a design book recommendation in tomato season

When I was in senior in college, I grew tomato plants illegally from our dorm roof by climbing out the window to step to a small row of potted cherry tomatoes just out of sight. A few months later, I graduated and moved the tomatoes to my first apartment’s tiny balcony space. However, now the tomatoes were clearly in sight and the hodgepodge of plastic pots just weren’t cutting it. I headed to the nursery for a plant and pot upgrade.

I must have spent an awful amount of time deliberating over terra cotta. At some point, an observant sales person introduced herself and asked about my project. I said I wanted my balcony garden to look better. Expecting to be upsold to a premium glazed terra cotta, she instead said that my current approach was entirely wrong – my dozen pots were too small for the balcony. Instead, I should invest in one or two big, big pots. Then, I should focus on contrasting textures and colors such as pairing the pointy leaves of a yucca tree with a tall and round ceramic pot and spiky grasses.

The nursery assistant I met that day probably had decades and decades of container and landscape gardening experience and it showed in her clear-cut visual language. Since then, I’ve been surprised at how hard it is to find any resources that outline logical, systematic approaches for design evaluation — whether it’s in the garden, in art, or online.

But about six months ago, I stumbled across this book that did just that — attempted to move beyond vague, intuitive language such as “appealing” and “well-balanced” to a systematic, logical description of compositions like, “When two distinctly different objects are isolated from everything else and positioned side-by-side, the impulse to compare and contrast is almost an automatic reflex.”

Arranging Things: A Rhetoric of Object Placement by Leonard Koren is pretty niche (you probably guessed that by reading the title already). And the low Amazon ratings might scare you off a bit. However, after reading it a few months ago, I keep recommending it to product-oriented people I know and thinking about it when I’m looking at wires or mockups at Meebo. The exact premise for the book goes like this…

2,500 years ago, Greek politicians created systematic communication techniques such as style, memorability, and delivery to convey their message, get loyalty, and win votes. However, communication is not just limited to writing and speaking. Today’s florists, set designers, and visual merchandisers know that arrangements are not just about aesthetics, they are also communicating information through cultural references and symbolism (e.g. wilted flowers and rotting fruit convey deterioration, alcohol and desserts mean sensual indulgence). However, while communication has been a field of study for thousands and thousands of years, object arrangement remains a largely intuitive and untaught discipline today. Koren suggests that if arranging objects is tied to communication, then we should be able to leverage the previous knowledge and apply a tried-and-true rhetoric to object arrangement today.

Even if you aren’t entirely sold on the premise of object composition as a strong form of communication, the collection of still-life compositions is really amazing. I’m guessing that Koren spent years and years collecting the example compositions for the remaining two-thirds of his book. Each painted composition has a one-page analysis where Koren practices what he preaches — specifically dissecting each the object arrangement into eight dimensions such as metaphor, alignment, coherence, and hierarchy.

I recognize that this isn’t going to be a best-seller book any time soon, it’s not even fantastic bedside reading material. However, it is definitely one of my favorite resources on my design bookshelf and I think it is worth sharing, especially if you are working with a team of designers on a day-to-day basis.


2 responses to “a design book recommendation in tomato season”

  1. […] Arranging Things: The Rhetoric of Object Placement (Amazon) — […] the underlying principles that govern how Western designers arrange things in three-dimensional compositions. Inspired by Greek and Roman notions of rhetoric […] Koren elucidates the elements of arranging rhetoric that all designers instinctively use in everything from floral compositions to interior decorating. (via Elaine Wherry) […]

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