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Author Talk: Maggie Macnab on Improving Your Designs with Universal Forms and Principles

Publisher Nancy Aldrich-Ruenzel interviews author Maggie Macnab about her latest book, Design by Nature: Using Universal Forms and Principles in Design. They discuss how many of the fundamental principles of nature can inform good design. Maggie also talks about her experiences growing up in scenic northern New Mexico, and the ways the landscape shaped her aesthetic.

This interview is a transcription of the podcast, Maggie Macnab on Improving Your Designs with Universal Forms and Principles.

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Nancy Aldrich-Ruenzel:  I’m here today to talk about a brand new book called Design by Nature Using Universal Forms and Principles in Design, and I’m here with the author, Maggie Macnab. Congratulations Maggie.

Maggie Macnab:  Thank you so much Nancy. It’s a real pleasure to be here with you today. 

Nancy:  Well, I’m just so happy with how this book turned out. When we first signed you to write the book, we had great expectations, and you beat all of our expectations. Can you tell the listeners a little bit about who you wrote the book for and why? 

Maggie:  Sure, yeah I’d be happy to. Well, first and foremost, of course, the audience is designers. I’ve been an active designer for over 30 years, so I’ve been in the business for quite a while. And about 10 to 15 years ago, the University of New Mexico began to ask me to teach logo design because I was having a lot of successes, many of which, since I started in 1981… was way pre-computers.  So I was winning a lot of national awards and getting recognition from high profile magazines like Communication Arts regarding my logos, so UNM eventually asked me to teach it. It took me a few years of hemming and hawing, what do I have to teach anybody? You know, all of that went through my head. And they were just so persistent I finally decided to do it. So I started out with teaching logos so, of course, a big segment of my audience is also students, students of design. But I have to say that had I not gone through the process of actually teaching what I was intuitively doing that actually worked at the national and international level of design competitions, I never would have discovered that, if I had not been through the process of teaching it. So I had to really break down what was the internal process that was going on for me, and why were so many people responding to my logos that had most of which being from New Mexico, a low budget state to begin with. But I determined early, early on, I just was in love with New Mexico and I was going to stay here, no matter what. But why was I beating out the giant ad agencies on either coast with these logos for small, very small-budget clients? So breaking down that process and realizing that what any design does, any good design is based on being able to effectively communicate something that is common to all people.  And taking that a little bit further, what I also realize is that one thing all human beings have in common, beyond things like culture and you know, how we grow up and what our personal experiences are, we all have nature in common.  And so, what I’ve discovered is that there are just a handful of patterns, shapes, and archetypal forms that are based in fundamental principles of nature, like balance, that just must occur for anything good to come out of it in design.  It’s all connected to the same principles that work in our world.

Nancy:  So how did you first become interested in nature?  Obviously, it just permeates your work and clearly has informed your design work and your teaching.

Maggie:  I think a lot of it is probably just based in my formative years and my personal experience of growing up in such a beautiful place like New Mexico.  You know, I live in the northern half of New Mexico, and much of the architecture around here is very organic--it sort of looks like it actually grows right out of the dirt. The pueblos are great examples of that. My father was an architect, and so he was a designer of structural space, spatial designs, and he was also an artist and he used to have me draw with him a lot. He used to take me horseback riding. We used to go camping and he’d tell me about the red dwarfs and white giants and stuff like that in the universe. So I had a very sort of an eclectic upbringing that was very much, I think because of where I was and because my father being who he was, I just had this experience of just being in love with nature from my very first moment of cognition, I think, of just being conscious of it being out there beyond me.

Nancy:  You talk a lot in the book about the economics of nature. What do you mean by that?

Maggie:  Well, good design works very much in the same way that nature works with its designs. Nature is extremely economical with anything that exists in the world. It only exists because it works. If it doesn’t work, it very quickly either evolves into something else that is better suited to work in new circumstances or it simply gets taken out of the mix if it doesn’t work. So it’s just being able to understand some of those principles, which are really pretty simple and pretty self-apparent principles that we just tend to ignore in our day-to-day lives, pretty much, I think, because it’s sort of like breathing. It’s just something you do every moment of every day so you’re not necessarily conscious of it.  So this book is really about being hooked into how you’re intuitively responding to things in the world, understanding that, and then reinterpreting it into a piece of actual graphic design, or human-created design, so that others can respond in a way that is fit to its message. The design is fitted to its message so that the audience can understand it intuitively and it makes them more accommodating. They accommodate looking at it more and paying more attention to it. 

Nancy:  Well, and therein lies the real usefulness of the book because, you know, designers often have difficulty judging when something’s not working.  And you give, I know in one chapter – 12: Design Principles – to help with that process, and in another chapter you talk about the three basic symmetries, which I found fascinating. Those are translation, reflection and rotation. I didn’t know anything about those three basic symmetries even until you showed me. 

Maggie:  Yeah, and you know I’ve actually, it’s a tried and true book because I’ve actually used my students as guinea pigs! Last semester I had a chance, the opportunity to teach the entire book over the semester and, I’m telling you, the work that came out of those students was really fairly phenomenal. I mean, they had experience of creating tessellations, which is fitted pieces across a plane very like the artwork that M.C. Escher created, and this was a piece of the symmetry chapter where you really, really understand how symmetries work, why they’re effective. I’ve used different guest designer studies. For instance, in that chapter on symmetry, I used John Langdon, who was one our foremost ambigram designers in the United States and the world today. He did the ambigrams for the Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, and he’s just fabulous with capturing symmetry in letter form and then recreating it into a piece of artwork.  So when designers have this kind of fluency of being able to cross over these different principles and forms and understand what they are actually doing in the world and fit it appropriately to their clients, or to the project they are working on, it creates a much more effective piece of design rather than just hit and miss, hoping your intuition will pick up on the right thing and do it correctly. A lot of good designers use intuition, and I actually emphasize intuition quite a bit in the book, but the idea is to bring what you are intuitively sensing into your awareness so that you can really work with it and really create something that’s powerful, that’s effective, that’s beautiful and that creates meaning for people that look at it. So it creates a relationship.  It creates a connection, which is what all good design should do. Unfortunately, we live in a world today where there is a lot of noise. You know there’s something like 3,000 to 4,000 versions, advertisements, that pop up at people every day. I mean, that’s a phenomenal number when you think about it. And so you have to understand that most people are simply filtering most of that information away because it’s just too overwhelming. You can’t absorb that much information. But when you put a message out there that’s beautiful, that’s effective, that has some kind of meaningful relationship embedded into it, the audience, the viewer, intuitively gets that and it makes it a much easier capture for them to see that message, understand it, possibly have some value for them, and they spend more time with it. So that potentially gives it much better recall than any of these other ads that are popping up – that one looks just like the other. You know, that kind of thing. Just that information noise, the information junk that is out in the world today.

Nancy:  Great. Good advice. So after you finished the book, did you find that you personally learned something you hadn’t expected when you first started on the journey? Through the beta testing with your students and the final edits and so on, were there any kind of “aha” moments or surprises? 

Maggie:  Well, I think the whole book was kind of an “aha” to me. I mean, yes I intuitively knew a lot of that stuff and some of the more practical in-depth stuff regarding logos because I’ve worked in logos for decades now. It was nothing new to me. But being able to capture concepts like how important emptiness is so that the viewer has got an opportunity to connect the dots themselves, then the design should provide a container just like the universe provides the container for any sort of life to exist. There’s little subtleties like that that I hadn’t really thought of before, and so I got into really looking at them. And this relates back to why white space, or why you give your audience a breath between visual concepts, or how to connect them. There’s a chapter on Gestalt, the structuring chapter, which I think is chapter 7, which talks about the basic Gestalt and how you create flow, you know, and how structure is the underlying principle of flow. When we see flow, it’s so fluid and it meanders so effortlessly, you think about it being more sort of random, but actually there’s an inherent structure in things like that. So the book teaches about how to make your design look really effortless even though there is quite a bit of thought and process and probably a lot of throwaways that go into creating a really good piece of design. So it really covers a lot of the ground about how to get to a really beautiful fluid piece of design that serves not only your client by being accurate and meaningful and relating to what they’re wanting to present to their audience, but also to the audience themselves so that they can make that connection and be interested in whatever that message is.  And then, thirdly, it provides something for the designers too so that you have more satisfaction in what you create. It becomes more of a joyful experience. There’s absolutely no reason that anything, even advertising, can’t be a really pleasurable experience that kind of covers all of those bases for everybody involved in it.

Nancy:  Speaking of pleasurable experiences, this has been really wonderful to chat with you, Maggie, about the book and, before we sign off, I would love for you to tell listeners what exciting things are coming up for you and for Design by Nature.

Maggie:  Well there’s a couple of things actually coming up.  I’ll be a speaker at the first TEDx in Santa Fe, it’s called TEDx Acequia Madre, on November 3rd.  As soon as that talk is ready for release, I will post it on the website to alert everybody it’s out. This is my second TEDx talk, so it’s really a great opportunity to spread ideas about design into the general public. And Design by Nature is also a finalist in two categories of the New Mexico and Arizona Book Awards. It’s a finalist in non-fiction and for reference. Those awards are coming up on November 16th, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. But again, it’s really wonderful to see a book that is specifically about design carry into mainstream like this, where other people who are not necessarily designers get the value of the book, because the principles that are taught in the book are really relevant to any human being. It’s really about designing a good life that is effective, that’s aesthetic and pleasing to the person that has it, and it creates meaning for the relationships in your life and understanding how those work. So it goes beyond just graphic design, but of course it’s really effective for designers too to understand these relationships and consciously put them into their design pieces. 

Nancy:  No Maggie, I couldn’t agree more. The book is really for anyone interested in design, but you know, of course, especially for professional designers and students of design and teachers of design. So, folks, I highly recommend Design By Nature. Maggie, I congratulate you again and good luck with the events coming up.

Maggie:  Thank you so much Nancy. It’s been a real pleasure speaking with you. Thank you so much.

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