Browsing articles in "Blogs + Criticism + Publications"
Aug 24, 2008

Decoding Design

Early on in my design education, I was taken with the work of Herb Lubalin. To this day, the design he proposed for a masthead for the publication, Mother & Child, still resonates. It’s clever, simple and elegant.*

After reading Maggie Macnab’s book, Decoding Design: Understanding and Using Symbols in Visual Communication, I have a more profound understanding of why this design works so well. Besides the universality of it (who doesn’t see the baby within a mother’s womb), it is the concept of wholeness, represented by the circle that makes it appealing. Wholeness is both everything and nothing; right and wrong; light and dark – it is life; so it is with mother and child.

With the advent of technology, we communicators live in a competitive arena, we struggle for our messages to be heard above the din of the marketplace. It is our role as designers to fight the instinct to follow the crowd and instead, create unique, meaningful work that communicates effectively and, in more and more cases, cross-culturally. As Ms. Macnab states in her introduction “it is crucial to be aware of the quality to quantity ratio…there are far more compelling ways to create a message besides saturation”.

Her answer to our complex and challenging world is to step back and recognize the simple patterns that have been part of humankind since the beginning of time. She delves into anthropology, mathematics, physics and spirituality to weave together a very informative and engaging thesis on the importance of symbolism in creating impactful design.

She has organized this intricate material into 11 easy-to-read chapters, the first one examines our relationship to patterns in nature and architecture; each subsequent chapter looks at a number, from one to ten, and interprets that number’s symbolic meaning. In addition, she provides a wealth of examples and case studies to support her theories, some more obvious than others.

Although as designers we generally work on instinct and intuition, this book would be worthy of a place on your bookshelf. You may not use it as a starting point when tackling a new design project, however, the wealth of information contained in its pages may just provide you with the language and validation you need to communicate and support your ideas.

About the book’s author Maggie Macnab is a designer, writer and educator. Her design work has been recognized in Communication Arts, Step by Step, Print and Graphis and her articles have been published by Communication Arts and the AIGA. She is past president of the Communication Artists of New Mexico, teaches at the University of New Mexico and speaks at national conferences, universities and school.

For more information on Maggie Macnab and her book, please visit

*Herb Lubalin's proposed design

*Herb Lubalin's proposed design

Review by Deborah Plunkett

Aug 19, 2008

Finding Your Rwanda

Designing and debating our role in social responsibility.

I accepted AIGA XCD’s offer to open a blog on social engagement with the idea of provoking discussion on how we Designers can reach into into our “Tool Box” and make a difference in our world today. Many designers–Shiego Fukuda, Grapus, Herb Lubalin and Tibor Kalman, to name but a few–have committed their talent to sensitizing their audience to the problems that plague humanity, provoking thought and inspiring action.

My path has been somewhat different, perhaps a reflection of the evolution of social activism as we’ve come to know it and what I believe is an example of our increasing ability to design our own roles in social engagement.

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Aug 19, 2008

Does Art Transcend Cultural Boundaries?

A True World Language

When Europeans initiated their first fully-documented oceanic voyages, they unleashed centuries of cruelty, suffering, destruction as well as wealth, opportunity and unprecedented cultural cross-fertilization. The first Portuguese, Spanish, English and Dutch explorers unwittingly transformed European culture by importing textiles, porcelains, sculptures, prints, painting and manuscripts that at first befuddled and ultimately conquered their owners. The adventures of 1492 and 1498 began as predatory raids and ended with the transformation of the raiders’ descendants and the beginnings of an arguably global, multicultural civilization.

Countless books have been written about the economic, political and social consequences of the Age of Exploration. The subjugation and at times destruction of First Nations peoples is a growing field of scholarship with increasingly sophisticated documentation. Unfortunately, the study of cross-cultural communications has yet to go beyond art history, musicology and literary studies. To be sure, those are important fields, but they do not always address the deeper human aspects.

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Aug 18, 2008


Lend a Hand, See the World

At the tail end of last year, Firebelly Design closed its office for 2-weeks and took a volunteer vacation in Thailand to work with Buddhist monks, serve the Thai people and bond as a studio.

The trip was facilitated by GlobeAware, a nonprofit organization offering short-term “adventures in service” in several countries including Cambodia, Romania, Ghana and Peru. With a focus on cultural-awareness and sustainability they could best be compared to mini peace corps.

We arrived in Bangkok and met our home stay host: Duangjai Thitayarak aka Mammee. Mammee is a 60-something firecracker with a big friendly smile and a twinkle in her eye like she already knows all your secrets. We traveled by van about an hour north to Ayutthaya (eye-you-TEE-ah) province and settled into our home for the next 8 days: simple wooden houses on stilts, open to the outdoors, no running water, no electricity–and it was perfect.

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