Thursday, December 4, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 35, Proximity and Alignment

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

Today, we'll bring an end to this exploration of the principles of perception, also known as the Gestalt rules by discussing Proximity and Alignment.

Now there's more to Gestalt than what we've covered in this series, but I trust this has given you a foothold on the topic. But let's get right to it.


Proximity is something we understand intuitively. It requires no explanation when we see it. If we're at a party, we'll see certain kinds of people around us. Some will be standing by themselves with drinks in their hands, looking around. Others will congregate in groups of two or three or five or six, and we "get it." Those that are standing close together form a group. Even when they stop talking and interacting, we still see them as a group by virtue of their proximity.

Or think of high school. There were groups of jocks. Groups of freaks. There were loners. Maybe there were gangs when you went to school. And we perceive these persons, we comprehend these individual elements, if you will, based on their relationships and context. They are either separate and individual, or they're perceived as part of a group. And it's just like our compositions.

If we have a more or less even distribution of shapes or elements, they all tend to stand alone. They're not in proximity to anything in particular. But when we bring elements together as a cluster or collective or group, we view them as a new thing. Something bigger.

And this helps us comprehend our environment. Complicated clusters of elements get simplified in our minds as one thing. They are that group or cluster, and this frees our minds from having to deal with them as individual units to be inventoried in our brain individually. You can mentally batch process the whole lot of them.

This is important to understand in our designs. If we don't use proximity to our advantage, then our audience has to mentally sort through all that we put before them. On the other hand, when we put like things together, as a logical group, we've put convenient handles on them. Now all those things are glanceable. You can take them all in at once.

Some examples. Think of web pages. Often we see various tiers of navigation. One group of links relate to global navigation, links like "home" or "about us" or "contact us". Another set of links might be grouped according to related product categories, like at Amazon, where they group "movies, music, and games" as one link, as opposed to another labeled "apparel, shoes $ jewelry". It's this grouping that enable us to cope with all the information. It gives it logic and order and hierarchy. We can put convenient cognitive handles on a bunch of stuff at once.
There's many more examples that I'm sure you can come up with on your own because proximity is so intuitive. The trick is to think logically as you order groups of elements in your compositions. You're really using it as a strategy to streamline your audience's comprehension of what you've set before them.

And, finally, I want to touch on Alignment today. Although I'll probably go into it in more detail at a later date.

Alignment is simply the technique of organizing elements by lining them up. When we look at a page, we don't see visible lines, but we do notice that headline, and subhead, and bodycopy and related image are usually on the same vertical axis. At least this is usually the case. Or there are enough elements lined up on that invisible vertical line for us to sense their relatedness.

Or we may see shapes that organized according to a central axis. We might call them center justified. Or the left edges all line up. (This is also called ragged right). Or it's the right edges that all line up (and this is alternatively called ragged left.) The difference among these examples is edge alignment versus center alignment. And all of us have at least some experience with this in this because we've played with those justification buttons in programs like Microsoft Word.

Earlier still, we might have been the kid who always had the toys scattered randomly on the floor. It was hard to see the relationship among our hotwheels or star wars action figures as a result.

On the other hand, we might have been the kid who neatly lined up the toys on our shelves. Our Smurf figures looked orderly and related. They were aligned AND grouped in proximity to one another, and it probably made all the difference to Mom.

Well, that's it for today. This one ran a little longer than usual, but then I've been away for a little while, for which I apologize, so I thought I'd cover a just bit more.

Well, let me remind you that today's transcript may be found at Music is by Well, I thank you again for tuning in and I hope you'll join us next time.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 34, Visual Momentum (Continuance)

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show, this is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

In our continuing series on Unity, we've been discussing the Gestalt Principles, and to remind once again, this is all about perception, and even closer to home, it's all about our goals in composition, that is, it's about how we perceive a unified whole, and how that whole is actually greater than the sum of its parts.

Today, we'll look at the next rule in Gestalt, which is called Continuation. Another name we could give to Continuation is "Visual Momentum." Now, we all know what momentum is in physics. But in the visual realm, there's a tendency for our eyes, once directed, to continue moving in a certain direction. So, definitions describe continuation as this tendency for us to continue looking in a given direction, until we see something of importance, a dominant element in our composition.

But continuation more often has to do with how our eyes follow through, even through intervening objects as we track along a certain visual path. A simpler way to describe this is to say that our eyes will follow along a line, or a path, or curve, and perceive it as a continuous line, even if it crosses another line or object. So, for example, a lower case "t" looks like just two lines, rather than four lines that happen to be meeting in the middle. A lower case "t," or the letter "x" then, provide us examples where two lines, or two strokes, are crossing each other. In other words, we percieve them as following through, or as a "continuation" right through each other. They cross each other. At least that's how it looks to our minds, even though, strictly speaking, we could just as accurately define such a form as four lines connecting at a central point.

In design, we see this concept of continuation in a number of ways. Sometimes it's in the way elements are composed, we suggest a direction that our eye wants to follow, such as in a progression of shapes. In photography, our eyes naturally want to wend their way down paths such as roads and rivers, or perspective lines, like railroad tracks, or across a telephone wire til we reach two sparrows perched on the other end. In typography, we have an obvious and built-in sense of continuation, because, in effect, we're lining up a long string of letterforms for our eyes to move across, as a path. And, on the other hand, in the case of long, narrow columns of newspaper type, we're cued to read, not so much from right to left, but from top to bottom. And, of course, the narrower the column, the more we suggest speed. And this is why typographers avoid those big, dense, margin-less blocks of type, with over-long measures. It just feels like a brick wall, it feels inert, the opposite of something that would offer our eyes visual momentum or continuation.

But in the final analysis, continuation is simply about directing our viewer's attention. Maybe we want to guide their eyes by taking advantage of those perspective lines and send their eyeballs wandering down the path, or maybe we'll use an imaginary line suggested by some kind of pointing device, like an arrow, or the good, old fashioned pointed finger.

So, make mental note as you see ads or posters or other compositions to ask yourself, where's the continuation? What path or progression, what set of perspective lines or curves are being employed to create that sense of visual momentum that gets our eyes going in the intended direction?

Well, that's it for today. Let me remind you that a full transcript of this show may be found at, music is by And as election fever mounts, I'll ask you to cast your vote at podcast alley, or simply leave a comment at iTunes. Well, thanks again for listening, and I hope you'll join us next time.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 33, All in the Family (Similarity)

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.
Well we're in the midst of a discussion on Unity, and as a part of that topic, we've taken a detour through what are called the gestalt rules. So, if you're joining us midstream, let's recap a few points.
Fist of all, Gestalt theory gets its name from a School of thought in Psychology, which began in the early 20th century in Germany. And this school of thought says that, when it comes to studying human behavior, we need see the big picture, we need to discern broader patterns of behavior, not just isolated psychological events. It's in the big picture that we get our insights.
But this concept carries over to visual studies as a way to explain how we can achieve a unified composition out of individual parts. And it even goes beyond that to assert that a unified whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
And so far we've discussed a couple of gestalt concepts, namely figure-ground and closure, which you can catch up on by downloading those episodes.
But moving right along, I'd like to step though some more gestalt rules today, starting with the rule of Similarity. And as we take these one by one, we'll see that they're really pretty simple and straightforward. The hardest part might be remembering the terminology.
Now, the rule of Similarity, just as you'd expect, says that a composition looks more unified if the elements are similar in some respect. If objects are similar, they look related. Just like people. Identical twins are obviously related to each other. But brothers or sisters that share physical characteristics can also look obviously related. It's when siblings don't look much like each other that people express surprise that they're actually related. They scratch their chin and say, "Really? I just don't see the family resemblance." And this is what it's like in our compositions. As we compose, we can put the same traits in elements if we intend for them to look unified.
And those traits can include shape, or size, or color or value. If you're a media designer, we might include similarity of motion, or any other attribute that will demonstrate similarity. If they look related, people will see them as a pattern or group, and your composition will convey a stronger sense of unity. And, again, its just like how we can intuit a family if we see a group of people that share genetic traits.
On the other hand, once we've established that pattern, once we've got a unified pattern, then we can go on and do more interesting things. We can direct attention to where we want it. If, among a row of black dots, one solitary dot is colored red, then it stands out, and we've got a device that will direct attention. Or if one of those dots is oversized compared to the rest, we've got a point of emphasis in an otherwise unified composition. In other words, we've tampered with those traits. Having established consistency in terms of shape, size, color, or value, we break the pattern.
And it's like that old Sesame Street song about one of these kids is doing his own thing, one of these kids just isn't the same. If you remember that song, you'll appreciate the example. If you don't, well, never mind.
A great exercise is to pay attention to logos, especially ones that are composed of more than just a few elements. If the logo is any good, that is, if it's unified, then you can look at it and ask yourself some questions. You can deconstruct it in terms of this rule of Similarity. And so you'll usually be looking at a bunch of shapes, or perhaps a bunch of lines or strokes, and you can ask yourself, what is similar about them? What makes the cohere as a group? Is there an element that seems to stand out for emphasis? And how does that stand-out element break the pattern?
And by the way, this is really the best way to learn design. You learn design by looking at examples, good and bad, and getting good at deconstructing them. In the same way a mechanic figures out what going on with your car, you want to put these design examples up on the lift, so to speak, and see how they work. Take them apart with your eyes, if you can, and put them back together again. That's how you extract the secret or principle that you can apply to your own work.
Well, that's the rule of Similarity, and that's all we've got time for today. Let me remind you that a transcript of today's program may be found at, music is by Well, thank you again for tuning in and I hope to have you back again.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 32, We're All Seeking Closure

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

In our continuing series on Unity, we're exploring Gestalt Theory - which is about perception, and how our minds make meaningful wholes out of incomplete parts. But as a topic of design study, it's a way of putting designers in the driver's seat. In other words, these concepts help us control how our audience sees what we put in front of them. It allows us to control the points of emphasis, among other things, so we can communicate in a more controlled way.

So moving right along, the next Gestalt concept we want to cover is Closure. Closure describes something that our our minds do to help us fill in the blanks. If a square is composed of a broken or dashed line, we understand it to be a square. We accept it as a square. It's not truly a square because of the spaces between the bits of line, but our minds of forgiving of this, and accept it as a square. If we see a half-shadowed face, we fill in the blanks. We accept that there is another side of the face. Otherwise, we might scream in horror over missing eyes and ears.

And this is a really good thing to know if you're ever stranded on a desert island. You can have full confidence that when you form the word, "S.O.S," out of rocks on the beach, the rescue plane pilot won't just see a bunch of scattered stones, he'll recognize your distress call for what it is and pick you up.

But Closure does another important thing for designers. It teaches us an important sensibility. And that's that you don't have to be super-explicit all the time. You don't have to overplay your hand to get the job done. Your audience can put together a whole lot of meaning out of a few elements. And this reminds us not to visually over-explain, or to underestimate our audience. We can take a less-is-more approach with assurance that they'll "get it." So go ahead and imply a human face with a few odd, unlikely objects. Your audience will discern that face and smile at how clever you were, and how clever they were for being able to see it. Or go ahead and suggest additional letterforms using the figure-ground technique we discussed last time. Your audience will perceive that letter, and you're client will thank you for making a slicker logo for them.

But, that's Closure. And the stronger the gestalt effect is, which is a function of strong grouping, the easier it is for your audience to see the intended effect. In that SOS example, imagine if the stones on the beach were left unattended, and the tide began to move them apart, weakening the grouping. That would certainly make it harder for the pilot to see those letterforms. So, like most things, there's a balance you'll want to strike between clarity and ambiguity. And it's up to the designer to make that call.

Well, that's it for today. This one was brief, but like that Closure sensibility, why overplay my hand, why overexplain?

I'll just remind you that, as always, a transcript may be found at Music is by And if you're enjoying this ongoing series, please vote for the program at podcast alley, or at the iTunes profile page, and I'll thank you in advance for doing so, as I thank you once again for tuning in.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 31, Figure-Ground

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We're talking about Unity, which we've described as the compositional goal of taking many elements and fashioning them into a cohesive whole. In other words, we don't want our audience to be distracted by the parts and pieces of a thing, we want them to see the big picture, and want them to see it in way where everything ties together, everythings feels integral, everything hangs together as one piece, and creates one effect. And as we pointed out, this is essentially the definition of design, itself.

So, in keeping with this idea, we're taking a short tour through Gestalt theory, which is about perception as a dynamic process. It's about making meaning out of what we see, and how our minds want to make meaninful patterns out of chaos. And we do this by perceptually organizing what we're looking at. As we look around, as we survey our environment, we begin to infer a sense of structure and relationship among the things we see. And we do this so we can quickly come to terms with it all, to make sense of it all. And in a survival sense, it makes sense that our minds want to know what we're up against, so we can react appropriately.

In visual design, we learn how to apply these principles of perception so we can aid that process. Generally speaking, we want to make things as intuitive and as instant as we can. Because the goal is communicate, to transmit meaning rapidly, and make sure people get the message.

So, I'd like to give a quick rundown of these Gestalt rules, or tools, starting with what's called figure / ground. Figure/Ground is a way of understanding the visual field before us. If we see a man, for example, standing in the street, we see the man as the figure, and everything else as ground. And depending on how clear that distinction is to us, we'll have a stronger or weaker sense of which is which. The distinction between figure and ground is usually achieved by contrast. The darkness or lightness of a figure, for example, will clarify it as the figure. Or maybe the background is blurry, whereas the figure is in focus. Or maybe the distinction has something to do with the composition, since the placement of the figure can influence our perception of it. As designers, we want to get skillful at controlling the balance of figure and ground, and sometimes even making it purposely uncertain, in order to achieve a certain effect.

And I'll ask you to call to mind the famous optical illusion of the faces and the vase. This is the one that usually depicts a white vase against a black field. I remember personally encountering this for the first time as a kid on a cub scout trip to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, which is basically a science museum. One of the exhibits featured this image. And I remember that as I looked at that vase, an unexpected surprise happened. I sensed a kind of shift, as the foreground and background flipped positions, and suddenly the shape of two faces, two facing profiles emerged. Those black shapes - the faces - were now the foreground and the white vase was pushed back into space. It was all my own perception, but it was powerful nonetheless. Powerful enough for me to recall the experience vividly, some thirty years later.

You may also remember the famous Gestalt picture of the old lady and the young woman. At first glance, you see a young woman, head turned away from us. But as you continue looking, you may see the face of an old lady emerge.

The reason this kind of switch or flip occurs is due to a perceptual decision that we make. Our minds decide that one thing is the figure, and the rest ground. One thing appears as foreground, the rest is background. So if an image is ambiguous in this respect, this figure-ground flip is likelier to happen, as we seek to wrap our perceptual mind around the subject. So, this is kind of an internal decision making process that we're not necessarily aware of. Our minds do it in order to make sense of what we're looking at.

M.C. Escher famously manipulated our sense of figure and ground with his popular sketches, a perrenial favorite in the form of coffee table books and mugs and mouse pads

And graphic designers continually exploit figure ground. They do this for a lot of reasons. One reason is that it's just a neat optical trick, as we've pointed out. But the best reason is that it's just so efficient. It's elegant. Think about it. Why introduce additional figure, why add another positive element, when you can imply another element from the ground? It's a way of making 1 +1 = 3, of getting more from less, of pulling a rabbit out of hat. And that's why the shining examples in graphic design are those classic corporate logos. Look up Saul Bass' wonderful and enduring Girl Scout logo, for example, and you'll see a cascade of faces constructed out of just a couple of shapes and an activated background. Bass works magic with this mark. He brings the background into the foreground in such a way that the sum is greater than the parts.

I'll admit this is a tough one to describe in words alone. So, I'll encourage you to continue this little lesson on your own by searching Google images for stuff like the Girl Scout logo, or the works of M.C. Escher. It's helpful to explain how figure ground works, but you've just got to see it to appreciate it.

But I think that'll do for today. Let me remind you that a transcript of today's episode may be found at Music is by I look forward to having you back again.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 30, Seeing Unity (Gestalt)

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We're talking about Unity. And when we began this discussion last episode, we said that unity is a goal of composition - unity describes how a multiplicity of elements combine to achieve one efffect. And this concept hearkens back to the fundmental definition of design we layed down in our earliest episodes, when we said that Design is the process of creating order out of chaos, as we fashion many disparate elements into an ordered unit.

But how does Unity work? How is it that one design is perceived to be more unified than another? And that's the key phrase, "perceived to be." Because this discussion lands us squarely in the territory of perception. And it's all perception, when you think of it. Our designs are nothing but bits of paper and ink, or illuminated pixels. It's what our minds of make of those bits and pieces that matters. And while we may not entirely understand how our minds work, we know we can aid cognition by understanding some principles of perception.

So, today I'd like to introduce the ideas behind what is called Gestalt Theory. And don't let the terminology scare you, Gestalt Theory is concerned with how our minds connect the dots, so to speak, forming a coherent whole out of incomplete parts. A puzzle with missing pieces still provides enough relational and contextual clues for us to discern that emergent whole.

And you may recall that we touched on this idea somewhat in the episode on Shape, when I said that this was a cognitive imperative, the way our minds compulsively and continuously make meaning out of stimuli around us, even connecting random things. And I can't help being reminded of the scene in Woody Allen's Take The Money and Run, when he tells his analyst that the ink blot looks like two elephants making love to a male glee club. But I digress.

So, what Gestalt theory does is make much of context and relationships. When it comes to meaning, it's all in the WAY we put things together. Where is the element? What's next to it? Does this element stand alone or is it part of a group? These are the kinds of questions that are important.

One Gestalt analogy is how we can take a collection of individual musical notes and organize them as a unified melody. We can even transpose it to another key, which makes us use a different set of notes, yet we still recognize the same melody. The unity is persistent because the relationship of the notes has not changed. The intervals and duration and sequence are still the same. So, carrying this idea over to design, it makes us think in compositional terms, because the unity that we hope to create on the page has altogether to do with context and relationships.

But more on that next time, I think we have enough to chew on for today.

For now, let me remind you that a transcript of today's show can be found at Music is by If you're enjoying this series, don't forget to click subscribe in iTunes, so that you're automatically notified of new installments. And while you're there, consider leaving a comment at the profile page, which will encourage others to tune in, and I'll thank you in advance for doing so. And I thank you for tuning in today.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 29, Unity: Out of Many, One

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Design Guy, here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We concluded our recent series on balance with a quotation from Alex White's book, The Elements of Graphic Design. White tells us:

"Balance is an important route to achieving unity in design. If the various elements are seen to be in balance, the design will look unified. It will make a single impression. If a design is out of balance, its constituent parts will be more visible than the overall design."
(end of quotation.)

These remarks provide a nice segue into the topic of unity. And they also echo the very first definition we laid down for design itself. To refresh your memories, we said that Design is the process of creating order out of chaos, of taking many disparate elements and forming them into an ordered unit, or a unified whole.

So, that idea of wholeness, the E Pluribus Unum of Design, if you will, where from many things we attain one thing, or we achieve one effect is a very important concept both to have and to maintain as we're working. Especially on projects of any scope or scale. My own work experience has consisted of large-scale projects, spanning months or even years, contracts requiring multiple teams of people to execute, with a variety of taskings.

When you find yourself in this situation, you can easily miss the forest for the trees. You find that you're working on your own tree, and that, after a while, that's potentially all you can see. So achieving a unified effect becomes an even greater challenge on large, complex projects. And this is why direction is necessary. We need directors on large projects to maintain alignment toward a unified vision of an end product.

Movies are a perfect example of this. And the more you think about it, it seems almost miraculous that so many elements can come together so well in spite of the scale of a modern motion picture. There's the music, the special effects, the casting, and the myriad of other components of such a production. Then there's the screenplay itself - often having been passed through many hands after having been in development hell for years. Then there's the director's vision, the studio's input, the test audience results that influence the final product. It's a miracle that films turn out as coherent as they tend to be. And so it's also no wonder that there are many films that just don't work. Whose elements don't come together gracefully at all.

But that's the singular idea I want to impart today about unity. Unity achieves one effect. Everything works as a balanced whole.

On the other hand, where unity is weak, we find ourselves too conscious of the parts, we're distracted by the parts and pieces. We see the trees instead of the forest. And again, going with the movie analogy, this is a bit like when a supporting actor winds up stealing all the scenes, upstaging all the other actors in the ensemble. Instead of the blend of a strong ensemble, we're aware of strong actors and weak ones, and it spoils the unity. Every link in the chain has to hold its weight, or unity is broken.

But let's drive this concept home with a quote from Robin Landa's Graphic Design Solutions:

"Unity is one of the goals of composition. Unity allows the viewer to see an integrated whole, rather than unrelated parts. We know from studies in visual psychology that the viewer wants to see unity; if a viewer cannot see unity in a design, he or she will lose interest." (end of quotation).

Well that's if for today. Let me remind you that a transcript of today's show may be found at the webpage, at Music is by

And just a note about the show entries at iTunes. I've been bumping up against a 25 show limit that is a result of a limitation that, I believe, traces itself to my blogger page, where the feed originates. This means that every time a new episode shows up at iTunes, an early episodes drops off the list. So, I'm researching a solution that will allow even the earliest shows to appear in iTunes, without destroying the iTunes profile page and its history. Meanwhile, if you'd like to hear those early episodes, just go to and download the early episodes from the blog pages themselves. Each entry has a download link at the top of its page.

But, again, I do thank you for tuning in, and I hope to have you back next time.


1. White, Alex, The Elements of Graphic Design, Allworth Press, 2002

2. Landa, Robin, Graphic Design Solutions, OnWord Press, 2000

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 28, Balance On Balance

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We're in the midst of a discussion on balance, and in the previous episodes we discussed how elements act as optical weights within certain balancing schemes - and those schemes are typically classified as either symmetrical or asymmetrical. And we spoke about some of the implications and the effects - the feel that we get - out of those schemes.

Alex White, in his book, The Elements of Graphic Design, defines balance, and also sums up those balancing schemes as follows:

"Balance, or equilibrium, is the state of equalized tension. It is not necessarily a state of calm....Symmetrical, of formal, balance is vertically centered and is visually equivalent on both sides. Symmetrical designs are static and evoke feelings of classicism, fomality, and constancy.

Asymmetrical, or informal, balance attracts attention and is dynamic....(and it) requires a variety of sizes and careful distribution of white space. Asymmetrical designs evoke feelings of modernism, forcefulness, and vitality.'
(end of quotation.)

And that's more or less what we concluded, except that we emphasized the notion that if symmetry is essentially static, then asymmetry, on the other hand, suggests movement, because the equilibrium we've achieved is a dynamic one, made up of unequal parts, in an imperfectly resolved layout.

Now, before we get too conclusive about this distinction, I'd suggest that symmetrical designs can suggest motion also. Think of a paint spatter shape. Now if the splash radiates out pretty equally, we could call it an example of formal balance, or its close cousin, radial balance (to introduce a new term), nevertheless its shape is highly suggestive of action and movement. Not to mention the choice of color and and other elements that we could employ to further heighten our sense of dynamism. Like a tie-died t-shirt, symmetrical designs can be extremely dynamic if there are other things going on besides balance.

So, I wanted to provide my own counterpoint to the general truisms that we outlined before.

Now, finally, there's one more kind of balance we should touch on before moving on to another topic. This one is called "Crystallographic Balance" otherwise known as "Overall balance."

This describes those compositions that are set up in a mosaic or grid. If you're familiar with Mondrian, think of one of his grid compositions, consisting of primary colors and black grid lines. Or maybe Warhol's painting of Mao Tse Tung, where the same portrait appears in three rows of three. These can be done well, but in general they tend to lack any point of emphasis or distinct focal point, so graphic designers will want to create a better sense of hierarchy and order by staying away from the purest form of Overall balance, which tends to just have too many elements everywhere. By creating a compromised version of overall balance, with less elements, you stand a better chance of establishing focus and contrast and reading order.

I'll sum up by quoting White once more, when he says:

"Balance is an important route to achieving unity in design. If the various elements are seen to be in balance, the design will look unified. It will make a single impression. If a design is out of balance, its constituent parts will be more visible than the overall design."
(end of quotation.)

But that's it for now. Sorry for the delay on getting this one out, but my life has been a bit, out of balance with various commitments, so I'm happy to get another show out today.

Let me remind you that notes and a transcript are available at Music is by Well, I thank you again for listening, and I hope you'll join us next time.


Alex White, The Elements of Graphic Design, Allworth Press, 2002

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 27, Asymmetrical or Informal Balance

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

Now these days we've taken up the principle of Balance. And having established the concept of optical weight, and the way our page becomes a kind of balancing beam as we add visual elements to it, we turned our attention to the idea of Formal or Symmetrical balance. And we described this as a mirror image type of arrangement, where elements are symmetrically balanced on a page with respect to its central axis. And wee also pointed the implications of formal balance, the effect achieved by symmetry. Which is a feeling of equilibrium, and a sense of stasis and stability. And if I'm recapping too many concepts, too quickly, just take some time to listen to the previous programs, where I explain each idea in turn.

But moving on from there, the next concept we need to identify is Asymmetrical Balance, also called Informal Balance. And the typical example of this kind of balance is when one large element is counterbalanced by several smaller objects. Or if you'll recall the role of value that we described, we may have a situation where a smaller, dark object, is counterbalanced by a larger, light-colored object. At first glance, we might think these kinds of compositions aren't balanced, because they don't have the obvious symmetry that makes the situation feel all the more stable. But on closer examination, we realize that the teeter totter of our page is balanced, after all. And though the objects distributed on either side of the central axis may be very different from each other, the optical weight of each side appears to be about even.

An even more clever example of assymetrical balance is when a large object on one side of the page is balanced by a smaller object placed at the very far end of the opposite side, mimicking the physics of leverage.

But, as we explained last time, the visual designer is usually more concerned with the effects or implications of the type of balance being employed. And where we said last time that Formal balance imparts a conservative and a stable feeling to a composition, Informal balance, on the other hand, with its lack of symmetry, achieves quite the opposite. In fact, the effect is what I'd call a dynamic sense of order. And that's because there are differences in the page. While it feels resolved in terms of balance, it isn't equalized, the way water seeks its own level. And in that sense it's unresolved, but in a good way. It's got a dynamism, and so informal balance implies movement.

So, look around. Pay attention to compositions in ads and books and magazines. And you'll see what I mean. Those ads for Absolut Vodka, with their perfectly centered single bottle, and the perfectly centered caption are always symetrical and formally balanced. And that stable feeling we infer from those layouts is a good thing, because that bottle has never once appeared to be in danger of tipping over and spilling its contents in all the years that we've been seeing it. Then scout around some more and you'll typically see many more examples of informal balance, and while the pages feel stable enough, you'll notice the dynamism I'm talking about. They almost seem to move, they're dynamic. And you'll notice, that these layouts generally tend to be less staid and formal and conservative feeling.

Now, as a final note on this formal versus informal balance thing, I just want to be clear that my intent is not to pit one against the other, as if one is superior to the other. The decision to choose one over the other is often an intuitive one, but where we're very aware of our thought process, the decision should be based on suitability. It's about what kind of feeling we want to convey in the composition itself.

It's interesting to note that Jan Tschichold(1), one of the titans of typographic design, was the author of a landmark book titled, The New Typography, back in the 20s. And this was a modernist manifesto that, among other things, argued for the superiority of informal balance. And like many of the schools of thought that emerge throughout design history, this was like a declaration. These movements would come along like a revolution and the message was, forget everything you know, throw it all away - it's wrong, this is how it should be done. And the irony is that Mr. Tschichold later recanted the rigidity of his own writings, and made friends with traditional things like roman typefaces and formal balance.

Today, we seem to be largely over this polarization. We've learned from the schools of thoughts and we tens to regard them as different modes of expression to choose from. So, as far as balance is concerned, exercise your formal and informal sensibilities as suits the particular needs of your project.

But that'll do for today. I want to thank you for listening in, and I'll remind you that a transcript of today's show is available at the webpage, which is Music is by

But thanks again for joining us, and I hope to have you back next time.



Friday, May 16, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 26, Symmetrical or Formal Balance

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

In our last episode, we took up the principle of balance. And to lay the ground work for this discussion, we introduced the phrase, optical weight, which, in a nutshell, describes the phenomenon of how elements on a page have visual gravity. Depending on their size, and depending on their value, which refers to their lightness or darkness, an element can appear relatively light or heavy. And in the balancing beam that is our page, this influences our perceptual sense of balance.

Today, I'd like to introduce the idea, first, of Symmetrical Balance, also referred to as Formal Balance. And as the name implies, this kind of balance has an even symmetry, or mirror image distrubution of elements on the page with relation to the central axis. So, like the appearance of a butterfly, or a rorschak test folded perfectly in half, we often have a perfect parity, and close left hand / right hand shape equivalence. Now, this doesn't mean that we necessarily have identical objects on either side of that central axis, but we've got similarity in terms of numbers and sizes and value of objects, and they're more or less arranged in mirror-image fashion.

The simplest example of this is the center justfication of type. When we center-justify type on a page, we clearly see that mirror-image shape occurring. In other words, whether the measure of a line of type is long or short, their position will correspond to a central axis. So, if we squint at a page of justified type, we'll discern a grayish mass with identical contours on each side. Kind of like a rorschak shape. So, here we have an example of type brought into formal balance.

Now, the more thoughtful typographers employ formal balance with purpose in mind. They have a reason for doing so. But to understand that purpose, one has to appreciate some of the implications of formal balance.

If we take wedding invitations, for example, it seems that they're always center justified, which tends to befit these very formal, somewhat decorative documents. And because they are center-justified, or formally balanced, we get kind of a tranquil, sedate effect out of it. Formal balance just feels safe and stable to us. And the reason it does, the idea behind it, is that everything is equal, everything is in an equilibrium. And what that implies to us is a static state. There's no movement implied by stasis or equilibrium. Like a pyramid, its a stable form. And, yet, if you think about it, it's not always exciting to play it safe. Things that are static, in a state of equilibrium, with no implied motion, can become quite boring, actually. So, when it comes to layout decisions, we'll want to reserve symmetrical or Formal balance for material that's suited to this type of arrangement. Ofttimes, that will make sense for conservative kinds of things.

Formal balance is often where we start as beginners at design. Because it just feels safer for us to balance elements in this manner, we tend to use it more when we're starting out. We do what a friend of mine calls "the matchy matchy thing," out of insecurity, balancing elements on the right and left sides of the page, because, well, we're afraid to do otherwise. Our instincts haven't been trained to create more dynamic arrangements, because we're insecure about venturing away from our symmetry.

But more on that next time. We'll stop here for now, with the definition and implications of formal balance as we've just described, and venture into some other ideas about balance next time.

But I thank you again for listening. And I want to especially thank the good folks at Apple for featuring this program on their iTunes Store podcast home page last week. That was a wonderful surprise.

And if you're enjoying these shows, I'd ask you to leave a comment at the podcast home page at iTunes, which is the best way to get the word out.

But thanks again for tuning in, and I hope to have you back again.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 25, Balancing Act

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explore timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

Well, we may not be able to bring balance to the force, but we can speak to the principles of balance that will help us in our design work. In life, as in many arenas, balance is something we're always striving for. In our compositions, designers have the unique advantage of seeing balance, and of actually visualizing its dynamics. And yet despite that advantage, designers still need help with balance, they need help with how to think about balance, and so this is a topic that's worthy of our time and attention.

But let's start with a basic definition. The standard dictionary entry describes balance as an even distribution of weight, allowing a person or thing to remain upright and stable. When something is stable, it tends not to fall over. When a person loses their balance, it's because their weight has shifted in a way that won't allow them to maintain their stance. And so we begin to fall over, and if we can't recover, we take a tumble. The greater the shift in weight, the less chance we have of regaining our balance. So, balance is something we're constantly trying to maintain, even on an unconscious level, as we stroll down the avenue on a carefree, sunny day.

And so it goes with our design compositions. The balance we maintain is often something we're not even consciously thinking of. We just make the adjustments to our layouts as we go, intuitively, without much thought or concern.

And yet balance merits a bit of study, especially when we're starting out, and are forming our habits of thought and approach to our work. So, what I'd like to do is discuss the different kinds of balance, and their implications on our work.

Now, with that definition of balance as an even distribution of weight, or weights, we've got a pretty good leg up on things. In fact, I've heard designers compare the weight and balance aspects of their compositions to a teeter totter kind of dynamic, recognizing that as they place elements on a page, each element has its own optical weight. And by the way, do make mental note of that phrase, "optical weight," because it's a good concept to have in mind as we approach other subjects of design. But in balancing the page, we know we've got a central axis, a conceptual line down the middle of the page. And as elements stack up in various places on the page, our sense of balance is affected. Our page will fee like it's see sawing to the right or left if the weight of those elements is distributed unevenly.

So, what contributes to optical weight? That is, what makes an element feel relatively light or heavy on the page? The main contributors are size or scale, and value. The bigger the object, the heavier. The darker the object, the heavier.

For example, picture a page in your mind with two black orbs, two filled-in circles of black. And these orbs are distributed evenly, horizontally on the either side of the central axis of your page. So, we've got a classic teeter totter set-up here. Well, if they're both the same size, and they're both black, how will that feel? Balanced or unbalanced? I think if we'd all say they're balanced.
Now, make one smaller than the other. And it feels unbalanced.
Now, make them equal in size again, but change one to light grey, which is a lower value or tint. Now the page feels unbalanced again. Same size orbs, but one is lighter in value, and it feels lighter in weight.
Finally, reduce the black orb to half the size of the light grey orb, or thereabouts. This tends to bring things back in balance. One side is smaller but denser looking, the other larger, but lighter looking, and so they appear to be essentially balanced.

Now, there's much more to balance to explore, but that'll have to do for today, so let's stop here, with this teeter totter concept and the idea of optical weight under our belts.

And let me remind you that a transcript of today's discussion is available on my webpage, at Music is by

Well, I thank you again for listening in, and I hope to have you back next time.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 24, Elements: Format, The Forgotten Element

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

Today, we bring to a close our series on the formal elements of two dimensional design. Having surveyed line, shape, value, color, and texture, today we'll wrap up our discussion with some thoughts on format.

And what is format? To lay out a definition, Format refers to the shape and size and dimensions associated with our chosen medium. Specifically, that could be a business card or a book jacket or a label for a can of beans. All these are examples of formats, each with their own possibilities and challenges and constraints. And every one of these formats deserves thoughtful consideration before we set to work.

Unfortunately, however, Format is the forgotten element. Or if that's too dramatic a statement, we might at least agree that it's frequently the overlooked element. Like the phenomenon of something that's hidden in plain sight, format isn't always given the consideration it deserves.

This syndrome reminds me of one of those classic monster movie scenes where someone is being told where to look for the creature's footprint, but they just can't see it. "Where? Where is it?," they ask. And it's not until the camera pulls back, creating a wide reveal, that we, the audience, can see that they're actually standing in it. The footprint is enormous--the work of Godzilla or King Kong.

And this is why we overlook format. It's our context. And we tend to miss it or to take it for granted. And what we tend to do, is to default to the tired, conventional uses of certain formats, without giving it a whole lot of thought.

Robin Landa, in her book, Graphic Design Solutions, says it this way.

"Whether it is a page or a business card, whatever you start out with is the format. The format is a vital element in two dimensional design. Most beginning students take the format for granted, not realizing that it is an active element in design. If you think of an average page as two vertical lines and two horizontal lines joined at right angles, then the first line you draw on a page is actually the fifth line. Like that fifth line, all of the other formal elements are contained by, and interact with, the original shape of the format." (end of quotation).

So, Landa is emphasizing format as an active element that should be given as much strategic thought as we would give any other element.

There are some classic examples of how designers overlook format. Thinking of a business card only in horizontal terms, for example, as if it can't be turned vertically. Or assuming there's only one fold scheme possible for brochures, the tri-fold that everyone else uses. Even formats that offer tremendous flexibility go unexploited. The format of a book, its shape and size, its orientation and thickness, is determined by the choice of trim dimensions and paper, well within the power of a designer to influence. Now, I know there are other constraining factors, such as budget and trade standards that tend to tie our hands. But just as often, what holds us back is simply a failure of imagination. We tend to go with the flow, and we default to convention.

These examples are offered not as an attempt to turn this discussion into some kind of a call to novelty, but simply to provoke a little forethought. If we stop and ponder the possibilities of our format, we stand to improve all the decisions that will follow.

Finally, we should be aware of the function of our format. Where street signs and billboards are meant to be viewed from afar, magazines and brochures are viewed at close range. And then there's the nuance of how to optimize a format for its intended use. Should that cookbook we're supposed to design be perfect-bound? Or should we put it in a ring binder, so that it lays flat, and so the reader can remove or add pages? Or how about that web page, should we use a tabbed format for its navigation, or will some other metaphor better suit our audience. It should become obvious through these examples that choice of format has many practical implications. And that its the designer's job to aid the consumption of information by selecting the right format and using it in the right way.

The old design adage, "form follows function" attests to this. Let's first determine the function of what we're doing. If we can figure out the function, we can usually draw natural and obvious conclusions about the form, or format.

But that's it for today. If you'd like a transcript of today's discussion, be sure to visit the webpage at Music is by

Thanks again for listening. And I hope you'll join us next time.


Robin Landa, Graphic Design Solutions, 3rd Edit, Cengage, 2005

Monday, April 7, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 23, Elements: Smooth Moves with Texture

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply. Or as Emerson once exhorted, "If you learn only methods, you'll be tied to your methods, but if you learn principles, you can devise your own methods." If we update that advice for today, we might say to designer, "Learn how design works, don't just learn software applications."

We're talking about the formal elements of two dimensional design, which are the building blocks that we use to compose our work. And today we turn our attention to texture.

Texture is a bit more sensual than the other elements, because in addition to the visual qualities or the surface appearance we portray in our work - which looks like a relative smoothness or roughness - texture is also a tactile phenomenon. It's something we feel and, in some cases, literally touch, like when we select gloss or matte lamination for an annual report. This is a case where someone will see it and respond to the textural elements, but they'll also hold it. They'll feel the weight of the paper and they'll feel the tactile qualities of the stock we've chosen, as well as any special treatments, like lamination.

Robin Landa, in her book, Graphic Design Solutions, says it this way:
She says, "Sometimes you decide just by looking at a texture whether or not you want to touch it. Some textures are appealing, like velvet, while others, like rust, are not. In art, there are two categories of texture - tactile and visual. Tactile textures are real, we can actually feel their surfaces with our fingers. Visual textures are illusionary; they simply give the impression of real textures." (end of quotation).

But texture comes in a number of forms. And we express texture in a variety of ways. We describe it using words like hard or rough or coarse or craggy. Or we use terms like smooth or velvety or even warm or cold or soft. In other words, all surfaces have a texture. And it's up to you as the designer to recognize texture, and decide how you'll incorporate it as an element in your composition, and do so for the right reasons.

Will it play a minor, supporting role? Or will texture be the dominant and central idea? Maybe you're going with a corrugated cardboard look and feel, along with typography that looks hand-markered, and its the strong texture aspect of the composition that achieves the intentionally crude feeling that you're after. On the other hand, you may be creating a very spartan, sophisticated piece with lots of white space and a tight grid, and a relative absence of texture. You'll probably be staying away from a rough-hewn, organic feeling, in favor of a smoother appearance. Maybe you'll want to use a combination of textures, a contrast in textures, knowing that rough looks rougher and smooth looks smoother when you play them against each other.

One way of the other, you need to make decisions as a designer. You need to consider various options in texture as part of your lexicon and vocabulary, and choose what you want to communicate, in the same way that, in the verbal realm, you would choose the right words. In fact, we use the terminology of texture to describe verbal language all the time. For example, we engage in "rough" language or we use "course" words. Other times, we describe someone as a "smooth" talker, a politician perhaps, or that their words were "slick". So, it's really interesting how these ideas carry over. But it does reinforce the idea that designers should choose texture strategically to convey and support meaning.

So, give careful consideration to texture as you plan the communication aspect of what you're doing. Plan it in the visual realm, as you use visual elements that only have the appearance of texure. And, if you're creating tangible products, like printed pieces, give thought to how you'll create actual, tactile texture, by virtue of the kind of papers you'll use, and the treatments that will actually be touched and felt by the end user. We use the phrase, "look and feel" all the time, even in web design. But texture is truly the "feel' part. So, ask yourself what you want to say, what tone should come across, and how texture can support those concerns, and your work will be looking and feeling just the way they should.

Well, that's it for now. I want to thank you for listening.

And I'll ask that if you've been enjoying this ongoing series, please consider dropping a comment at iTunes or podcast alley to show your support, which is really just a great way to get the word out. And I thank you in advance for doing so.

And, until next time. Thanks again for listening!


Robin Landa, Graphic Design Solutions, 3rd Edit, Cengage, 2005

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 22, Elements: Value-Added Design

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We're talking about the formal elements of two-dimensional design. And these are the building block elements, the fundamentals at work in our design compositions. So far among these elements we've identified Line and Shape and Color.

And with the last discussion of color fresh in our memories, today we'll consider Value. And Value simply describes the relative lightness or darkness within a composition.

A good way for us to see Value at work is to conjure up in minds an image of a color wheel. In fact, imagine you're in a room with a poster of the color wheel on one of the walls. And it's your garden variety color wheel that we're all familiar with. Sort of a pie chart, with seven wedges that follow the Roy-G-Biv arrangement, each wedge its own color.

Then imagine you've got your hand on a dimmer switch and you can make the room dim, and the color wheel dim,... and then dim them even more until the colors are pretty dark,... and then darker still until everything is black or near-black on that poster.

Then, alternatively, you can bring that dimmer switch up to make the room bright,... and brighter still,... in fact these lightbulbs can get so bright that we can hardly look after a while, everything is just awash in white, including the colors on the chart.

Now this example of playing with a dimmer switch (and I can still hear my Mom telling me to cut it out, by the way) is a study in Value, or how we can play with Value. When we turned up the light, we added white to the colors, and this had the effect of turning blue into light blue, and red into pink. And it's really just like adding white to your paints when you want to turn full strength colors into pastels. Sort of that Martha Stewart or Easter pallette. And this kind of change in value, adding whites, is called TINT. But, when we dimmed those colors, which is like mixing increased amounts of black to your color, we manipulated SHADE. So Tint and Shade are couple of key terms that have to do with Value. And it's all a result of light.

And that's really key, that concept of how light interplays with color, because value describes the effect of a light source as it creates shadows and highlights in our subject.

Now when graphic designers think of Value we're usually thinking in terms of contrast. And that's because designers are obsessed with contrast. Or at least we should be if we're not. And we'll speak more about contrast in a future episode.

But in a nutshell, when adjust value, we adjust our composition. We manipulate how we perceive the elements on the page. We want some to be dominant, perhaps a strong foreground element, a bold book title is made darker in value, perhaps, which would be an adjustment to Shade. Or we want other things to recede, we want them to move away, into the perceptual background, much the way a painter adds whites to distant landscape elements, which is a TINT adjustment, in order to push them back.

Sometimes we're just changing the overall mood. The same palette of hues we've chosen just "feels" different depending on whether we use their darker or lighter equivalents. And this is why interior decorators advise you to hang up a swatch of color so you can observe it over time, as the light in your house changes during the course of a day, and then decide if you like it.

Other times, changes to value creates special effects. The humble gradient blend is perennially-popular for creating a sense of dynamic lighting. Or if we've got a multiplicity of objects, a line of dots ranging from light grey to black, for example, they almost seem to move, like a ball moving across the page. Or maybe we want to establish a pattern of dots and then break it by making just one of them a different value. Suddenly that one dot stands out as unique, drawing the eye.

Well, these are just a few examples of how we can be thinking of value and using it in our compositions.

But that's all we have time for today. If you'd like a transcript of today's program, visit the webpage at Music is by

Well, I thank you again for listening in and I hope to have you back again.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 21, Elements: The Color of Design

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We're talking about the Formal Elements, which we've defined as the building blocks of two dimensional design.

To that end, we've touched on Line and Shape so far, and just enough to convey their importance without getting too in-depth or technical. And I'd like to do the same today with Color.

Now, Color is a pretty broad topic. We could speak about it at length for many episodes, and the temptation is to get technical. And there IS a ton of information we ought to know about color. For starters, we hear about additive and subtractive color. And then there's the issue of color management. Or we hear about proprietary tools like the Pantone Matching system. And then there're those color models that we've heard of since Kintergarten, the color wheels that help us identify color relationships. We use terms like primary, secondary colors, complimentary, split-complimentary, analogous, to name some. And of course, there are what you might call the anatomical aspects of color - hue and saturation, etc. All these things and more really are essential to your education as a designer. And hopefully we'll have opportunity to explore many of these aspects in the future. And these give you the technical foundation you need to deploy color successfully in your projects.

But today I want to offer some basic thoughts on how we should think about color. And this has more to do with communication than anything else. Because, in the final analysis, designers use color to convey meaning, whether that's through obvious color symbolism or more subliminally, in order to strike a mood.

Color specialist Leatrice Eiseman says it this way.

She says, "Figure out the thing that color does. Being the complicated creatures that we are, our reactions go well beyond the physical phenomena (of color)....(they go to) the psychological response. If lavender appears lighter than purple, it is purely a sensory occurrence. It is simply what we see. But if lavender suggests a feeling of nostalgia or romance, then psychological reactions are brought into play." (1)
(end of quotation)

So the big idea is that we associate color with certain things. And as a result, we REACT to color. We RESPOND to color. For example, we speak in terms of color temperature. There are warm colors and there are cool colors. And there's a host of inbetween states, where warm and cool colors mix, and the "meaning" gets more nuanced and subtle. But we react to all these colors. They impact us .

And we may have our own personal feelings about certain colors. But the designer's job (usually) is to set aside our individual feelings and preferences for color, and play to general percpetions. For example, Green often stands for the growth and vitality we associate with vegetation, and so we can play to that perception when appropriate. I recently had some involvement in the development of a corporate logo where green was employed to mean "environmentally friendly," a popular cliche I wanted to resist at first, because it is such a cliche, and because I think people can grow cynical about such cliches, but it became inescapable in the end. It was too central to the message this corporate mark needed to embody.

Now, as designers, our typical use of color is through our software apps. In these applications, we label them with pantone or hexidecimal or rgb values. Not very.... emotionally charging. And that's a potential problem for us. Because they're just numbers. They're abstract. And this could have a sterilizing effect.

But there's a wonderful antidote for this. There's a way to emotionally charge those colors again. And that's to put descriptive names on colors. My favorite way of doing so is to spend a little time over by the paint swatches in a place like Lowe's or Home Depot. Here you'll find wonderfully evocative names for color. Names designed to stir up emotion, not just paint. A certain shade of green isn't called green, it's called Wasabi, which puts me in mind of the last time I had Sushi. Or a certain blue is called Ocean Whisper. Or a soft brown is called "Wicker" or "Sataki." You get the idea. If you think about it, we were first acquainted with such associations when we were just tikes, with our boxes of Crayolas, where discovered names for colors like "burnt sienna."

The best thing I've read on color, lately, comes from a book I have, published by Pottery Barn, of all places. It's called "Bathrooms: Ideas and Inspiration for Stylish Bathing Spaces." And they've got a section on color, in which they say the following:

"Color is a science and an art. In simple terms, the science of color has to with light while the art of color revolves around pigment. But the art of color also deals with chemistry - the chemistry of emotion. It's a pleasure to find the different combinations of hues that create a happy visual experience and express your own color point of view.... To choose colors for your bathroom, simply look at what you love and what you love to live with." (end of quotation) (2)

I like this quotation because it reminds me that, in a real sense, designers are creating places, we're creating experiences. And that we can use color to push all the appropriate emotional buttons in our audience. And in this way, color is strategic. It's yet another example of that analogy of the opening moves in a chess game.

So, to summarize. It's important that we gain technical knowledge about color, but ultimately, this knowledge should serve the goal that Leatrice Eiseman identified. Which is to figure out the thing that color does. Figure out how you want to impact your audience. And then choose colors that will cause the desired effect.

But's that's all for today. Thanks again for listening in. If you'd like a transcript of the show, visit the webpage at Music is by

I thank you again for listening, and I hope to have you back again.


1. Eiseman contributes a short chapter on color to Hillman Curtis' MTIV: Making the Invisible Invisible: Principles, Practice and Inspiration for the New Media Designer.

2. Oxmoor House, 2003, Pottery Barn Bathrooms

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 20, Elements: Things Are Shaping Up Nicely

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We're talking about the Formal Elements, which we previously described as the building blocks of two dimensional design.

In the last episode, we explored the idea of Point, and how Point becomes Line as we move it about the surface of our chosen medium.

Today, we'll talk about the next thing that happens in this process. Which is to suggest that these elements follow a natural order. Point begets Line, as we just said, and Line begets Shape. Shape, then, is the next thing to occur, and Shape is the element we want to explore today.

But let me review that progression with a bit more precision. We draw a line, beginning at a given point. And from that point, we wander about the page, and our line remains a line until... we bring it on home and establish a Shape. In other words, Shape happens when we complete our circuit by connecting the end points of our line. Or we might simply say that we've outlined something. And for those of you who've logged time with drawing programs with their pen tools, this outlining process is very familiar. Graphic designers routinely create shapes in this way. Sometimes we take a photo, of a leaf perhaps, then trace its contours in order to capture just its shape. This is a common task, a common process that consists of Point, line, and shape.

The textbooks classify shapes in three ways.

Geometric Shapes - these are shapes made out of triangles or squares or circles or other geometric forms, and they look mechanical, in that they lack a hand drawn appearance. They're the product of tools like rulers and protractors.

Organic Shapes are more free-flowing, as opposed to geometric, but they still look mechanically produced in that they lack brush strokes or other artifacts of the media used.

Then there are Calligraphic Shapes. And as the word calligraphy implies, it refers to shapes that are drawn, where we ARE aware of the artist's hand, and the line quality of the instrument used, including the characteristics of the medium, like the toothy paper that lends texture to pencil lines.

So, in a nutshell, this choice of geometric, organic, or calligraphic shapes describes different modes of expression.

But what I really want to convey today is the primacy of shape. Shape is most important among the elements, visually and perceptually, because of the way our mind seizes upon shapes, the way our mind demands shapes in order to make sense of the environment. And this trait owes itself to the way the brain is wired. Many have suggested that it's simply a survival thing. For eons, we needed to scan our field of vision, we needed to perceive the shape of a lion before it pounced - our keen shape perception gave us a fighting chance to run away.

In the modern world, we're very concerned with shape-symbolism. Take road signs, for example. We're in our car, and that stop sign we're approaching on the corner of Maple and Main is first and foremost an octagon, and even though it's getting dusky out, and its harshly back-lit by the sun, obliterating any sense of its color or printed content, we can at least perceive its shape, which, in the idiom of regulated travel, aka the "rules of the road," we take to mean "Stop." So, the shape, itself, provided the meaning. And so it goes as we look for the universal symbols that are sprinkled everywhere, as we do our wayfinding in public places. People the world over have been trained to look for the men's or ladies room, or the airport, by using these familiar, iconic shape symbols.

And we've all got obsessive compulsive disorder when it comes to shape recognition because our minds don't tolerate shape ambiguity well. We tend to want to know what we're looking at, which is probably why modern art doesn't cater to mainstream tastes. This is because our minds crave meaning.

And the idea that shape denotes meaning creeps into our everyday language. We say things like, "that's about the shape of it." Or we talk about "the shape of things to come" as we attempt to extract meaning from today's events and extrapolate them into tomorrow.

Our minds are so compulsive in assigning meaning to shapes that we even try to make sense of random things. In other words, our minds are always designing things, always trying to create order out of chaos.

You may have had the experience of lying on a beach, and in a very relaxed manner, studying the clouds above. And, before long, your attention was drawn to the features of a particular cloud - its contours and shadows - which seemed to create certain forms. And you noticed that these contours drew the vague shape of something recognizable. And you allowed your mind to play with it a while, until the impression of that thing became more and more distinct. Maybe you could discern the shape of a sheep, or an elephant, or the head of Elvis wearing sunglasses. And perhaps you rolled over for twenty minutes or so before turning back over. And even though the clouds continued to morph during that interval, you could still see Elvis, sort of a smudge by that time, and you could see his sunglasses, smeared and elongated, but still recognizable. This is an example of our how our minds make meaning from even meaningless shapes. It's a cognitive imperative, this meaning-making. And it helps to explain why people pay tidy sums for old grilled cheese sandwhiches on eBay that purport to contain the visage of the virgin Mary. And it's all about shape recognition.

Now those are really awful examples used just to make the point that our brains latch on to shapes. For a better example, think of the classic logos, the famous and enduring marks of the great companies that are branded in our minds. You can reduce those shapes to just one color, like a silhouette, and they remain eminently recognizable. They still retain their meaning. They still communicate. But, I think the ultimate example for graphic designers is that of type. And what is a specimen of type, but a letterform? Letterforms are the graphic shapes that produce words, the ultimate meaning-makers. And we take these shapes for granted even as absorb untold numbers of words in the course of our lives, informing and guiding our very existence by them.

So designers, remember that Shape is powerful and that Shape ought to be primary in your arsenal. And that if you make shapes, you'll make meaning, and if you make meaning, you'll truly be communicating.

But that's all for today. Thanks again for listening in. If you'd like a transcript of the show, visit the webpage at Music is by

I thank you again for listening, and I hope to have you back again.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 19, Elements: What's the Point of Line?

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

As I've mentioned before, our focus here is on principles, rather than software tips or industry events. Not that there's anything wrong with those things - we all need to keep up. But it's the principles you can depend upon as your constants - principles act as footholds in a world of rapid change. And once grounded in them, you'll probably even save yourself a bit of money and effort as the siren song of new software upgrades loses some of its allure. You may find you can skip a version or two before upgrading to the next big thing, because you begin to realize that new features aren't everything. It's better to invest your attention toward principles, and learn how to wield the tools you've got, than misplace your investment in mere features.

But we're talking about the formal elements of design these days, and in the last program we started things off with some introductory thoughts. To highlight one point, we said that the formal elements are the basic building blocks of design. And just like the opening moves of a chess game, we should think of them as strategic, because we'll use them to frame things and set up things to follow as we build our design.

Now, the first of these elements is Line, which German artist, Maholy Nage,(1) described as the "record of a path of motion."

This idea comes in clearer when we recognize the basis of Line, which is the concept of Point. Point is what we make our line with. Or to say it another way, line is what results when we start moving a point around the surface of our medium. And Point is simply the tool we've chosen: the pencil's point, or the tip of a brush, or the tool with which we're painting pixels on screen.

So, Line is the expression or movement of that point. And as we move that point, our resulting lines can be straight or angular or curvilinear. They can very perfect in their straightness - the product of a machine - or they can imply the human and organic movement of the hand.

And this brings up the idea of Line Quality. Line quality refers to the physical attributes or properties of a line. The feeling we get by the nature of the line we're making. Some lines are wavy and broken, as if an old man with tremors made them. Some lines are thin, others thick, still others go thick and thin, like one exerting pressure on a wet brush.

And, again, because line can be defined as the path that our point took, line strongly connotes direction. Horizontals, Verticals, and Diagonals, are all descriptions of direction.

And don't just think of the artist's medium. The subjects in photographs contain all kinds of edges and contours - the equivalent of line.

Lines can give the illusion of motion, and even suggest the abstract notion of a larger context, as they drift right off the edge of the page. I've always been fascinated with paintings or designs where the motion of a line seems frozen in time. Where you clearly see movement captured, where a line contains the artifacts or impressions of bristles or pastels or whatever instrument the artist used. And in the path the instrument took, you see the illusion of motion. You've got a paradox in that a static design appears to move.

Lines can enclose and encircle, they can be open, they can manipulate our perception of the space they define. Converging lines can put us in mind of railroad tracks meeting at the horizon, far far away. They can suggest form and mass, like Saul Bass's(2) original AT&T logo(3) does.

All these things and more are achieved by Line. So do give it a second thought the next time you pick up your mouse or your graphics tablet pen or better yet, your No. 2 Ticonderoga brand pencil. And be sure to sharpen up that point.

But that'll do for today. I want to thank you again for listening and remind you that a transcript of today's talk can be found at Music is by

And if you're enjoying this series, I'll ask that you consider leaving your comments at my iTunes page, or cast your vote at podcast alley. And I do thank you in advance, those remarks are very much appreciated.

Well, until next time, this is Design Guy. Hope to have you back again.




3. (Scroll down for the AT&T logo.)

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 18, The Formal Elements of Design: A Foreword

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Design Guy here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

Well, it's high time we spoke about the basic elements of 2-dimensional design, the so-called formal elements.

But before we get into specifics, we should be aware of a general principle. And that's that there's power in simply being able to name things. In any arena, there's an authority we gain merely by learning the names and faces, the do's and don'ts, the rules of the road, etc. And in the self-same way we study vocabulary and grammar in the realm of writing, there's power for the designer in being able to name and properly use the elements of design.

Particularly in visual design, because so much of what we do is kind of invisible to us, even as we're working, because we're running along intuitively and not necessarily consciously thinking about the principles that underly what we're doing. We just do it. And that's fine and actually desirable because it means we've internalized what we've learned. We've got the principles inside of us. Like learning to ride a bike, we want to get to a place where we no longer have to think, "left foot, right foot, balance, apply brake." We want to achieve what learning theorists call "automatic mastery" because it liberates us from the stymying effects of having to think too much.

Now, this intuitive mode of working serves us just fine most of the time. But sooner or later we get into unfamiliar territory. We become unsure of ourselves. Something we're working on takes a weird turn and we find ourselves at a loss to diagnose it. And it's unsettling for us to know that something's wrong, yet feel ill-equipped to fix it. If only we could put our finger on what's wrong, we could get ourselves unstuck. This is why it's helpful to name the elements, and remind ourselves how the work. It's a way of getting ourselves out of jam, just by talking ourselves through the problem.

Now, the maddening thing about this whole subject area of the formal elements of design is that no one seems to be able to agree exactly as to what constitutes them. You hear different things referenced by different people. Be that as it may, we'll cover the more commonly cited list of elements, which makes up just a handful of things, and use this as a springboard into a longer litany of the elements, principles, and concepts that will stretch across the many episodes to come.

As we begin to get familiarized with them, a helpful way of thinking about them is as a set of sliders or controls. Controls that, conceptually speaking, are not unlike the ones found on a music mixer. You know, the big boards with all the panning knobs and LED lights that allow for precise control of a musical mix. Need more cow bell? Let's push that slider up a bit.

Insert audio clip of Christopher Walken's "Cowbell" sketch on SNL:
<<<"I got a fever, and there's only one cure. More cow bell">>>

But that's the idea, we want to be able to name and understand the elements that influence our design work. So, what are these elements? Robin Landa, in her book, Graphic Design Solutions(1), invites us to begin thinking about them in this way. She says:

Draw a line on a page, paper or electronic. Now add another line. This seems like a simple exercise, but here are a few questions. Where did you draw the first line on the page - at the top or at the bottom? Where did you draw the second line? Were they on angles? How long were the lines? How thick were the lines? Did the lines touch? Did the lines bend or curve, or were they straight?

How can drawing two lines on a page become so complicated? If you think of the two lines as the first two moves in a chess game, you can begin to see how important each is to the outcome. As soon as you draw one line on a page, you begin to build a design.

Lines are one of the basic building blocks of design. These building blocks of two dimensional design are called the formal elements. They are line, shape, color, value, texture, and format. These elements are at the foundation of all graphic design.

(end of quotation.)

I like Landa's analogy of the first two moves of a chess game. Because it recognizes how even the seemingly little things we do, like putting a simple line on a page, can be profound in the way they frame things, and influence all of our subsequent actions. They're like the strategic decisions we make in any arena because they set up things to follow, and determine the ultimate course that we take. And, for that matter, they help us make course corrections along the way. So, keep that concept in mind in future episodes as we turn our attention to each of these elements in turn.

But that's all we've got time for today. If you'd like to remark about anything discussed today, leave me a voice message at 206-350-6748.

And as is my custom, I'll place shownotesat Music is by And if you want to keep these shows coming automatically, remember to click that little subscribe button in iTunes, which will add the show to your personal podcast directory.

Until next time, I thank you for listening, and hope to have you back again.


1. Landa, Robin, Graphic Design Solutions, 2nd Ed., OnWord Press, 2000