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Book Review: Design by Nature

“In emptiness, forms are born. When one becomes empty of the assumptions, inferences, and judgments he has acquired over the years, he comes close to his original nature and is capable of conceiving original ideas and reacting freshly.”—Stewart W Holmes and Chomyo Horioka, Fifteen Zen Tenets

Title: Design by Nature, Using Universal Forms and Principles in Design
Publisher: Pearson Education. Inc. and New Riders
Author: Maggie Macnab

Maggie Macnab has been creating iconic logos and graphic design since the early 1980s, fueled by her passion for nature and her love of design and the creative problem-solving process. Macnab’s work has been recognized both by numerous renowned design-related publications as well as educational institutions, thereby giving her the chance to share her knowledge at various conferences and schools in the United States and beyond. She owns Macnab Design (since 1981) and teaches design theory at the University of New Mexico and Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

In the minds of designers and those who have a soft spot for design, Maggie Macnab is perhaps, a household name, especially when it comes to concepts and ideas behind meaningful visual messaging. If you think you learned a lot from reading her other comprehensive volume, ‘Decoding Design: Understanding and Using Symbols in a Visual Communication’, then be prepared to make room for what you will gleam from ‘Design by Nature’ when you give it the chance it deserves.

Macnab starts by sparing no effort in introducing us to the book’s fundamental ideas in a way that is simple to understand. In the network of intricate relationships between nature, art, design, science and technology, her ability to do this definitely earns her book (organic) brownie points. I felt that she was able to ease the average-Jane reader such as myself, comfortably into intellectual content that ultimately evolves into a reading experience that is almost philosophical in nature. Unlike other titles that like to reiterate what the book is gunning for, this title subtly incorporates this into the volume using varied pictures and researched information, all the more sustaining my interest in the book.

Divided into three main sections, the book’s first chapter ‘Memory: Remembering what we know’, comes across as a rather intriguing section title in a book on design, vaguely suggesting that you might have opened a book on the history of design instead. Nevertheless, the opening chapter ‘Aesthetics’ rides well on the common historicity of mankind wherein Macnab brings in the idea that all human beings are born with the “wisdom of nature”. This wisdom essentially furnishes us with “natural abilities” that allow us to “observe and… absorb all that we interact with”. Innate understanding is crucial in aesthetics (or the appreciation of beauty), because it helps us to cultivate an individual perspective of beauty, eventually.

With a sound foundation, we are then allowed to move on to the idea of beauty being “integrated into effective design”. This is realized by the way beauty is to be seen as something that is generated from within and not just by way of superficial addition—pretty much what is expected from effective design. I believe Macnab wants her readers to be able to tap into what they have been born with as much as possible, and to achieve more meaning during their work in design.

The structure of an onion is made up of successive layers of onion, where each progressing layer of skin is related to and contains a bit of, the one prior. As such, nothing is solitary, all parts lead to a whole. I mention the onion here as a metaphorical representation of a creation designed with nature's messages to the creator, in mind. To me, the next two sections ‘Matter: Understand and Create’, and ‘Motion: The Experience Enhanced’, inherently speak about the layers leading up to the formation of a whole onion. As such, Section Two ('Matter: Understand and Create') corresponds with the layers surrounding the core of the onion, where intangible nothingness (wisdom of nature) evolves into an appreciation of beauty. Such innate understanding begets the physical creation of meaningful design. And finally, in the last section (Motion: The Experience Enhanced), you get a sense that the onion has fulfilled its potential. The fully formed onion is now free to be kinetic and no longer just focused on realizing itself as a physical entity. The creation or design is now free to communicate, interact and hopefully affect lasting change in the lives of others in almost limitless ways.

To me, the organization of her book is most pleasing and really helps with readability. Apart from fluency, Macnab was thoughtful enough to ‘give readers a break’ from the heavy (yet delightful) ‘sonnets’ of design concepts, objectives and definitions. She included useful summaries of the ideas in the chapter, as well as ‘re-cap’ exercises to help readers consolidate what they have read. Further, the author successfully avoided monotony by incorporating between main chapters, succinct reports of intuition and creativity through the personal stories of successful designers in the ‘Guest Designer Study’ sections. Key concepts such as ‘Synchronicity’, ‘Wabi-sabi and Grunge’ and that of ‘Emptiness and Simplicity’, were weaved seamlessly between ‘Guest Designer Study’ sections. I found that she balanced the presentation of rather abstract design concepts very well with personal accounts by designers who incorporated the mentioned concepts (and the guidance of nature) in their work. This diverse collection of thoughts and experiences allows Macnab's book to double-up as a cultural window from which we can peer though and learn from designers the world over. (Joel Nakamura in the United States or Albert-Jan Pool in The Netherlands are just some of the guest designers featured in the book.)

I suppose that one of the easiest ways to understand a condition, situation or concept, is if it is in relation to oneself. Often, Macnab turns to this ever-reliable method to bring us through her pages of enlightenment. In the process of learning more about how we can learn from nature to create compelling and meaningful design communications, this book concurrently teaches us about ourselves—and to me, this is possibly the book’s greatest strength.

All in all, ‘Design by Nature’ does not start off immediately as an all out ‘page turner’; it earns my respect about halfway through the first chapter, ‘Aesthetics’. Nonetheless, if you are a big fan of discovering the genesis of thoughts and ideas, then this is most definitely a must read for you.
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