Introduction to Graphic Design: A Guide to Thinking, Process, and Style (2nd edition) | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Introduction to Graphic Design: A Guide to Thinking, Process, and Style (2nd edition)

Introduction to Graphic Design: A Guide to Thinking, Process, and Style (2nd edition)
by Aaris Sherin

Bloomsbury Visual Arts, London, Great Britain, 2023
256 pp., illus. 500 col. Paper, eBook, $43.15
ISBN 978-1-350232-23-5; 978-1-350232-24-2.

Reviewed by: 
Charles Forceville
August 2023

Let me begin this book review with a disclaimer: As somebody teaching and researching in an academic institution, my interest in, and knowledge of, design is that of an amateur. My first-hand experience with designing is restricted to selecting appropriate fonts and pictures for my PowerPoint presentations, and to meticulously proofreading my picture-rich papers – the latter sometimes leading to negotiations with journal editors to ensure optimal results.

Sherin’s handbook has a clear structure. After a one-page introduction of the topic at hand (“key terms and concepts”), each chapter presents practical information on its various aspects, usually contains an exercise, and ends with a summary (“chapter in review: dos and don’ts”). Moreover, chapters provide impressions of the whole process from a client’s brief to production in sections labelled “design in action,” discussing real-life projects. There are hundreds of illustrations in the book, both colour photographs of design work (accompanied by credits of their makers) and more schematic depictions, the latter often showing how experimenting with pertinent variables affects the result.

The introductory chapter “Overview of the field” adopts an enthusiastic tone, almost making it a promotion brochure for “studying design.” The ensuing chapter titles are “Concepts and Ideas,” “Form and Space,” “Working with Color,” “Typography,” “Using and Creating Imagery,” “Layout and Arrangement,” “Context and Production,” and “Conclusion.” The book ends with a glossary and an index. Just to be sure, Introduction to Graphic Design focuses on static forms of design (e.g., advertisements in magazines, posters, book covers, page layouts, logos); there is no discussion of moving images (e.g., commercials, instructional animations).

Whereas many aspects of design do not vary across printed and digital forms, sometimes the medium matters. Sherin consistently reminds the reader when it does, and where pertinent mentions the strengths and weaknesses of (Adobe) software programmes.

Chapters that strike me as particularly useful are the ones on form and space, colour, and typography. Undoubtedly, there is a good reason for this, namely that there is ample received wisdom in the discipline about what works and what does not work in these respects, and why (not). Put differently, these are highly “rule-governed” and, therefore, teachable topics reflected in the confident tone. By contrast, although the chapter on imagery contains practical advice on representational versus abstract images, and on icons, symbols, and pictograms, here, apparently, the sky is the limit: There are so many variables that can influence a designer’s choices that presumably the best Sherin could do was to present many examples of best practices. The chapter on layout and arrangement advises, “Spend some time looking at the images and diagrams and try to understand why some layouts work better than others” (p. 188), suggesting that expertise in this field, too, is to a considerable extent a matter of intuition and experience. That said, the chapter contains suitable advice as to how to procure pictures (find them in databases, make photographs, draw things yourself, create a collage) and usefully cautions students to always find a good balance between saliently providing key information and avoiding clutter.

Another reason why the chapters mentioned above work well is that they allow for comparisons. Presenting the same content in different versions is arguably the best way for students to immediately see for themselves what works and what doesn’t. I would have liked to see even more of this – although I am aware that this “show, don’t tell” was presumably not possible for the many real-life designs that appear in the photographs and are reprinted courtesy of their creators. After all, the author could hardly request permissions to reprint credited examples of supposedly bad design. It is nonetheless a pity that the book contains almost no examples of authentic failed designs, as this would have been insightful. The photographs of original designs that are accompanied by explanations (in the captions or the body text) making clear why they are supposedly good are much more instructive than those where the evaluation of their quality is not spelled out. Of course, even these latter still function as a source of inspiration for novice designers.

An exhortation that recurs in almost all chapters is the need to pay attention to the hierarchical ordering of visual and textual “blocks” in a design. The relative importance of all elements can, and must, be communicated via size, colour, typography, and layout – which, of course, are thoroughly interrelated. Another repeated piece of advice is to constantly keep in mind that, whatever design choices are made, these choices should be in harmony with the ideas/brand identity the client wants to promote or exude. This chimes with the central claim of relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1995) that relevance (which can be informally equated with “meaning”) is always relevance to its envisaged audience (Forceville 2020). From this point of view the “design in action” sections are useful. Indeed, one would have wished for even more, and more detailed, examples of the development of a design, beginning with the brief from the client and resulting in the completed end-product. Again, since this is information that is not in the public domain it is understandable that relatively little space is devoted to complete campaigns. But even some made-up cases, inspired by real ones, might have been informative.

The few remarks about movements and concepts (“Modernism,” “Postmodernism,” “Semiotics,” “connotation”) are too brief to do justice to their complexity and are sometimes even misleading. Indeed, these passages suggest the author is somewhat uncomfortable characterizing such theoretical terms. This may also be the reason why the chapter, “Concepts and Ideas,” is of limited use. I completely agree that “concept is key” (p. 213): Before questions as to the “how” of a design are pertinent, its “why” and “what” need to be addressed. But is it possible at all to teach designers anything about how to apply general “concepts and ideas”? As with all situations calling for creativity, providing guidelines for innovative designs is surely a contradiction in terms.

Arguably, the following two dimensions of “concepts and ideas” deserve consideration in designing. In the first place there is the brief issued by the client. What factual information and brand-image does the client want to convey? Perhaps only in the context of more attested real-life campaigns would it have been possible to show how design can help visualize a client’s “mission” in a manner that both imposes coherence on the different products or manifestations of a brand or concept and succeeds in doing so in a distinctive, unique way. Secondly, a designer may want to ponder whether it is possible and/or desirable to draw on visual figures of speech (“tropes”) and intertextual references to films, novels, songs, politics, and other phenomena whose interpretation requires specific cultural background knowledge. A bit to my surprise, professional designers have sometimes found my work on visual and multimodal metaphor useful (specifically Forceville 1996; see Erwin 2013). One could imagine that theoretical work on verbal varieties of other tropes, such as antithesis, hyperbole, and irony (Peña-Cervel and Ruiz de Mendoza Ibáñez 2022) will in turn inspire visual and verbo-visual designs (see Forceville, forthc. for some hints). I was also reminded of the practical book on architectural design by Philip Plowright (2020), which systematically discusses basic, “pre-cultural” concepts such as alignment, balance, centrality, and repetition), providing ways of thinking about how elements of a whole relate to, and interact with, each other. Perhaps exploring these concepts systematically will help graphic designers, too, to come up with novel perspectives.

But these last considerations pertain to things that can only to a very limited extent be taught. In my view, Introduction to Design does an honourable job explaining the kind of things that clearly can.


Erwin, Kim (2013). Communicating the New: Methods to Shape and Accelerate Innovation. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Forceville, Charles (1996). Pictorial Metaphor in Advertising. London: Routledge.

Forceville, Charles (2020). Visual and Multimodal Communication: Applying the Relevance Principle. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Forceville, Charles (forthc.). “Reflections on developing Multimodal Metaphor Theory into Multimodal Trope Theory.” (, special issue on Multimodal Tropes in Contemporary Corpora (guest editors: Denis Jamet and Adeline Terry).

Peña-Cervel, María Sandra, and Francisco José Ruiz de Mendoza Ibáñez (2022). Figuring out Figuration: A Cognitive Linguistic Account. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Plowright, Philip (2020). Making Architecture Through Being Human. London: Routledge.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson (1995). Relevance: Communication and Cognition (2nd edn). Oxford: Blackwell.