Thursday, October 23, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 34, Visual Momentum (Continuance)

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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.

In our continuing series on Unity, we've been discussing the Gestalt Principles, and to remind once again, this is all about perception, and even closer to home, it's all about our goals in composition, that is, it's about how we perceive a unified whole, and how that whole is actually greater than the sum of its parts.

Today, we'll look at the next rule in Gestalt, which is called Continuation. Another name we could give to Continuation is "Visual Momentum." Now, we all know what momentum is in physics. But in the visual realm, there's a tendency for our eyes, once directed, to continue moving in a certain direction. So, definitions describe continuation as this tendency for us to continue looking in a given direction, until we see something of importance, a dominant element in our composition.

But continuation more often has to do with how our eyes follow through, even through intervening objects as we track along a certain visual path. A simpler way to describe this is to say that our eyes will follow along a line, or a path, or curve, and perceive it as a continuous line, even if it crosses another line or object. So, for example, a lower case "t" looks like just two lines, rather than four lines that happen to be meeting in the middle. A lower case "t," or the letter "x" then, provide us examples where two lines, or two strokes, are crossing each other. In other words, we percieve them as following through, or as a "continuation" right through each other. They cross each other. At least that's how it looks to our minds, even though, strictly speaking, we could just as accurately define such a form as four lines connecting at a central point.

In design, we see this concept of continuation in a number of ways. Sometimes it's in the way elements are composed, we suggest a direction that our eye wants to follow, such as in a progression of shapes. In photography, our eyes naturally want to wend their way down paths such as roads and rivers, or perspective lines, like railroad tracks, or across a telephone wire til we reach two sparrows perched on the other end. In typography, we have an obvious and built-in sense of continuation, because, in effect, we're lining up a long string of letterforms for our eyes to move across, as a path. And, on the other hand, in the case of long, narrow columns of newspaper type, we're cued to read, not so much from right to left, but from top to bottom. And, of course, the narrower the column, the more we suggest speed. And this is why typographers avoid those big, dense, margin-less blocks of type, with over-long measures. It just feels like a brick wall, it feels inert, the opposite of something that would offer our eyes visual momentum or continuation.

But in the final analysis, continuation is simply about directing our viewer's attention. Maybe we want to guide their eyes by taking advantage of those perspective lines and send their eyeballs wandering down the path, or maybe we'll use an imaginary line suggested by some kind of pointing device, like an arrow, or the good, old fashioned pointed finger.

So, make mental note as you see ads or posters or other compositions to ask yourself, where's the continuation? What path or progression, what set of perspective lines or curves are being employed to create that sense of visual momentum that gets our eyes going in the intended direction?

Well, that's it for today. Let me remind you that a full transcript of this show may be found at, music is by And as election fever mounts, I'll ask you to cast your vote at podcast alley, or simply leave a comment at iTunes. Well, thanks again for listening, and I hope you'll join us next time.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Design Guy, Episode 33, All in the Family (Similarity)

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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.
Well we're in the midst of a discussion on Unity, and as a part of that topic, we've taken a detour through what are called the gestalt rules. So, if you're joining us midstream, let's recap a few points.
Fist of all, Gestalt theory gets its name from a School of thought in Psychology, which began in the early 20th century in Germany. And this school of thought says that, when it comes to studying human behavior, we need see the big picture, we need to discern broader patterns of behavior, not just isolated psychological events. It's in the big picture that we get our insights.
But this concept carries over to visual studies as a way to explain how we can achieve a unified composition out of individual parts. And it even goes beyond that to assert that a unified whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
And so far we've discussed a couple of gestalt concepts, namely figure-ground and closure, which you can catch up on by downloading those episodes.
But moving right along, I'd like to step though some more gestalt rules today, starting with the rule of Similarity. And as we take these one by one, we'll see that they're really pretty simple and straightforward. The hardest part might be remembering the terminology.
Now, the rule of Similarity, just as you'd expect, says that a composition looks more unified if the elements are similar in some respect. If objects are similar, they look related. Just like people. Identical twins are obviously related to each other. But brothers or sisters that share physical characteristics can also look obviously related. It's when siblings don't look much like each other that people express surprise that they're actually related. They scratch their chin and say, "Really? I just don't see the family resemblance." And this is what it's like in our compositions. As we compose, we can put the same traits in elements if we intend for them to look unified.
And those traits can include shape, or size, or color or value. If you're a media designer, we might include similarity of motion, or any other attribute that will demonstrate similarity. If they look related, people will see them as a pattern or group, and your composition will convey a stronger sense of unity. And, again, its just like how we can intuit a family if we see a group of people that share genetic traits.
On the other hand, once we've established that pattern, once we've got a unified pattern, then we can go on and do more interesting things. We can direct attention to where we want it. If, among a row of black dots, one solitary dot is colored red, then it stands out, and we've got a device that will direct attention. Or if one of those dots is oversized compared to the rest, we've got a point of emphasis in an otherwise unified composition. In other words, we've tampered with those traits. Having established consistency in terms of shape, size, color, or value, we break the pattern.
And it's like that old Sesame Street song about one of these kids is doing his own thing, one of these kids just isn't the same. If you remember that song, you'll appreciate the example. If you don't, well, never mind.
A great exercise is to pay attention to logos, especially ones that are composed of more than just a few elements. If the logo is any good, that is, if it's unified, then you can look at it and ask yourself some questions. You can deconstruct it in terms of this rule of Similarity. And so you'll usually be looking at a bunch of shapes, or perhaps a bunch of lines or strokes, and you can ask yourself, what is similar about them? What makes the cohere as a group? Is there an element that seems to stand out for emphasis? And how does that stand-out element break the pattern?
And by the way, this is really the best way to learn design. You learn design by looking at examples, good and bad, and getting good at deconstructing them. In the same way a mechanic figures out what going on with your car, you want to put these design examples up on the lift, so to speak, and see how they work. Take them apart with your eyes, if you can, and put them back together again. That's how you extract the secret or principle that you can apply to your own work.
Well, that's the rule of Similarity, and that's all we've got time for today. Let me remind you that a transcript of today's program may be found at, music is by Well, thank you again for tuning in and I hope to have you back again.