Favourite Book | Maitland Graves, The Art of Color and Design

Cover photograph of Maitland Graves, The Art of Color and Design, 2nd edn (Echo Point Books and Media, 2019; first edition The McGraw-Hill Companies, 1951)

PLEASE NOTE: If you’d like to purchase this book and support independent bookstores, you can do so via this link to my Bookshop.org page. This is an affiliate link, which means that if you buy the book, I earn a small commission as a result of supporting Bookshop.org. This does not affect you in any way, but for me, the pennies add up! You can read more about my support of Bookshop.org here.

I’ve chosen The Art of Color and Design for a couple of reasons:

  1. It is the reference for virtually every subsequent book on visual design and composition; and
  2. It allowed me to feel comfortable with my view that design, composition, engineering – whatever you name it – are all the same creative force, but channelled through different mediums such as music, photography, literature, ceramics, clothing design – name your chosen specialism.

I’ve long felt that an individual’s compatibility with their chosen medium is a large part of what determines creative success.  The most difficult element of expressing one’s creativity is having the opportunity of finding out which medium suits you best, and that can take up a lot of time, money, patience – and frustration.

Graves was the first person to set down or attempt to articulate the components of a composition.  He defined the elements of design – line, direction, shape, size, texture, value, colour – and the principles – repetition, alternation, harmony, gradation, contrast/opposition/conflict, dominance, unity, and balance.  And beyond this, he took the trouble to demonstrate just how interdisciplinary design is, drawing examples from all kinds of media.

What I love about The Art of Colour and Design is that it allows everyone in: for example, somebody musical can see how their art form relates to photography, and without discussions like Graves’, the lines separating various disciplines would be too thickly drawn.  Equally, the writer will be able to see their connections with the painter.  And beyond this, people who don’t necessarily see themselves as creative, or who don’t work in ‘creative’ jobs, can understand and follow the discussion; maybe have a few “Oh yeah!” moments as they read the book.  Some of the cultural references are dated, but The Art of Colour and Design is so well written and illustrated that the crux of the book is as relevant now as it was in 1951.

In the years following, numerous authors extrapolated Graves’ principles and elements of design for their specialist disciplines; I will cover two fashion authors in the coming weeks.  It’s a good thing they weren’t deterred by these words:

Fashion, that blind, unreasoning and undiscriminating herd instinct, is exploited by hucksters of everything from whiskey to movies to political and medical nostrums.  These merchants of mediocrity profitably spend millions of advertising dollars each year to assure us that millions of our gullible fellow sheep eat, drink, read, or wear their product, and that, therefore, it must, of course, be good.  For many people this appeal to fashion seems to carry as much weight as the Ten Commandments or the Constitution.

Graves 1951: 190

Scornful of the so-called sheep?  Then this one’s for you:

…having the courage to resist mob propaganda and stand on one’s aesthetic convictions should not be confused with stubborn, intolerant smugness. In matters of taste the self-satisfied, complacent person arbitrarily segregates others into the following tidy categories:
…the cultured, discerning, and intelligent people who think he has good taste.
…the affected, haughty high-brows…who think he has bad taste.
…the moronic low-brows…who he thinks have bad taste.

Ibid: 190-191

Let nobody accuse Graves of being a poor writer without a sense of humour!

You might gather from this that Graves enthusiastically celebrates individuality – true individuality and feeling comfortable in one’s own skin – and he takes the time to tell readers that they will find their own style or character.  This is one reason why he provides numerous exercises at the end of every chapter: having the opportunity to try things, as mentioned earlier, is the back straight of a person’s creative journey.  The wide range of examples he uses to illustrate his points is inspiring, as is his insistence that there is something to celebrate about each artist’s work if they take the time to develop their abilities:

Your intense personality, expressed in unique style, will pervade your work. Its distinctive flavor will dominate your own compositions and will impart a unity peculiar to itself. All great music, literature, and architecture have this emotional consistency, this intangible unity of character. It is the mark of a mature style.

Ibid: 197

The Art of Colour and Design is a heavy book, so if you’ve decided it’s for you, and if you can, I highly recommend getting the hardcover edition.  (I say that as the owner of the paperback edition!)  If paperback is the only option, take care to ease in or break in the book’s spine correctly; Ryder Carroll of Bullet Journal fame has a quick and excellent tutorial on how to do this.  It will preserve the life of any book, but especially heavy paperbacks.


Like The Design of Everyday Things (read my review here), this is another super heavyweight on the list of my most influential books.  Although I first learnt about the elements and principles of design when studying at the London College of Fashion, I didn’t track down their source for almost another decade, whilst doing some research at the British Library.  I then had to wait another few years before the current edition, published by Echo Point in 2019, became available.  I hope it stays in print, because I don’t want it to elude me again – and I think more people should read it.  If you decide to try it out, please let me know what you think!

4 Comments Add yours

  1. I have just today received the results (very positive!) of my degree in Design and Innovation. I have never heard of this book. You make it sound so attractive, as soon as I get next month’s money I shall buy it from your link! Thank you so much for bringing it to our notice, and for describing it in such detail.

    1. Oh, many congratulations on your degree results! 👏🏾👏🏾 I hope a well-earned rest is in order.
      Please let me know what you think of the book when the time comes – I very rarely come across fellow readers of Graves, so I’m glad you’re inspired ☺️

  2. Karen Hoyer says:

    I love your blog — so well written and researched, it expands my mind. Karen

    1. Thank you very much Karen – your comment has made my day!

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