As promised, this is my review of Ellen Lupton and Jennifer Cole Phillips’ Graphic Design: The New Basics, published by Princeton Architectural Press.
Ellen Lupton and Jennifer Cole Phillips have set out to create a definitive book on the subject of contemporary graphic design theory and practice for students and new designers. In Lupton’s introductory essay, “Back to the Bauhaus,” she explains that the philosophical foundation for the book is squarely in line with the Bauhaus movement of the 1920s, which emphasized form as the primary means by which graphic design should be understood and practiced.
With this in mind, each chapter of the book presents a formal concept along with several examples, mostly student work from the Maryland Institute College of Art, where Lupton and Cole Phillips both teach. The concepts range from old standards like “Scale” and “Color” to the slightly sexier “Time and Motion” and “Rules and Randomness.”
Although the book is aimed mostly at graphic designers, its truisms ring true for anyone involved in design. The chapter on Time and Motion, for example, might just contain the best synopsis of the challenges facing motion graphics designers that I’ve ever read:
Film is a visual art. Designers of motion graphics must think both like painters and typographers and like animators and filmmakers. A motion sequence is developed through a series of storyboards, which convey the main phases and movements of an animation. A style frame serves to establish the visual elements of a project, such as its colors, typefaces, illustrative components, and more.
Such frames must be designed with the same attentiveness to composition, scale, color, and other principles as any work of design. In addition, the motion designer thinks about how all these components will change and interact with each other over time.
The introductory text for the book and for each chapter is concise, lucid and unpretentious. Lupton and Cole Phillips never lose sight of their audience and are careful to speak in well-planned, brief prose. This simplicity doesn’t compromise the depth of their discourse, though. They are aware of the ways in which concepts overlap, and while they present each as a discrete idea, they are keen to point out that interplay and tension between concepts is often what makes a particular design successful.
GDTNB is chock full of relevant, well-crafted examples. Many are real-world projects from former students, and several special sections throughout the book show work resulting from classroom assignments. The book also includes many examples made with Processing, and the authors seem keenly aware of the ever-shifting relationship between technology and design. In time, perhaps these Processing examples will appear dated, but at the moment they lend the book a forward-looking freshness without feeling trendy.
In keeping with classic design education books like Armin Hofmann’s Graphic Design Manual and Josef Müller-Brockmann’s The Graphic Artist and his Design Problems, GDTNB uses a clean grid for its layout. It works beautifully for both browsing and for research. Despite the plethora of images in the book, the spreads are spacious and the images are well-captioned.
The book is also beautifully produced. The image quality, paper weight and binding are all high grade, lending the book both a literal and a figurative weight that feels deeply satisfying. You get the sense that Lupton and Cole Phillips want you to hold onto this one for a while, and with construction like this, the book should be up to the task.
One Minor Complaint
One of the reasons I initially bought GDTNG was because of its incredibly useful companion website, which is a microcosmic representation of the book as a whole. I was a little disappointed, however, to discover that the “Design Problem” assignments on the website didn’t make it into the book. They’re fantastic exercises for teachers or for anyone serious about self-study, and I wish they would have been included in the printed version.
If you’re at all interested in design education—either as a teacher or as a student—Graphic Design: The New Basics is required reading. Ellen Lupton and Jennifer Cole Phillips have made something more than a mere textbook; they’ve created an authoritative and thorough yet useful and inspiring companion for the successful practice of graphic design. I’m confident that I will happily revisit this book again and again during my never-ending journey as a student and teacher.