Are images analogous to words? Is what makes a sentence sound “right” the same thing that makes an image “pop” or a jazz solo “burn?” The similarities are noteworthy but the differences are important. Just as the best of writers seek the guidance of an editor, smart publishers rely on book designers who understand the “grammar of design.”
Good design, like good writing, communicates clearly and effectively. It all boils down to some sort of archetypal math. The “golden rectangle,” for example, has proportions that are pleasing to everyone. Though much of design is pure opinion, some of its power is as mysterious and universal as love. But at least part of it can be described in terms of how a page provides intuitive visual clues to its elements’ hierarchy of importance, and to what the literal and symbolic meanings of those elements are.
Visual confusion and tension are fine as long as there’s some sort of payoff that makes the visual anxiety worth the angst; M.C. Escher was a master of that. In the same way, we can write playful sentences that present amusing confusion; they’re logically impossible but they sound right. Optical illusions create conflicts of perspective. Semantic illusions are similar; they’re simultaneously grammatically correct and logically absurd:
Do you walk to work or bring a lunch?
What is the difference between an orange?
On a scale of one to ten, what is your favorite color?
I'd like a large with no ice, please.
Is it faster to Chicago or by bus?
Others present annoying confusion; they’re logically correct and easy to understand, but they sound (and are) wrong.
I think York is the best town in which a person could live in.
Why couldn't they just build it gooder?
The meanings of the sentences in the second set of examples are much clearer than those of the first examples but they register as “wrong” all the same.
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