“Of course the square existed previously, the line and the grid existed previously. What’s the deal. Well, it’s simply – they were pointed out. They were announced.” From Who We Are, the Manifest of the Constructivist Group.

It’s amazing how simply an entirely new world becomes visible to you.

You might be walking down the same footpath you’ve trodden a thousand times, but suddenly there are all these new characters performing before you. You look around and no one else seems to see them, it’s almost as if they exist solely in your mind. You want to grab people and shout at them and explain what’s going on barely a few feet away.

On flat sheets and screens, there are Oscar worthy performances and most people keep walking, keep scrolling, keep missing out on an amazing, hidden world.

It starts small. So incredibly small, barely a thousandth of an inch at a time, but a small amount of knowledge gives you your first pair of glasses.

Kerning. If you love a designer, teach them to kern, if you hate a person, do the same thing. Suddenly signs and posters come alive in wars of space and balance. Such a tiny piece of knowledge tears apart texts as it becomes clear they haven’t been spaced properly. No one but us will notice the light gently passing between two pairings in one word, while another pairing gives the space through which we can explore Narnia. We’ll stare at that damn space.

Those gaps have always been there but it’s not until they’re given a name do they exist.

Finding Words

There are two ways in which I find myself reading design theory.

I’ll spend sometime nodding my head, so glad to finally found the words to express a feeling I’ve had when working on a job. It’s fantastic. Abstract ideas are finally given form and, if I’m lucky, it’s a form I can explain to others.

How often have you critiqued a piece of your own work as you were developing it and could offer no better appraisal than “it just doesn’t work”?

Or just as likely, how often have you needed to explain to a client or a coworker or your mother or yourself why a piece is perfect, but you just can’t find the words?

Richard Hollis said this fantastic thing in an essay of his (Principles Before Style: Questions in Design History) about this very thing –

“Studying design history helps students find a language to talk about their work.”

Oh! Oh it’s perfect, isn’t it? Much like the student designer learns about kerning and then sees it performed by the best and worst of characters, so too does the same opportunity exist for all aspects of the work that we do. Before we knew that little word—kerning—such a thing scarcely existed. But once we have such a definition, we can’t help but throw it at every sign and poster and book title and album cover and truck signage and business card that we can.

“… helps students find a language”

Look at that. That’s it, that’s why I read design theory, why I nod my head, because it helps me find the language I need to explain the work I’m doing. But forget clients, forget even coworkers and anyone else. Think about just you. It gives you the language to talk to yourself about design.

The more I read the more I realise that such a language allows me to think clearly about how design works. Not just on a piece of paper or a screen, but how it works in process.

In meditation the breath is the center. In any experience, no matter if a good or a bad one, the breath is the grounding element. It brings back focus and clarity and a solid footing.

As a designer this is what theory has done for me. I can be considering how to layout a considerable amount of copy and think of the stem of Beatrice Warde’s wine glass, and her essay I can’t help but read every few months, and I suddenly find my base. I know what to do now.

Fully Shaped Gifts.

But the second way in which I read design theory i

The first is all ego. It’s all me. Give me words so I can understand the feeling I have in my gut. But the second is far more generous and worthwhile.

It allows other people to gift me their ideas.

They’re there, waiting. They want to hand this off to you. Most of the great designers and design thinkers of the world did one of two things – they either wrote books, or they recommended books in earnest.

They’ve figured out the shape of things but understand unless those shapes are gifted to other people they’ll become lost. The wish desperately to point out and announce the squares they’ve found.

If the gut feelings we have start out as malformed, out of focus string of lines, abstract shapes to which we give form with words, then the ideas of others come to us complete.

They hand us a square and say “it’s a square.”

Months from this moment, or maybe years, a client will come requesting something they can’t quite explain. Research tells them it needs to have four sides, perhaps of equal length though they’re not sure. Maybe two sides should be longer. Or maybe it should only be three sides. Or no sides.

Getting to work.

“Why theory? Designers read about design in order to stimulate growth and change in their own work. Critical writing also inspires new lines of questioning and opens up new theoretical directions.” – Ellen Lupton, Forward to Graphic Design Theory, edited by Helen Armstrong.

All the theory in the world is worth nothing unless it is used. Much like the abstract shapes don’t exist until we give them names, nor does the theory have value until it is put into practice.

And in applying it to your practice, your work will develop. It’ll find new avenues previously unknown and make you a better designer.

In employing the theory you’ve read, the shapes you’ve been given, you’ll start to develop your own. Marry together enough theories and their children will be beautiful and unique and talented, and once they make it out to the world, because you must allow them to travel, we’ll be all the richer for it, and you’ll have given a name to a shape another designer has been trying to pull from their gut feeling.