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