Friday, January 30, 2009

Design Guy, Episode 36, Unity Revisited / Emphasis

Download Episode 36

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

Well, when last we met, we were concluding a short tour of the gestalt rules, aka "the principles of perception," where "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," and where our minds make meaning through our instinctive human tendency to visually group things together. In other words, we're wired to make associations between things. To mentally batch process them, and thereby simplify many, many things as just a few groups, or to ignore them altogether. And we can't help it. And thank goodness it works this way or we might go stark raving mad trying to reckon with every last thing in our field of vision.

Now, that excursion into gestalt came as a result of our original exploration, which was on the subject of Unity.

To refresh our memories, Unity echoes the very definition of Design itself, because Design is the process of creating order out of chaos, of taking what might start out as nothing but a senseless jumble of individual elements and organizing them into unified whole.

And it's that idea of Wholeness, or Oneness that we're always after as Designers. In fact it's what's operating beneath the surface, it's what's driving us, tugging at our hearts and minds and making our hands move as we're working. And it's what you might call the "E Pluribus Unum of Design", to coin a phrase taken directly from American coinage. "Out of Many, One" - one thing emerges. We achieve one effect.

This is the grand aim of design. This is design itself. It's the difference between randomness and intelligence, between chaos and order, between designs that seem to disintegrate and fall apart before our eyes, and those compositions where everything seems to fly in formation.

So, how do we do it?

Well, as we've said before, a good start is to make sure you've achieved balance in your composition. Now, this balance can be symmetrical or it can be asymmetrical, but it should be there nonetheless. You can get a refresher on balance, by revisiting the older episodes in which we covered the topic.

But Unity requires more than just balance, which leads us to the next principle we'll explore, and that principle is Emphasis.

Emphasis, as you might guess, is all about focus. Emphasis draws our focus by making us aware of a dominant element in our composition. Think of it this way, if all the elements in our composition are given equal attention, if they all speak in an equal voice, then what we've got is a cacophony. We don't know where to focus. Everything vies for our attention. And, ironically, nothing vies for our attention.

By creating certain points of interest in our composition by scaling an object larger than the rest. Or by using contrast to make it leap forth in our awareness. Or by centering it, or coloring it differently, or any number of other techniques, we create a point of interest. Or, as I like to think of it, we create an entry point.

Typographers think in terms of first read, second read, etc. And the obvious example is the large, bold headline. This serves as the entry point. It's an enticement. Surely, we can't help but see that element. And it beckons to us. It says, come on in, the water's fine! I know you don't think you're in the mood to read the whole thing, so just read this short headline first. And then, maybe you'll warm to reading the large, two-sentence sub-paragraph. And by then, if you're hooked. You're deep into the body copy, reading the entire article. It's a devious trick we typographers play, but who'd want it any other way? Who'd want to look at a marginless, block of type, every sentence, every word speaking in equal voice. Nothing shouts to us. Nothing calls our attention. It's quite off-putting, really.

And this is how strictly visual compositions work. A poster consisting of mostly colors and shapes has still got something to say to us. But what's it going to lead with? What image or element is going grab our eyeballs and make us peruse the rest of it?

By having primary, dominant elements, other elements serve, and support the composition as secondary or tertiary sub-dominant elements.

And before we know it, we've got all elements flying in formation. We've got a visual hierarchy that works! We've got the stuff of unity.

Well, that's it for today. Let me remind you that a transcript of the show, as always, is available at Music is by Thanks for tuning in, and I hope to have back next time.

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