Wednesday, January 30, 2008

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

Download Episode 18

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

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