Saturday, October 4, 2008

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

Download Episode 33

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.


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