Let’s start with what I consider the most important point: graphic design professional Denise Bosler never actually advocates “anarchy” or “breaking the rules;” that’s a rhetorical flourish. We call them rules for a reason. Rather, she coaches graphic designers, like good attorneys, to know when conventional rules don’t apply, and respond accordingly. We’ve all seen the results when designers, thinking themselves bold and ambitious, ignore fundamentals like color, line, and shape. Bosler doesn’t recommend lawlessness.
Within this slim but oversized book, Bosler compiles a thorough, synoptic course in graphic design fundamentals. Bosler formats her book like those old-school Ace Doubles novels: hold it “right-side up,” you’ll receive an 88-page primer in rudiments of design, including exercises to experiment with making visually engaging images entirely from straight lines or primary colors. This includes a very thoroughgoing introduction to Bosler’s career specialty, type design. Today’s text-intensive world will thank Bosler for that.
Flip the book over, Bosler commences a 144-page whirlwind tour of various places where “coloring inside the lines,” as she puts it, impedes design’s purpose. Flanked by a generous selection of diverse graphic examples, Bosler demonstrates how working professionals lasso the rules to their own purposes. The rules Bosler teaches, which are common in academic art and design programs, guide apprentices with efficiency and grace. But professionals don’t serve the rules—the rules serve them.
And what synergy it is. For Bosler, graphic design, like art, has context. Whether we’re packaging a product, or advertising to increase brand awareness, or simply making text inviting to read, design plays an important communicative role. When she shows how Penguin Audiobooks’ ad designers morphed Mark Twain into a pair of headphones, or how almost-invisible kerning and serifs turn illegible fonts into elegant graphics, she proves that design creates conduits between two human minds.
Despite the wide range of examples she musters, Bosler mostly keeps emphasis on two-dimensional designs. From ads and posters to books and fliers, we mostly encounter graphic design on flat surfaces these days. Household appliances and architectural marvels may have graphic components, which Bosler tacitly acknowledges, but she permits experts to retain control of the three-dimensional field. Still, considering our media-saturated contemporary society, she clearly retains claim on the largest design categories people regularly encounter.
So, since Bosler doesn’t recommend chucking that figurative cherry bomb into graphic design, what does she advocate? Well, she runs a complex gamut, from clean geometric patterns popular in midcentury media, to frenzied psychedelia, to digital shape-morphing in today’s world. Bosler’s examples and influences refuse categorization. True to her title, Bosler doesn’t attempt formulating any new rules or precluding genuine invention. She shows, instead, how innovative designers pave new roads by thinking outside textbook conventions.
I do regret one significant omission: I cannot recall Bosler including any examples of web design. Today’s code-centric world has made most of us digital design consumers, and the importance of our personal websites, Facebook pages, and other digital footprint, has made many people digital design creators, too. Web design creates important challenges, with the need to carry elements intact across multiple platforms and browser customizations. Slovenly web design is, unfortunately, ubiquitous in today’s world.
Well, slovenly design generally. We’ve all come across photocopied rock band posters that look like dribbled spaghetti, magazine ads apparently done by prisoners with crayons, and self-published books with teensy illegible type and missing margins. Advancing technology has put media creation within nearly everybody’s grasp, but knowledge of design basics hasn’t kept pace. While Bosler’s guidance may require some tweaking, even possibly an entire second book, to encompass web-based design, she makes a noble start.
Denise Bosler’s brief instructional textbook encompasses the basics of nearly every college-level graphic design course. We know it’s always harder to learn without a living coach, but Bosler makes guided self-study more possible. In today’s world, choked as we are with conflicting media messages and eye-strain-inducing graphics, most media design passes unnoticed beneath our gaze, mere visual static. Careful study of Bosler’s book, while incomplete, will help dedicated creators stand above today’s grievously crowded field.