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Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Book About Design: Complicated Doesn't Make it Good.
by Mark Gonyea

Dedicated to Gonyea's favorite color "blue." The author's biography on the back flap of the dust cover describes a childhood spent consuming popular culture. This childhood was early training for a career in design and cartooning.

My students who weren't art majors were often skeptical of the elements of design and the assessment of "good" design. For good reason! I was asking them to use a language (of design) that was as foreign as asking them to speak using the clicks and whistles by the Bush people of South Africa.

Gonyea quickly makes the point that design is about the relationships of shape, color and size. Chapter one addresses dominant relationships. Chapter three, the ratio of 1:3:9 and chapter four letters and the negative space around them. Other chapters: Contrast (Can you See Me Now,) Color (Schmolor,) Balance (Do I Look Fat on this Side) and others. The last chapters which review the application of the elements of design.

The novice will find the first chapters illuminating. They clearly show how changing one aspect:color, size or shape transforms one design into something completely different.

The latter chapters however, repeat advice which has become apocryphal, such as cool colors retreat and warm colors appear to come forward. The advice on line is similarly embedded in the culture of two dimensional design which we have inherited from the Bauhaus.* Horizontal and Vertical lines can indicate "strength and structure," diagonal lines can indicate "speed and movement."

Experts will catch the weaselly language, which allows exceptions to this rule, but students will think instructors are touched in the head. Lines can't be strong or speedy. Those statements are metaphors.

Gonyea also cheats in his example of complications to simple design. By using high contrast between yellow, a very light color, and a medium value red/orange he breaks up the shapes on the page in the same manner that camouflage obscures the shape of the wearer. If the yellow and orange were close to the same middle value, the sun could still read as a single image or shape.

The understanding, use, and mastery of vocabulary is necessary in any content area. Without the vocabulary of line, shape, texture, etc.; we are reduced to pointing and grunting. Yet my goal in these general classes on art and design is for students to experiment with "different" designs; to be willing to edit or change their work.

A Book About Design is a useful classroom resource because it does compare alternative design and suggest a few simple rules. Teachers should be aware however, that these rules are part of the culture of design and foreign to our students.

Recommended use: Reading Circles

*See James Elkins, Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A HANDBOOK FOR ART STUDENTS, 2001. Elkins draws heavily on Pevsner's book on the history of art academies and describes the influence of the Bauhaus and Romanticism on the art curriculum in higher education.


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* B. Architecture, University of Cincinnati * Teaching Certificate, Art, Portland State University * Education Leadership Coursework, Eastern Washington University * MAT, Art Education, University of Idaho * Ph.D. Indiana University