An Opinionated Guide to Graphic Design

Posted Tuesday, November 29, 2022 by Sri. Tagged CONCEPT
EDITING PHASE:first draft

This is based on my Graphic Design Book List which I last updated in 2012. This version has been tweaked to focus more on the conceptual aspects of graphic design as I see them.

Sri's Version of Graphic Design

Graphic Design is much like writing an essay without the benefit of linearity of sentences to sequence how a train of thoughts is injected into the brain of the viewer. Instead, graphic designers rely on how the human eye prioritizes and interprets a visual based on primitive reactions for sequencing of the elements we've chosen to deliver information as well as memories and emotions. This is the essence of all media.

There are two ways I think about this: as information hierarchy and applied visual semioticsOf course, any communications-oriented graphic designer uses both hierarchy and semiotics principles as part of their toolkit.:

Approach 1. Information Hierarchy

This is the arranging/styling of visual elements in a way that reflects their importance or relationship. The key idea isn't the visuals though: it's having a clear model of what you are conveying so you can choose the appropriate trope from visual gestalt principles to viscerally reinforce the key relationships between elements.For example, an org chart will typically show the boss at the very top, with less senior people listed below. Another example is the use of bold headlines in a newspaper article, with the headline large and obvious at the very top of the article, with smaller elements designating sub headers and paragraphs. I think of this as a 'reason-first' approach to graphic design, where the thinking precedes the creation of the visual.

Approach 2. Applied Visual Semiotics

This is the choice of visual elements that evoke a memory or emotion, which is an expedient way to communicate a lot of information very quickly. Visual semiotics is the study of the how meaning is communicated through graphic symbols, but as a visual designer what you care about are the symbols that help you tell the story or communicate the idea in a memorable way.For example, using a big picture of a cute kitten automatically invokes a warm feeling in cat lovers, priming them for what you have to say. Or using an image of a skull commonly denotes death. I think of this as the 'emotion-first' approach to graphic design.

Using Information and Semiotics

So how do we apply these in practice? The mechanics of emotional response (psychology: fear, love, joy, etc) and visual aesthetics (principles of composition and design like shape, color, position) can be used to evoke understanding through Information HierarchyFor example, a large block looming over a smaller block beneath it suggests a power relationship and emotion through Applied Visual Semotics.For example, a sharp red triangle looks pointy and implies danger, especially when it's pointing at something else. Information Hierarchy is like the structure and form of your writing, and Visual Semiotics is the feelings that are evoked through choice of word and phrase.Of course, you can also do graphic design without paying attention to any of this. This is what I think of as decorative or ornamental graphic design: style without a particular intent or message behind it other than to look pleasant in the context it will be presented. There is nothing wrong with this, and the practice of this style of graphic design also draws on visual semiotics and aesthetics. It just is not deliberately intentful in the conceptual modeling or information sense. It is more the byproduct of a designer's experiences and aesthetic sensibilities.

References: Composition

Reference: Communicating Meaning and Emotion

There are not many booksthat are thought-provoking and pleasingly designed. I know of these:

Reference: Thoughtful Designers

  • Milton Glaser, though his work may seem kind of subdued by today's standards, goes quite deeply into his work. Adobe has an interesting video on his studio and process.
  • Craig Frazier, whose process is fascinating. His work is deceptively simple in appearance. I saw him speak once at a Boston AIGA meeting and I was really impressed.
  • Aaron Draplin is an American graphic designer who I've been watching because he has a love for American industrial graphics, more blue collar in his sensibilities than foofy. I think that's cool.

Reference: Cross-disciplanary Sources

Understanding other forms and how they are used can help you find new ways of expressing an idea visually. These are listed in no particular order.

  • The Role of Story in Design - John McWade wrote this succinct description on the role of story in Design. He makes the distinction between style and meaning very clearly. Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting is a detailed breakdown of the elements of storytelling; by understanding these beats, you may be inspired to create the visual equivalents in your design work. Different medium, same goal of communicating idea and emotion.

  • Comics/Sequential Art - Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics is a powerful and literate thesis on the topic of "sequential art" aka comics. It presents the fundamentals of composition and visual storytelling through the very medium it's describing. Wonderfully insightful, it's a fun introduction to visual semiotics in a way that won't bore you to dealth. The third book in the Understanding Comics series Making Comics is more of a practical "how to" apply the concepts, which is of interest to graphic designers.

  • Note Taking and Visual Synthesis - Mike Rohde is known for his sketchnotes approach to capturing information live. It's a form of active listening, channeled into the visual form. Studying how to capture a concept as it is communicated to you broadly informs you how thoughts, words, and visual combine to relay meaning.

  • Advertising - The Art of Advertising Writing is a collection of interviews with many giants of the brash advertising industry back in the 50s and 60s. These folks knew the value of exploiting emotions, symbols, and semiotics back when it was a fairly new idea in our culture.

  • Fashion Design / Branding - Paul Smith's You Can Find Inspiration in Everything*: (*and if you can't, look again) is a wonderful combination of biography and personality expressed through style. I think of it as an example of how visual semiotics can be applied to amplify one's own values in a compelling way.

  • Magic and Illusion - Henning Nelm's Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers describes the art of performance. As a designer, you are also a performer through your design, and understanding how to direct attention by exploiting the expectations of people is a handy tool when designing for communication.

  • Fortune Telling - Whether you believe in them or not, systems like Tarot Card Reading and Astrology represent hundreds of years of thinking about key human desires, fears, and aspirations. I have a promising book on order that I'll post here when I have a chance to review it.

  • Personality Typing - The Myers Brigg Type Indicator (designed originally as a way of creating characters for novel writing) provides interesting maps of human personalities split across 4 axes resulting in 16 types (I'm an INTJ/INFP hybrid, if you are interested). This is not a scientific treatement of personality mind you. It is, however, useful as thought prompt when selecting symbols for the purposes of graphic design.

  • Cognitive Science - This is a multi-disciplinary field centered around the study of perception, the mind, and behavior. If you are interested in the biomechanics of visual semiotics and gestalt, this field can provide some interesting concepts to explore.

  • Music Composition - Music composition and arrangement share a lot of the same challenges of graphic design and writing that's applied through sound. While the medium is quite different, the motivation to express an idea or emotion over time is similar to what we try to do with word and image.

  • Animation - Principles of animation established by the Nine Old Men is an excellent starting point to understand how to sell motion and emotion. Even if you are not working with moving images, you can find ways that this can inform your design work.

  • Film - Herbert Zettl's textbook Sight, Sound, Motion: Applied Media Aesthetics describes how film is an extension of graphic design and composition, extended by sound and motion. This textbook (several editions) builds from the very fundamentals of our senses and the emotional impact they have. This book taught me about the cognitive aspects of composition with regards to storytelling (and was the first book I seriously thought of stealing from the WPI library, since it was out of print. It's back in print now, so buy it!)

  • User Experience - Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think will give you real-life examples of how people scan pages and process information to make decisions. It's a book on web usability (and in 2022 a bit dated though there are several editions), but I find the concepts and explanations much more accessible than the average UX text.

  • Video Game Development - Video games add user interaction to the experience of consuming media, which predates formal UX by decades. As video games live or die based on generating an experience on-the-fly for players, the insights provided by game designers on what makes a game "work" can prompt interesting experiments even in 2D graphic design. The Game Developers Conference website is a good place to look for post mortems and videos that talk about how an interactive designer manipulates the expectations of players in a way that is compelling. Video games, like graphic design, work in the mind.