Tuesday, March 4, 2008

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

Download Episode 20

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 designguyshow.blogspot.com. Music is by Kcentricity.com

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

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