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.