Author Maggie Macnab Discusses Using Symbols in Design

Q. What did you most want to accomplish by writing Decoding Design?
I’ve been teaching design theory for over 10 years at the university level and it has become increasingly apparent that tools and technology are emphasized over critical thinking in education. Tools are extremely important to us, but we make them; they don’t make us. Our inventiveness–our ability to think, understand and create–propels our species forward. It’s the only edge we’ve got. I’ve been using a method for over 25 years that is very effective in conveying information quickly but deeply, particularly with identity design. When I began to teach, I had to break down my process to understand what it was that made many identities I’d developed for small clients receive recognition on a wide scale. Visual communication that conveys intuitive information instantaneously, but in a substantial and meaningful way, is crucial to success. When we tap into what human beings have evolved knowing for millennia, we connect into collective symbolic sensing, common to all of us regardless of culture or era. This is the most powerful way to communicate because it has already been time tested by nature–and we know it literally by design: All the way down to the twisted helix at the core of our DNA.

What I’ve learned in exploring how I do what I do is that every shape has an associated property that addresses how energy performs work in the world. When this information is appropriately matched to client and integrated with information specific to them, you have a powerful and immediate piece of visual communication. A good example of this is the branching pattern that moves energy from one place to another. This is a pattern seen typically in trees–their roots, branches and leaves, in water tributaries, and in our own circulatory and nervous systems. I used this shape as the underlying pattern for an identity I created for ISTEC (Ibero-American Science and Educational Technology Consortium). ISTEC is a university based non-profit that provides tech transfer from cutting edge developers in the US to universities in Central and South America. The tech companies exchange their tools, software and equipment for access to the best students in the programs benefiting from their contribution. These students are in turn integrated into the tech companies as employees to create better technology. The branching principle of energy exchange became this design’s template and integrates a cultural reference to the client, making it a unique synthesis of who they are and what they do.

More effective and aesthetic visual communication is the initial and primary intent of this work, but the underlying message is that we must pay more attention to natural process to be able to fit within its scheme. This is fundamental to human existence. We live in a culture that has become over processed and overwhelmed. We need more information that contains usable information–information with value–rather than the distraction of “junk” information, which clutters every form of communication media. This work is about refining information from nature, appreciating its subtlety, and bringing the intuitive into consciousness. It’s about using our own minds and souls to connect with our experience of living: to create better design and in that process become better human beings.

Q. What first got you interested in symbology?
I can’t pinpoint my first interest in symbols. My dad read science fiction to me at bedtime when I was child, my mother introduced me to Freud and Jung, and I was a big fan of Greek mythology, as well as drawing and painting. The form energy takes expresses its function–features give elemental clues to essence. The whole universe is a metaphor, and it was just natural for my personality to be interested in what these sorts of clues lead to. In my heart, I’m a detective first.

Q. How will Decoding Design help designers in their everyday work?
Decoding Design looks at the essential processes underlying shapes and patterns, and how integrating this information in a relevant way creates usable visual communication. It provides a reliable structure from which to begin the creative process. Logo design is particularly difficult because you are tasked with refining sometimes very complex information to its most essential bits. How do you know what that is? As we are part of the universe we follow the same laws of nature–and we are good at intuiting them to survive. Being able to connect the dots is important to the discovery process. When you understand how shape and pattern work, you can integrate relative visual content specific to your client for communication that is universal and unique at the same time. This is a great combination for effective, aesthetic design; it is high-functioning form, the basis of elegance.

The book also shows examples of how the process works from start to finish, and deconstructs some well-known brands that sometimes contain subliminal information. Understanding this gives any viewer–consumer or designer–more power to respond rather than to just react. It creates better design and more responsible choices, and I believe as designers we must consider both.
Finally, when you can articulate why you are integrating the visual information you have chosen (instead of it just “feeling” right), you have a powerful presentation. So it’s also a sales tool with a straight-up ethical aspect. Explaining why specific visual aspects were integrated shows a fundamental understanding of who and what the client is and that you know how to convey it to the world. It helps close the deal by providing a coherent service.

Q. What is your favorite aspect of the book?
It has to be the eclectic nature of it. I would like to have many professions, but only have the time and energy to be a designer, so I loved being able to explore other disciplines and demonstrate how we work from the same starting points–it always comes down to understanding the nature of things. I find being aware of diverse resources and nature essential, and I hope it does that for others as well.

Q. How do you typically approach your own design projects?
I always interview the client to get their perspective on their business and for a broad grasp of their personality. I do a lot of research on my own. I sometimes start with a list of words to organize specifics about the client, and then begin thinking about what visual opportunities there might be to combine them with an appropriate pattern or symbol. Lots of doddling usually, with a satisfying final result more times than not.

Q. Do you have any advice for designers?
Don’t quit just because you’re frustrated (and you undoubtedly will be). Just put it down and tackle it again after a breather. Like all epiphanies it takes serious concentration and then a complete letting go of any expectation. Fill yourself up with information and let your unconscious shake it down to the relevant stuff. It takes work and stick-to-it-ness, but that’s true of anything worth doing.

Circulatory System © Visual Language
Mississippi River Delta courtesy NASA
ISTEC ©2000 Maggie Macnab




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