To understand the basic concepts of design;, We’ll analyze and talk about visual material. These fundamental components are known as the principles and elements of design. First,we will define some basic terminology essential to the understanding of visual language. We will then look at the elements of design, or the components which form the structure of a work. Finally, we will consider the design principles, the concepts used to organize the structural elements. The principles and elements of design are the basic building blocks of visual composition, and in order to understand how visual images carry meaning, we need to understand this basic vocabulary of visual language.
The phrase visual language refers to the idea that communication occurs through visual symbols, as opposed to verbal symbols, or words.
Words are also symbols, of course. They are not the thing itself, although traditional religious ideas have often centered around the idea that the word and the thing are the same. It is for this reason that, for example, in more than one religion it is forbidden to speak or write the name of God, and in most faiths great reverence is given to the written scripture.
There are also nonverbal symbols that we respond to as messages, though often without realizing exactly what it is that has caused us to reach a certain conclusion. These symbols are often visual, though they can be auditory or even tactile. The power of music as a non-verbal, auditory language is very apparent.
Those who understand nonverbal, especially visual language can and do manipulate our attitudes to suit their purposes. Yet often we respond to visual messages unconsciously, preferring to believe that our opinions are formed by our own good judgement and personal taste. Therefore we may fail to recognize that visual signals may affect our opinions about policy issues and social values, or even our preferences in cars, music, or fashions.
For example, the body language, dress, and expressions of a politician in this television age often seem to be as crucial to the success of a party’s program as the policies and ideas he holds. The wrong nonverbal signals, and we simply do not trust that person on the screen, whatever his ideals and character may really be.
Another concept that will be used extensively in this post is the term design. There are a number of published definitions of design; all seem to stress the ideas of process, organization, selection, and planning, and many do not mention visual media or ideas at all.
Since the 1980’s the word “design” and “designer” have become the hot concept for selling anything from jeans to snacks to software. This popular use of the word has rendered it almost meaningless. The term “designer” for many of us has come to mean attractively presented or fashioned, or merely trendy.
For the purpose of this course, however, the rational, planned character of the word design is most relevant, and therefore the following definition is offered:
Design is the PROCESS of SELECTING and ORGANIZING elements or components in order to fulfill a specific purpose. This purpose may be functional or aesthetic, or (frequently) both.
Please note that this describes a very rational approach to the creative act, and stresses process – a method for solving problems that involves choice and planning. This definition is very much focused on the goal or purpose to be achieved through this process. Aesthetic and expressive issues may play a part in this process, but they are not the only possibility, and may not even be important parts of the design process in some situations. For example, if an engineer seeks to design an improvement in an automobile’s catalytic converter, its function, but not its appearance, is the issue. However, in designing a dress or a lamp, appearance is often even more important that function-and may even be the function.
The definition of art has undergone even more permutations than has the idea of design. It is obvious to even the most uninitiated that these two works express very different intentions, and embody very different ideas about the nature and purpose of art. The history of the word art itself tells us that the purpose of art has changed over time. When we look at medieval definitions as provided in the Oxford English Dictionary, we find the focus is on skill…”as a result of knowledge and practice.” By the 18th century this idea of skill was being coupled with the goal of “the ratification of taste or production of what is beautiful…” The ideas of skill, taste, and beauty had now been brought together. This definition is about as far as many people seem to get in their understanding of what art is about. As we will see later, by the 19th century, other concepts are added into the definition of art, such as truth, talent (not the same as skill!!), and self expression (a very late addition to the idea of art). Since the idea of art has been and remains a very fluid concept, we will not attempt a full definition at this time, but return to it later. Another difficult but important term is taste.
Taste is for our purposes here to be thought of as a matter of personal preference in aesthetic matters. We can say that a person has traditional tastes, or avant garde tastes; or eclectic (meaning varied or broad) tastes. We can even claim that a person has no taste, usually meaning someone who lacks the interest or awareness to respond to visual material.
The important point to remember is that we should all feel free to like or dislike what we will, on grounds of personal taste. HOWEVER, please note that there is a distinction between personal taste or preference and objective judgements of success or failure in a work of design or art. It is possible to recognize that a work is successful and significant, even though it does not suit our personal taste. It should be clear that unless one can lay claim to a high level of expertise it is rather immoderate to condemn a work as “bad” just because one doesn’t like it. It is important for an artist to understand this distinction, and even more so for a designer, who will surely be called upon to do creative work in a framework of someone else’s tastes and ideas.
It is possible to learn how these objective judgements are made. A lot of it has to do with this business of visual language, and learning more of that language is what this post is about. There are objective criteria by which we can determine whether or not a work is successful (“good”).
We will be looking at these criteria now as “ELEMENTS OF DESIGNS”:
The elements are components or parts which can be isolated and defined in any visual design or work of art. They are the structure of the work, and can carry a wide variety of messages.
The elements are:
Even if there is only one point, one mark on a blank page there is something built into the brain that wills meaning for it, and seeks some kind of relationship or order, if only to use it as a point of orientation in relation to the outline of the page. If there are two points, immediately the eye will make a connection and “see” a line. If there are three points, it is unavoidable to interpret them as a triangle; the mind supplies the connections. This compulsion to connect parts is described as grouping, or gestalt. Gestalt is the fundamental tool the designer or artist uses to build a coherent composition.
A line is a mark made by a moving point and having psychological impact according to its direction, weight, and the variations in its direction and weight. It is an enormously useful and versatile graphic device that is made to function in both visual and verbal ways. It can act as as a symbolic language, or it can communicate emotion through its character and direction. Line is not necessarily an artificial creation of the artist or designer; it exists in nature as a structural feature such as branches, or as surface design, such as striping on a tiger or a seashell. It can function independently to suggest forms that can be recognized, even when the lines are limited in extent. Lines can be combined with other lines to create textures and patterns. The use of line in combination results in the development of form and value, which are other elements of design.
Form, Shape and Space
Form and shape are areas or masses which define objects in space. Form and shape imply space; indeed they cannot exist without space.
There are various ways to categorize form and shape. Form and shape can be thought of as either two dimensional or three dimensional. Two dimensional form has width and height. It can also create the illusion of three dimension objects. Three dimensional shape has depth as well as width and height.
Form and shape can also be described as either organic or geometric. Organic forms such as these snow-covered boulders typically are irregular in outline, and often asymmetrical. Organic forms are most often thought of as naturally occurring. Geometric forms are those which correspond to named regular shapes, such as squares, rectangles, circles, cubes, spheres, cones, and other regular forms
Movement is the design element that operates in the fourth dimension – time. Movement is the process of relocation of objects in space over time. We can speak of movement as literal or compositional.
The physical fact of movement is part of certain designed objects; we are speaking here of literal movement. Sometimes the physical movement is signaled by symbolic forms that suggest speed and motion. For example, cars, when first invented met their movement function, but the form did not suggest movement. Even after the mass production of automobiles began, the design had little to do with the fact of movement.
The invention of motion pictures introduced the element of movement to visual language. Edweard Muybridge has been credited for first developing the idea of taking a series of photographs that combined could be viewed as a moving picture, actually done to settle a bet as to whether all four feet of a galloping horse were ever off the ground at the same time.
However, new approaches were suggested by the multiple frame images of motion picture film, and stop action photography. Futurist painters such as Balla used these ideas to celebrate speed and movement. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase also attempted to capture the entire sequence of action through “stop-action” imagery.
Finally, Alexander Calder began to create sculptures that actually moved, which he called mobiles. Subsequently many artists have used movement involving mechanical or electronic means that bridged the worlds of art and engineering.
Dance is probably the oldest art form that involves movement. It is the ultimate expressive use of the element of movement of objects through space in time. Another way to think about movement is to consider how the viewer’s eye moves through the composition. This is what we refer to as compositional movement. In this case we are not concerned with the presence (or lack of) implied motion in the image. We are concerned instead with how the viewer perceives the composition– how the components relate and lead the viewer’s attention.
Compositional movement may be classified as static: that is, movement of the eye that jumps and hops between separate components of the image, attracted by similarities and simply shifting to shapes with related shape or color Compositions exhibiting static movement are characterized byrepetition of closed, isolated shapes and contrasts of color and/or value.
Movement may also be classified as dynamic. Dynamic movement is characterized by movement of the eye that flows smoothlyfrom one area of the composition to another, guided by continuations of line or form, and by gradations of color or form.Dynamic movement is characterized by open shapes or shapes that closely relate to adjacent shapes. The eye will always move through the composition in some way, so there is always some sort of compositional movement. All compositions can be described in terms of one or the other of these concepts – or both.
Color, Value and Hue
Color is one of the most powerful of elements. It has tremendous expressive qualities. Understanding the uses of color is crucial to effective composition in design and the fine arts.
The word color is the general term which applies to the whole subject – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, black and white and all possible combinations thereof. Hue is the correct word to use to refer to just the pure spectrum colors. Any given color can be described in terms of its value and hue. In additon, the various physical phenomena and pyschological effects combine to affect our perceptions of a color. Value is defined as the relative lightness or darkness of a color. It is an important tool for the designer/artist, in the way that it defines form and creates spatial illusions. Contrast of value separates objects in space, while gradation of value suggests mass and contour of a contiguous surface. Hue is the term for the pure spectrum colors commonly referred to by the “color names” – red, orange, yellow, blue, green violet – which appear in the hue circle or rainbow. Theoretically all hues can be mixed from three basic hues, known as primaries. When pigment primaries are all mixed together, the theoretical result is black; Therefore pigment mixture is sometimes referred to as subtractive mixture
Pattern is an underlying structure that organizes surfaces or structures in a consistent, regular manner. Pattern can be described as a repeating unit of shape or form, but it can also be thought of as the “skeleton” that organizes the parts of a composition.
Pattern exists in nature as well as in designed objects; it is useful to look at the parallels. A Harvard biologist named Peter S. Stevens has published a book entitled “Patterns in Nature” in which he claims that there are only a finite number of ways that patterns can be structured. He starts with the idea of a grid as the foundation for any structure or image. He presents a set of ways in which the points of a grid can be connected. These modes of connection become classes of pattern, which he claims can be seen in any situation, in nature and in made images, and from the microscopic to the cosmic scale.
The modes he describes include the following which are described here in terms of examples from nature. However, each of these modes can also be seen in examples of designed objects and works of art:
- FLOW: All things flow, following paths of least resistance. Flow can be seen in water, stone, the growth of trees. Meander patterning is related to the idea of flow, and is built on the repetition of an undulating line. In this detail from a textile hanging made up of knotted threads, the meandering color lines resulting from the technique quite naturally create this type of pattern.
- BRANCHING is an obvious form of patterning in the plant world, but it can also be seen in geological formations such as river deltas and certain crystalline formations.
- SPIRAL patterns can be seen from the scale of galaxies to the opening “fiddlehead” buds of ferns, to the forms of microscopic animals.
- PACKING & CRACKING refers to the way in which compacted cells define each others shape. A densely packed cluster of mushrooms will grow together, deforming the circular form of each cap because of crowding. In the same way a cluster of soap bubbles deforms each bubble from the perfect sphere of the isolated bubble, according to rules that govern the surface tension of soap bubbles. Surfaces (like mud or old paint) that shrink may experience cracking, resulting in similarly cellular patterning.
Texture is the quality of an object which we sense through touch. It exists as a literal surface we can feel, but also as a surface we can see, and imagine the sensation might have if we felt it. Texture can also be portrayed in an image, suggested to the eye which can refer to our memories of surfaces we have touched. So a texture can be imaginary.
Textures are of many kinds:
Bristly, rough, and hard— this is what we usually think of as texture, but texture can also be smooth, cold and hard, too. Smooth, soft, and/or warm and Wet or dry are also textures; in fact, any tactile sensation we can imagine is a texture
In other words, all surfaces can be described in terms of texture. Many artists and designers make use of texture as a dominant element in their work. This is particularly evident in craft media, such as fibers, metal, wood and glass, where the tactile qualities of the material are a major feature.
Creation of the illusion of texture is also an important element in many paintings, drawings, textile designs, and other surface designs. This can be observed and discussed separately from the tactile qualities of the actual materials and surface of the work.