philosophy. We must fully understand the rules if we are to break them.
The salesman doesn't tell an untruth in order to get us to work towards it. Instead, he misrepresents what is in front of us so that we buy into a mirage. It's a messy distinction, and it's why design, rhetoric, and politics are so sticky and often mistrusted: the language we use to build the world is so close to what can be used to undermine it. Design and persuasion are manipulative, and if we have the skills to seduce others toward green pastures, we can also lead them off a cliff.
Frank Chimero is a storyteller. With anecdote, citation, and illustration he relates his points to the reader in a fluid dance of fact, fiction, and hypothesis. Each chapter represents a couplet in Chimero's song—he calls with one and responds with the other, setting order to chaos and exposing the beauty within a ruggedly commercialized industry.
Design doesn't need to be delightful for it to work, but that's like saying food doesn't need to be tasty to keep us alive. The pedigree of great design isn't solely based on aesthetics or utility, but also the sensation it creates when it is seen or used. It's a bit like food: plating a dish adds beauty to the experience, but the testament to the quality of the cooking is in its taste. It's the same for design, in that the source of a delightful experience comes from the design's use.
At once philosophy, manifesto, and personal exploration, The Shape of Design invites us along for a journey of discovery and education. The author may be addressing the specifics of graphic design, but the tenets contained within apply to our greater artistic senses. The world is designed, and design is for the world. Therefore, the world needs to understand design.
The Shape of Design is a book I will read again, and I know I will learn something new. And then I'll read it again when I'm ready to learn something more.
Order The Shape of Design directly from Frank Chimero at shapeofdesignbook.com. The hardcover, cloth-wrapped book is $29.99 unfortunately sold out and the ebook only $9.99. And interestingly enough, Chimero published the work with a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 3.0 license.
Next up on my shelf:
Free Agent Nation by Daniel Pink. This book was published in 2002, but I'm anxious to see how relevant it still is a decade later, especially in the wake of economic and fiscal collapse.
Bookshelf is a series of book reviews and thoughts about what I've read. Some are left-brained books, some are right-brained books, but the best books are the ambidextrous-brained books. Disclosure: most purchase links are created through affiliate programs. If you like what you see here, consider supporting The Ambidextrous Brain by using the links to purchase a book.