Thursday, July 10, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 29, Unity: Out of Many, One

Download Episode 29

Design Guy, here, welcome to the show. This is the program that explores timeless principles of design and explains them simply.

We concluded our recent series on balance with a quotation from Alex White's book, The Elements of Graphic Design. White tells us:

"Balance is an important route to achieving unity in design. If the various elements are seen to be in balance, the design will look unified. It will make a single impression. If a design is out of balance, its constituent parts will be more visible than the overall design."
(end of quotation.)

These remarks provide a nice segue into the topic of unity. And they also echo the very first definition we laid down for design itself. To refresh your memories, we said that Design is the process of creating order out of chaos, of taking many disparate elements and forming them into an ordered unit, or a unified whole.

So, that idea of wholeness, the E Pluribus Unum of Design, if you will, where from many things we attain one thing, or we achieve one effect is a very important concept both to have and to maintain as we're working. Especially on projects of any scope or scale. My own work experience has consisted of large-scale projects, spanning months or even years, contracts requiring multiple teams of people to execute, with a variety of taskings.

When you find yourself in this situation, you can easily miss the forest for the trees. You find that you're working on your own tree, and that, after a while, that's potentially all you can see. So achieving a unified effect becomes an even greater challenge on large, complex projects. And this is why direction is necessary. We need directors on large projects to maintain alignment toward a unified vision of an end product.

Movies are a perfect example of this. And the more you think about it, it seems almost miraculous that so many elements can come together so well in spite of the scale of a modern motion picture. There's the music, the special effects, the casting, and the myriad of other components of such a production. Then there's the screenplay itself - often having been passed through many hands after having been in development hell for years. Then there's the director's vision, the studio's input, the test audience results that influence the final product. It's a miracle that films turn out as coherent as they tend to be. And so it's also no wonder that there are many films that just don't work. Whose elements don't come together gracefully at all.

But that's the singular idea I want to impart today about unity. Unity achieves one effect. Everything works as a balanced whole.

On the other hand, where unity is weak, we find ourselves too conscious of the parts, we're distracted by the parts and pieces. We see the trees instead of the forest. And again, going with the movie analogy, this is a bit like when a supporting actor winds up stealing all the scenes, upstaging all the other actors in the ensemble. Instead of the blend of a strong ensemble, we're aware of strong actors and weak ones, and it spoils the unity. Every link in the chain has to hold its weight, or unity is broken.

But let's drive this concept home with a quote from Robin Landa's Graphic Design Solutions:

"Unity is one of the goals of composition. Unity allows the viewer to see an integrated whole, rather than unrelated parts. We know from studies in visual psychology that the viewer wants to see unity; if a viewer cannot see unity in a design, he or she will lose interest." (end of quotation).

Well that's if for today. Let me remind you that a transcript of today's show may be found at the webpage, at Music is by

And just a note about the show entries at iTunes. I've been bumping up against a 25 show limit that is a result of a limitation that, I believe, traces itself to my blogger page, where the feed originates. This means that every time a new episode shows up at iTunes, an early episodes drops off the list. So, I'm researching a solution that will allow even the earliest shows to appear in iTunes, without destroying the iTunes profile page and its history. Meanwhile, if you'd like to hear those early episodes, just go to and download the early episodes from the blog pages themselves. Each entry has a download link at the top of its page.

But, again, I do thank you for tuning in, and I hope to have you back next time.


1. White, Alex, The Elements of Graphic Design, Allworth Press, 2002

2. Landa, Robin, Graphic Design Solutions, OnWord Press, 2000