Review—About Design: Insights and Provocations for Graphic Design Enthusiasts

I often talk about the importance of context and how it helps set the tone for everything that follows. It also helps you integrate new understanding of specific details into a greater whole. When I approach a new subject, I like to start with a general overview in order to provide context for the rest of my learning. This method of study helps me see new material through an established perspective and it helps me form a point of view about the subject.

A potential downside of setting a context so early is that you may not have enough information to form a good one and the longer you hold onto any given context without questioning it, the more deeply ingrained your opinions become and the more difficult it can be to change your perspective.

The book About Design: Insights and Provocations for Graphic Design Enthusiasts by Gordon Salchow can help with both. It will help you form an opinion about design and establish a context in which to see the details and if you already hold a strong point of view, it will challenge it.

A few months ago I was given an advanced reader copy of the book and I finally found time to read it. I enjoyed it from cover to cover and wanted to share a few thoughts with you.

First, since like me, you may not know who Gordon Salchow is, he was Professor Emeritus at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning until 2010, a program he helped found fifty years ago.

If you’ve spent any time in a graphic design program in the United States over the last few decades, there’s a good chance his ideas about teaching design influenced the way you were taught.

In other words the book was written by someone who knows design and design education very well.

What’s Inside the Book

Like I said, I thoroughly enjoyed reading About Designfrom cover to cover. Despite being packed with information, it’s a relatively quick read, the kind of book you can get through in an afternoon.

The book is organized into five chapters, each with a few subsections. Here’s the table of contents (subsections in parenthesis) along with a quick thought or two from me about each chapter.

  1. Prelude (Forward by Michael Beirut, Acknowledgements, Preface)—You might be tempted to skip this chapter, but don’t. Even the acknowledgements were a pleasure to read and filled with information.
  2. Form (Point, Line, Shape, Space, Color)—I’d like to think I know a little something about these topics having written a book about them myself, but this chapter has me rethinking the form and function of all these graphic design elements. Salchow talks about them in a different way than they’re usually discussed.
  3. Aesthetics (Preamble, Harmony, Creativity, Methodology, Composition)—This chapter somehow boils down all the guidelines for good design into about 50 pages. It’s strange in that I can’t say if you read this chapter (along with the previous one), you’ll come away with all the tools you need to be a graphic designer and yet it’s all in there.
  4. Education (Overview, Suggestions)—The majority of this chapter is the first section, which presents Salchow’s keynote address given for a symposium at the University of the Arts (formerly the Philadelphia College of Art). The keynote is presented word for word and is filled with insights about graphic design and graphic design education along with the usual humorous stories keynotes like these tend to offer.
  5. Miscellany (Function, Afterword by Katherine McCoy, Author, Index)—Another chapter you might be tempted to skip, but, once agin, don’t. The first section contains closing thoughts by the author and the afterword is as worthy of reading as the forward. Ok, I admit I didn’t read the index, though it is something useful that I don’t always find in design books.

Here are a few thoughts from the publisher’s site and I’ll offer my take after.

The book is a treatise on the development and practice of the graphic design discipline. About Design offers an enlightening and opinionated, albeit concise, excursion concerning many facets of the field of design.

Some of the particular chapter topics deal with:

  • Defining the elements of visual form
  • An analysis of the concepts of aesthetics and creativity
  • Establishing some usable guidelines for effective designing
  • Outlining many factors that are involved with design education, including a sketch of its history
  • Miscellaneous related subjects, such as considerations of what makes something exceptional

My Take

First, I think About Design: Insights and Provocations for Graphic Design Enthusiasts is a good title for the book. It’s an accurate a description of what’s inside and once again I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, from Michael Beirut’s forward to Katherine McCoy’s afterward, and all parts between.

I was conscious that I would write this review as I was reading and one of the questions I kept asking myself was who is this book for? Is it for someone wanting to learn design? Is it for someone who already has considerable understanding of the basics and wants more? Is it for someone else, a design educator, perhaps?

This isn’t a book you’ll read and walk away with specific tools to help you design better. It’s not going to teach you how to create a grid or show you how to figure out which typefaces are best to use for a given concept.

In the chapter about form, you wouldn’t necessarily walk away from the section about space with specific knowledge to help you work with space in your next design and yet most everything you need to work with space in any design is right there in the seven pages devoted to the topic.

The book often reads like a stream of observations about a variety of design topics from working with forms and space to getting the most from design education.

I think About Design is a book for anyone interested in design, whether as a passing hobby or through the eyes of a 20+ year professional.

If you’re first beginning your design education, the book will help set a proper context for specific study later. You probably won’t come away knowing how to work with color or how to ensure harmony in your composition, but you’ll be set on the right path for using knowledge about both as you acquire it.

If you’re a seasoned pro, you might reset your own context for how you approach design. You’ll definitely have thoughts for how to approach it differently. The book has given me quite a few things to think about. It will challenge some of the way you currently look at design.

If you’re an interested hobbyist, the book will also help you build a context and it will give you plenty of ideas to consider. There’s a lot in the book to think about in terms what is design and what it means to design.

Oddly enough, for a book about graphic design it features only a handful of graphic images, though those present are well done and the pages of the book itself are occasionally designed to help illustrate a point. There’s much inside what appears to be a small book.

Ultimately About Design: Insights and Provocations for Graphic Design Enthusiasts offers an opinion, a philosophy, and a point of view about graphic design from someone who taught design for 55 years and who helped establish one of the better graphic design programs in the country and helped influence many others.

Depending on your existing knowledge about graphic design the book will help you begin to form your own point of view about design or it will get you to challenge the one you currently hold by showing you design in a different way.

About Design: Insights and Provocations for Graphic Design Enthusiasts costs $19.99 and you can buy it directly from the publisher or from from Amazon.

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Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

2 comments

  1. thanks, Steven… for your very thorough and insightful review of my recent book (About Design). It was a very nice surprise to come across such a positive and comprehensive assessment by an accomplished peer.

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