Book Review: The Anatomy of Design

Let’s be honest — most design books become nothing more than fancy bookends that hold in other fancy bookends.

It’s no surprise why — we love pretty pictures, so many publishers assume this is all we need. Just a few pretty pictures.

I don’t know who these publishes have spoken to, but the designers I know are enviably smart and don’t suffer fools, even if pretty and even if made of paper.

The cover has a lovely padding that gives a little something extra to your interaction with it

So we need real content — something to provoke, intrigue and teach.

And we need something that will last long enough to be worthy of revisit.

Consisting of a dash of theory, a splash of process and a dollop of history, The Anatomy of Design, by Steven Heller and Mirko Ilic manages to grip this fault-line pretty damn well. Being both beautiful and enlightening, it takes an interesting look at wonderful work and shows that “originality” hardly exists—and this is nothing to be bothered by.

The Anatomy of Design is a collection of projects that express the same ideas, or theories, in different ways, at different times, and most importantly, in different voices. It’s brilliant.

Notice that the page on the left folds out. What you can see on the top is some of the wonderful commentary found throughout.

A sample shot of the kind of info on the underside of that flap, there are normally 3—4 rows of these thumbnails.

Sparkle and Spin, Little 1

You’d be hard-pressed to find a graphic designer who doesn’t know the name Paul Rand. You’d be even harder-pressed to find anyone who lives in the western-world who doesn’t recognize the marks he’d made. When ordering Sparkle and Spin and Little 1, I wasn’t sure if this was the sole reason I wanted them—a little piece of quirkiness by a great graphic designer and the women he loved. Having received them and enjoyed them several times, I now know the reason why I now love them — they’re simply beautiful.

Both brightly illustrated, the graphic wit behind these books is a joy to take in – a lot can be learned about how to capture an idea and emotion in the simplest of ways. A mix of large type, paper-cut illustrations (that remind me of Saul Bass in many ways) and simple drawings mix together as they show us that the sum is greater than the parts.

Sparkle & Spin

Published in 1957, one year after the couple produced their first children’s book, I Know a Lot of Things, and also a year after Rand developed his first branding effort for IBM, Sparkle and Spin is a 40 page delight that is written as an introduction to words and how they can dance and sing with one another.

The Typographic Commandments

“Understand the rules before you break them.” A mantra we become all too familiar with when studying. Something many of us found bothersome as it implied subjecting ourselves to a rigid framework—and what creative wants that? Then we learn the rules, realise that they actually do work and start to use them well. The rules make it easier to play the game. The Ten Commandments of Typography serves as a reminder of these safe, warm guides. The second half of Paul Felton’s fun little book reminds us why performing Type Heresy is so devilishly satisfying.

Paul Felton’s The Ten Commandments of Typography/Type Heresy weighs in at a quaint 80-pages and is one of those books that makes you smirk and return to. It’s also one of those books you get excited about introducing to your typography-loving friends because of its wit and easy-to-digest size.

As the title suggests, this is a book of ten rules and why they should be obeyed and why they should be broken. For most, it’ll serve as a reminder of school days past, something Felton seems to have kept in mind. More than a guide book on typographic basics, Felton gives us something fun and enjoyable. It takes something which we love (typography) and something we’ve all grappled with (‘the rules’) and pushes them to extreme ends of the spectrum.

Ten Ten Commandments of Typography

The rules of typography serve as guides to ensure legibility for the audience. They help messages be heard and ‘prevent mistakes’. The first 37 pages is a good reminder of what they are and gives straight forward examples of each.

It would have been easy to make the book bigger by the nth degree, employing piles of examples to show the rules in use in the wild. An easy way to make the content superficially prettier when flicking through and a easy way to pad out the page count. Easy, but stupid. There is a commandment and a justification or expansion on the left page, example on the right. An elegant and restrained design becomes the ideal vessel for the enjoyable content to travel in.

An elegant and restrained design becomes
the ideal vessel for the enjoyable content to travel in

The writing is quirky and fun and is where the real power of this book comes from—rather than those piles of images left on the cutting room floor. The quirkiness of the content is strong enough that the text does all the heavy lifting and the design mostly fades into the background – the way it often should.

To Infinity and Beyond!

Pixar is a company we all know, with most of us having a soft-spot for their films and lively characters. Pixar have proven themselves as maestros of pixels, bringing them together in a way that is best described as symphonic. To Infinity and Beyond! The Story of Pixar Animation Studios, written and pieced together by Karen Paik, is a beautiful and well designed book that very few won’t be able to find some point of interest in. Telling the story of Pixar from their early beginnings through to the merger with Disney, Paik has brought us something hard to put down.

A shot of the fabric cover, featuring a glossy sticker of Buzz.
The title is printed on a removable wrap-around.

More than a book about an animation company, To Infinity and Beyond! is about an idea had and a non-stop drive to not only to have it realised, but to realise it over and over without repeat. If you have an interest in Pixar that is only slight, you’ll find something enjoyable in this book. Be it the beautiful artwork and film stills, or the development of technology that goes on, to become standards industry-wide, or perhaps the stories of the process gone through for each film will capture your interest. And if you’re already a big Pixar fan, well, you’ll wet your self.

A close up shot of the Pixar logo in it’s two varieties – the bottom version featuring the Luxo Jr. lamp from one of the first shorts, c. 1986

A pastel illustration by John Lasseter of Wally, a character from the first short created by the team that would go on to become Pixar Animation Studios. Created while at Lucasfilm. c. 1984

A still from the first animated commercial created by Pixar in their early days after first going independent. Directed and animated by John Lasseter.

To Infinity and Beyond! is 300 pages of beauty. Found between the lime-green hard covers are illustrations for each film in a range of mediums, interviews with dozens of people at Pixar—from the founders through to the new(er) generation of directors, writers and tech people—run downs of each of their films, ranging in subject from the genesis of the stories, goals they set for each film, fears had and problems found. And the best (visual) part of all? Pages and pages of beautiful rendered stills from the films.