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Book Review: Decoding Design by Maggie Macnab

Mathematics, physics, philosophy and psychology. Ah yes, the tools of the visual communication designer. No, you say? Perhaps you thought the tools are Photoshop, Illustrator and the likes. Think again. Sure, software has been a huge help. But, it’s a help in expressing our ideas, not generating them. At least it should be.

In her new book, Decoding Design: Understanding and using symbols in visual communication, author and designer, Maggie Macnab takes you on a journey of symbolism. She pulls back the veil over several logos and other designs to reveal the hidden meaning just below the surface. Meaning that may not be obvious at first, yet is often archetypical and resonates deep within our being.

When I first heard of the book, I figured it would be yet another, “Parade of logos,” promoting their superstar designers. On the up side, great for inspiration. On the downside, vehicles for yet more copycat designs. Not so. This is the stuff that should be the cornerstone for every design curriculum. For veterans, it reminds of why we may have chosen communication design as a profession and the power to have to influence our audiences on behalf of our clients.

Decoding Design isn’t just a lot of heady theory. There’s a lot of meat, but it’s not dried out. The chapters progress, one through ten, where Maggie explains the meaning and symbolism behind each number. She goes on to describe the forms and shapes the reflect its meaning and how it has been incorporated into various designs. I particularly enjoyed how she deconstructed several marks and pointed out how the underlying symbols are used. Macnab also shares her own and other designers thoughts and process about the logos and other designs within the pages.

Back in the day, designers enjoyed a seat in the Board Room. But, over the years, our profession’s standing has eroded. We often find ourselves competing with a client’s neighbor’s cousin’s kid with a copy of Creative Suite. Or it might be the Administrative Assistant with Microsoft Publisher. We’ve all been there. Decoding Design, and the concepts Maggie teaches, will greatly help you to explain and, when needed, defend your work. Plus, it will provide a roadmap for creating better design that is more than simple decoration. It’s ammunition for the thinking designer.

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