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Book Review: Before & After: How To Design Cool Stuff by John McWade

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Before & After is a magazine that teaches, or more accurately, explains graphic design. Through the use of real-life projects, each article in the magazine breaks down the project and explains why the particular colors were selected, why one object is bigger than the other, or why a particular typeface was chosen and why another one was not.

Before & After: How To Design Cool Stuff is a compilation of some of the best articles that have appeared in the magazine and provides a logical sequence into the world of design. As in real life, the process of designing something consists of three areas: the understanding of what you want to accomplish, the techniques that you need to accomplish the goal, and the actual work on the project. That is how this book is laid out. It is 240 pages and broken down into three sections.

Section 1, "Knowledge," is about the basics. They are called basic not because they are simple, but rather because they form the foundation that everything else is built on. In the context of design we are looking at lines, shapes, direction, motion, scale, proportion, color, composition, and so on.

By learning these basics you will be better served to be able to make your work fundamentally better and sounder in its design. Some of the topics covered include the use of a color wheel to determine what colors go together, how to design without rulers, what typeface complements a graphic, and how to use contrasts to make your typographic design

Section 2, "Technique," looks at practical ways and methods to enhance your work. This section will show you techniques that can be used on a wide range of products. That is, the way you crop photos can be used when working with brochures as easily as they can when working on a web page.

Some of these techniques will have a big effect in your design and some will be small. When the effect is small it may not be as noticeable, it will be just as important. Some of these techniques include cropping, how to get more from less, the use of focal points, the design of a second page, how to get your caption onto your picture and into your story, as well as how minimalism works on any scale.

Section 3, "Projects," look at the whole job. These are brochures, newsletters, business cards, websites, and slide presentations. This is the point where knowledge and technique come together and work. When working on a full project you get a better feel for how to design.

It is here that that you see the concept and the application all at once. These projects are meant to make blueprints for your projects. You can more or less copy the designs and make them work for you. These include building a theme, designing a story-style brochure, creating a newsletter, designing a dual-purpose letterhead, creating a panoramic booklet, and more.

I have followed Before & After Magazine off and on for quite a while and absolutely love their style of presenting design implementation. As would be expected, it is the same way with Before & After: How To Design Cool Stuff. Each article is well written and easy to follow along. The author not only is able to communicate via his designs, but in his words as well.

Before & After: How To Design Cool Stuff is the kind of book that you can read right though and pick up a lot of useful information and then use as a reference book for specific insight as well as a brainstorming guide when you are stuck on a particular problem. It will even work for just plain inspiration. If you want to learn to design cool stuff, I very highly recommend this book.

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About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.