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To truly understand design, we need to stop, look and learn

As recently as 10 years ago, graphic-design historian and educator Paul Shaw remembers teachers worrying about keeping up with students "because they were presumably going to be so much more visually literate than us," he recalls. "That's totally wrong, we know far more than we think – it's that nothing is actually staying in our heads."

Year after year, Shaw shows his students the iconic "Keep Calm & Carry On" image, a good example of graphic design that became ubiquitous but stripped of history and context – and therefore of meaning. "I ask basic questions, 'Why the colour red? Why is it a famous image? Why does it show up on Instagrams and Pinterests and Steve Heller books?' or 'Why do you like it?'" Shaw says. "They seem unable to process what they're staring at."

"Unfortunately, that's really not limited to younger people, or at least not to children," he adds. "It's something that cuts across all ages – it's about life being faster. I don't think we're processing."

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If there's a crisis in the fundamentals of everyday design education among the next generation, it's that adults aren't paying enough attention, either. Shaw would know: He has taught at Fordham University and Parsons School of Design but has also led urban lettering walking tours, which seek out surviving examples of beautiful type in streetscapes and on buildings, of New York neighbourhoods and international cities for nearly 20 years.

Conjure the image of your last urban walk, likely engrossed in the device at hand. Shaw says that, besides being distracted by multitasking, everyone is making and looking at images too quickly, yet we're not absorbing – let alone understanding – the design information those images communicate. And that's important because visual fluency and the identification of design concepts are more than a parlour trick. "It's amazing what you learn from design," he says. "If you can identify typefaces, illustration styles, graphic techniques, you can help to date things and that becomes material. Design tells you a lot about how people lived."

Fostering fluency in the concepts of visual culture starts with promoting design fundamentals in the young, though they often double as refresher courses for distracted adults, too. That can range from the way a subway map explains directions without using words to the concept behind a sweater design.

Italian commercial artist Emiliano Ponzi believes in introducing children to the idea of graphic design as a means of pictorial communication and as a way to solve problems. The Museum of Modern Art already publishes biographies about the creative process of major artists such as Matisse, Picasso and Magritte, which help young readers recognize their work and style. When the guides' editor suggested Ponzi tackle Georgia O'Keeffe, he countered that he'd rather try Massimo Vignelli, the creator of the controversial 1972 New York transit-system guide.

Vignelli's groundbreaking work of information design seemed the perfect way to familiarize the young with the concepts in The Vignelli Canon manual of modern design. "One is the discipline, another is semantic, another is timelessness, the other is the social responsibility," Ponzi rhymes off. "I think it's very important that children but also adults understand how difficult it is to create something visual that works."

Working with the MoMA and New York Transit Museum archives, Ponzi has written the new picture book The Great New York Subway Map. "The biggest challenge into simplifying his process is that you don't want to lose important elements along the way," Ponzi says from his home in Milan. "It was the same mantra that Massimo used in his job, and it's the same method that I used for kids."

When Vignelli reinterpreted the tangled and overcrowded subway map with the cleaner Helvetica typeface, dots and colour scheme still in use today, it became a more abstract diagram that some felt sacrificed geographical accuracy for clarity. So another key idea the subway map imparts is that clarity doesn't have to be literal. It also illustrates what a concept such as minimalism looks like when it is applied to furniture – such as Vignelli's Handkerchief Chair for Knoll in the MoMA collection – or logos and brand identities such as American Airlines and Bloomingdale's. In the same way Vignelli's map dispensed with superfluous information, such as streets and landmarks that didn't help people figure out how to get where they were going, his approach to design was to emphasize only the most important elements in simple recognizable shapes.

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Making Vignelli's elimination process intelligible to children explains the power of setting design limits as well as of simplification concepts such as a "diet of colours" (a reduced colour palette) for quicker recognition of visual information, as does using the impact of extreme contrast between basic geometric shapes. And in doing the same when approaching the illustrations, Ponzi mimicked Vignelli's own simplified approach to reworking the tangled subway map.

"Visuals can convey things and concepts you sometimes can't with words," award-winning Canadian illustrator Julie Morstad says, "and children's imaginations are closer to flights to fancy like that."

Morstad's new picture book, Bloom, with writer Kyo Maclear, is about influential 20th-century fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. Through biographical sketch, it also teaches kids the ideas behind several graphic-design techniques with which Schiaparelli is associated. The background inclusion of the iconic poster from the avant-garde Dada art movement's famous grand ball in Geneva, for example, both exposes children to the art movement's distinctive red and black visual identity and introduces the idea of graphic design wordplay. "Kids notice all the details, nothing get past them," Morstad says from her home in Vancouver. "And I put all those things in there for both adults who know about design … but also for kids to ask about … it's little crumbs for curiosity."

It's easy to blame the computer and the smartphone since they've become life's main tools and source of entertainment, but screens aren't the fundamental problem – pace is. "The real threat is not the internet," Shaw adds. "It's people's time and willingness to sit down and read. And to look around."

In that vein, Bloom also parses trompe l'oeil, a design illusion well within the grasp of children, explained via the faux-bow knit sweater that became Schaparelli's first hit clothing design. "It's a perspective that's complex, but it's something that a kid would understand," Morstad says. "If they learn that it's essentially a trick of the eye, they can start to think about where they're seeing it in their day-to-day life, what else might be like that. We see murals all the time, like on the corner of a strip mall but it's meant to be a roman villa," she offers as an example.

Further design literacy might include recognition of Schiaparelli fashioning art concepts such as Surrealism through her disembodied glove, say, or the playful upside-down shoe hat. "And I love that as a child she tried to plant seeds on her face in an attempt to grow flowers," the illustrator says of the storybook's most surreal and arresting titular image. "What's great is that children do things like that all the time," Morstad adds. "In fact, they get it in ways we maybe don't."

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