Friday, February 15, 2008

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

Download Episode 19

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.)