BOOK REVIEW: Visual Communication in Digital Design

Assuming that you have been in the graphic design industry a few years, think back to the very first book on design that helped guide you into the industry. For me it was actually a pamphlet that shipped with old Mac Performas back in the mid-1990s—I forget the title but it showed some very basic principles of design, just enough to intrigue me and help apply my art skills to a more commercial discipline.


Visual Communication cover

Visual Communication in Digital Design is a similar book showing the fundamental building blocks of graphic design and web design. It’s written by Dr. Ji Yong Park, a lecturer of Digital Innovation at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia, and an author I haven’t read yet. Compared to most other writers in this industry, such as Scott Kelby and Chad Perkins, Park comes across as very dry and to the point: there is no humor, no asides, just a laser focus on the material and a dissection of the techniques and design principles. This isn’t a bad thing, as I read these kinds of books to learn and not to laugh, but it takes a disciplined reader to slog through such material without getting fatigued.

Park’s style is well-suited for what I think this book really is, which is a textbook. It’s obvious the material is based on lessons he has given to students: there are student galleries and an exercise with rigid rules and boundaries for each chapter. If you are a teacher of graphic design, you may want to look closer at this book for use as a textbook—it will help teach your students some very basic fundamentals of design. The downside is that this book is not as useful for experienced designers who have a grasp of these fundamentals, whether through training or instinct. Such designers will feel like they’re reading material they already know, which is usually not the case for other books in the field that focus on new technology or cutting-edge skills in developing fields like web design.

How basic?

When I say Visual Communication in Digital Design focuses on the fundamentals, I really mean it—we’re not talking about simple computer skills or web design techniques, we’re talking abstract concepts like stability, movement, emphasis, shape and line, concepts that can be applied to most any visual discipline such as painting or drafting. Most of the concepts in this book are taught in “Introduction to Art” classes for young people. This is good and bad—as I mentioned earlier, if you’re using this as a textbook for absolute beginners then it will serve as a good foundation. If you have any experience at all then it’s not particularly useful. Here’s a nugget of insight from early in the book:

A point is the smallest and unbreakable unit that can be used to compose a form. A single point represents position in terms of space.

This is the type of stuff I learned in school when I was fifteen years old. The good news is that Park develops the concept with illustrations of how the point can be used in formation and pattern to create basic design constructs, but it’s still very simple stuff that I think people use instinctively or learned in basic art class. I mentioned this book is a good textbook, but I should qualify that by saying it would be a good textbook for those in high school or secondary school. College or university students will already have these concepts well in hand.

Where is the “digital” design?

The word “digital” is in this book’s title, but I was disappointed that only a fraction of the book focuses on design challenges specific to digital media, and not only that but its attention is given exclusively to the design of Web sites. The first 80 pages are given to the basic concepts like shapes and points that apply to all graphic design—and this is a 200-page book. Page 82 has the first mention of anything digital, covering the use of grids in Web pages, but I found that some of what was being taught ran counter to my own training as a Web designer. Because Web pages must be scrolled sometimes, the book suggests clumping content into clusters that fit the screen—but given that users have ultimate control over browser windows, resolution and other factors, does it make sense to try to control the design in this way? The book also suggests researching users to determine the average user’s screen resolution and design for that, but that is old thinking: I was taught to design Web sites so they work well for all resolutions and “degrade gracefully” for the oddballs such as mobile phones and extremely large monitors.

I find that Park basically applies print design principles to digital design, with varying results. When discussing the best width for grid units and column widths, the book states absolute amounts based on pixels, such as:

The column width can be determined by the readability of text cells no wider than about 365 pixels based on 12-point Times New Roman.

This has two problems: first, typographers judge measure (or column) widths based on character counts and/or take type size and leading into account together. Second, one can use 12-point Times New Roman on a Web page but there is no guarantee a Web browser will display it at that size.

Other than pages 80–82, the only other digital-specific material is found in the last 20 pages of the book. Again, you get statements like this:

If you select a 12-point font and leave the default leading value, the length of each row should not be more than about six inches (425 pixels).

In digital design, inches are not as relevant as pixels and ems—I think if you’re going to teach designers to design for digital media, you have to stop thinking as if you are designing for a page in a book. The quote above is actually a decent rule of thumb but in Web design the user or his/her computer can make any well-designed page look like it was designed by a hack, which is where ems come in as a way for pages to be flexible.

Differences between Web and print

The most useful section on digital design is the “Differences between Web and Print” that you’ll find on pages 200–210. I wish this kind of material took up more than five percent of the book. These pages detail some important differences between digital and print design, and anyone designing for the Web need to know them. There is some information that should be reorganized or simply rewritten:

  • Print resolution is listed as 1200dpi but a lengthy footnote tries to explain printer and print image resolution. In the end it’s a little convoluted and inaccurate—it doesn’t explain the connection between image resolution and printer line screen, and it says printer resolution is “not flexible” when in reality there are different printers with different “resolutions”.
  • Web resolution is listed as 85dpi and 72ppi for images, but for practical purposes the dots per inch is not pertinent in Web design.
  • Image formats for print and the Web are outdated—TIFF and EPS are the only ones listed for print, while the Web lists only GIF and JPEG (misspelled “JPGE”). No mention is made of PNG or the use of Adobe’s other formats such as PSD, AI and PDF, all of which work with Adobe’s Creative Suite.
  • No mention is made of how one can specify multiple typefaces to be used if the main typeface is not available. It is said that designers can convert a block of type into an image, which is good to note but the quid pro quo that “this may cause technical and aesthetic complications” doesn’t do anything to explain what they are or how to overcome them.
  • The note on web colors states that Web browsers can’t always support the millions of colors a monitor can produce. Web browsers don’t have anything to do with color support—ten years ago some monitors only produced 256 colors or “thousands” of colors, which made web color sometimes problematic to recreate on other monitors. Park mentions the 216 “web-safe” colors, which have not been a factor in Web design for at least ten years since practically all monitors now support millions of colors.

Conclusion

Visual Communication in Digital Design is a useful book for young people who don’t have a grasp of basic art and design concepts—95% of the book is devoted to teaching these concepts. For everyone else who already knows these fundamentals, this book will not teach much more. As for the “digital design,” there are better books out there that will show you a lot more.

Visual Communication in Digital Design
Dr. Ji Yong Park
Published by YoungJin
US$29.99
Rating: 5/10

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