Notebook, 1993-

Approaches - Dimensions - Modes - Themes, Topics, Issues - Relationships - Elements - Materials & Methods

Design Principles - Color Principles - Color Design

[From: Wong, Wucius. Color Principles. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold. 1987.]

Design Principles





Formal Compositions

    Translation - Rotation - Reflection - Dilation

Informal Compositions

    Gravity - Contrast - Rhythm - Center of Interest


    The Illusion of Depth in Space
    The Illusion of Volume in Space


The design principles covered in this Part relate to discussions of color design in the later portion of the book. This is not a comprehensive examination of design, but rather a brief discussion of some common terms and basic principles governing designs with color. My purpose is to present a few essential ideas and criteria that can be effectively applied to a variety of visual situations.

Design can be seen as the visual expression of an idea. The idea is conveyed in the form of a composition. Shapes--their sizes, positions, and directions--make up the composition to which a color scheme is introduced.

In this Part, the basic elements of design--planes, lines, and points--are considered. The design area is divided into planes, and planes are subdivided into lines and then points in a series of black-and-white illustrations that introduce the ways in which students can experiment with compositions.

Formal and informal compositions are examined. Format compositions are created with the simple mathematical concepts of translation, rotation, reflection, and dilation. Informal compositions are accomplished by considering gravity, contrast, rhythm, and center of interest. This Part ends with a close consideration of space and volume.

The illustrations were created with thin vinyl sheet material with self-adhesive backing. This material can be easily cut into rectilinear shapes and strips with a mat knife. The shapes or strips can be arranged and rearranged on a white surface before they are burnished down to form a permanent adhesion. The final effects of designs can thus be previewed, without preliminary sketches. Alternatively, black paper and rubber cement can replace the vinyl sheets, but compositions created with rubber cement are more difficult to alter.

A design area is an uninterrupted space defined by edges. Because a square format is used here, the edges amount to four, are of equal length, and form four right angles. This uninterrupted space is then divided into sixteen equal parts [small squares]. If this square is colored black, and the uninterrupted space is the white surface of paper, a black plane on white ground results.

The square can be moved up or down, with its edges remaining parallel to the vertical and horizontal edges of the design area. This movement produces a change in position. The square can also be tilted, so its edges are no longer parallel to the vertical and horizontal edges of the design area. This movement produces a change in direction. Changes in position and direction can be effected simultaneously.

Design decisions include the determination of positions and directions. The decision to use a square and the number of squares used may be given conditions, or may also be design decisions. When shapes overlap one another, several visual options emerge: they may be joined up; they may be separated by a thin white line, so one shape appears to be in front of the other; the overlapped area becomes white; one shape covers a portion of another, making the overlapped part invisible--as if part of the black shape were removed.... [p. 4]

The square [in example] can be divided into three equal parts. Each part becomes a small elongated shape, or a line.

A line is directional; it has length but no breadth. It divides or encloses an area. It is at the edge of a shape. When breadth is present, a shape merges. However, shapes of some length and narrow breadth are generally seen as lines, which can have:

The shape that is defined [in fig. 10] and used [in other examples] is a short line with smooth edges, squared endings, a solid body, and a straight direction. Its length can be extended by joining it to, and letting it overlap, another line. The different ways of overlapping a shape [as described in examples] apply to lines as well.

The squared endings impose some restrictions. For instance, when two shapes are joined at the endings, they cannot form an acute angle without exposing the right-angled corners.

[Examples] show how the line in a given shape is used in different ways [such as] some planes formed by the joining of lines. [p. 6]

Divisions of the short line [in example] into three equal parts creates three small squares, which can be considered points, because they take up a relatively small portion of the design area.

Actually, a point denotes position alone; it should not have any length or breadth, or cover any area. This square point is a plane in miniature. Again, all the different ways that shapes can be overlapped [as described] can be applied to these points.

Most people tend to visualize points as round shapes that do not exhibit a direction when taken individually. Square points with their right-angled corners do show direction. Directions can also be established when the points are lined up or are positioned to suggest hidden lines.

[Examples are shown] using numerous points as small shapes in design. [p. 8]

A formal composition generally contains an underlying mathematical structure that rigidly governs the positions and the directions of elements. Rules are predetermined; nothing is left to chance. Elements are either arranged in repetition, or according to shape, size, position, direction, and/or color.

A formal composition does not always become a pattern. Overall patterns, however, are invariably based on formal compositions--the occurrence of a group of forms is predictable. Slight deviation from the rigid rules of a formal composition results in a semi-formal composition, which contains anomalous elements, or loosely follows the predetermined rules.

The four ways of producing formal compositions are based on mathematical concepts of symmetry. Their combined use can lead to numerous variations. These include:

a. translation, or the change of position
b. rotation, or the change of direction
c. reflection, or creating a mirror image of the shape
d. dilation, or the change of size
[p. 10]

Translation. The translation of a shape changes its position. The direction of the shape, however, remains unchanged. Translation is the repetition of a shape in a design. In formal compositions, translated shapes are regularly spaced. Translations can be vertical, horizontal, diagonal, or a combination of these.

The distance between shapes can be measured, once a satisfactory arrangement is obtained, by using one corner of the shape as a guide. This results in a structural grid, which serves to regulate the final design.

An example illustrates planes in translation. [p. 11]

Rotation. The rotation of a shape results in a change in its direction. In most cases, rotation also results in a change of position, so rotated shapes are not superimposed.

Shapes radiate when they are rotated regularly about a center of reference. Each shape should be positioned on an imaginary axis, at equal distance from the center of reference, before rotation is effected.

[Examples] show how four shapes are arranged in a ninety-degree rotation, resulting in formal compositions. [Broken lines represent axes, and points represent centers of reference in these diagrams.]

[Example] is a finished design composed of lines in rotation. [p. 12]

Reflection. The reflection of a shape or a group of shapes can result in bilateral symmetry [a mirror image of the original shape or shapes]. The original shape must be asymmetrical, because the mirror image of a symmetrical shape is no different from the original. The overall shape of a group of shapes to be reflected should be asymmetrical as well. Reflected shapes can also be translated and rotated.

Dilation. Dilation effects changes in the size of shapes. The dilation of a shape that is not translated produces a regular, concentric design.

Dilation can be used to move shapes forward or backward in space: smaller shapes appear to be farther away; larger shapes seem closer to the viewer. [p. 13]

Informal compositions do not depend on mathematical calculations, but on an eye sensitive to the creation of asymmetrical balance and general unity with freely arranged elements and shapes.

No definite procedures exist, but the following may be used as criteria for evaluating informal compositions:

a. gravity--the weight and balance of shapes

b. contrast--the visual [characteristics of shapes and color], dimensional, or quantitative differences that distinguish one shape, part of a shape, or group of shapes form another shape, another part of the same shape, or another group of shapes.

c. rhythm--the suggested movement and velocity, similar to melodic developments in music

d. center of interest--a focal point that either catches the viewerÍs eye or defines the place of convergence, divergence, or climax of rhythmic forces. [p. 14]

Gravity. A designer manipulates how the weights of shapes are perceived by the viewer. Dark shapes among lighter ones on a white background, large shapes among smaller ones, tend to appear heavier. In addition, all shapes seem to be subject to a gravitational pull toward the lower edge of a design.

Gravity affects the balance of elements in a composition. Heavy shapes could be balanced with light shapes, one shape with a group of shapes. A perfectly balanced design, with each shape in its proper place, would be upset by an addition, subtraction, or the transposition of a single shape. It might also seem out of balance when viewed sideways or upside-down.

The effects of gravity can also be approximated to create stable and unstable shapes. Stable shapes have wide bases that are parallel to the bottom of the design. Unstable shapes have pointed or narrow bases. Stable shapes can be tilted to appear less stable; unstable shapes can become stable with the support of other shapes. [p. 15]

Contrast. Contrast is the comparison of dissimilar elements and helps to identify shapes and enhance visual variety in a composition. Aspects of contrast include not only shape, size, color, and texture, but also position, direction, and spatial effects. The quantity of shapes used and their density also affect contrast.

The antonyms heard in everyday communication can inspire the use of contrast in design: straight, crooked; square, round; protruding, intruding; sharp, blunt; regular, irregular; large, small; long, short; light, dark; brilliant, dull; rough, smooth; positive, negative; perpendicular, oblique.

In most cases, contrast is subconsciously introduced as shapes are created and arranged. Contrast is also intentionally introduced where visual emphasis is needed; insufficient contrast can result in a flat, uninteresting design. Too much contrast, on the other hand, can damage the overall unity of the design.

Contrast should generally be most apparent at the center of interest. However, it should not be introduced as an afterthought, but emerges naturally during the process of creating the design. [p. 16]

Rhythm. A representational design often describes a subject or theme, whereas abstract designs are frequently inspired by an idea--an event, movement, or a natural phenomenon that can be rhythmically expressed.

We are surrounded by rhythms that can be expressed as designs; ripples on a lake; birds in flight; trees spreading their branches; flowers in full bloom; clouds moving across the sky; sand scattering on a beach; a fountain spurting water; waves pounding on rocks; the bounce of a ball; an explosion of dynamite.

Abstract designs that are inspired by such ideas are not merely decorative. More important than whether or not the idea is apparent to viewers is the spirit and rhythm with which the design is infused. In addition, the idea reflects a designerÍs personal vision and may foster creativity.

Rhythm is generated by manipulating the directions of and spaces between elements, which may be parallel, similar, contrasting, or radiating. Wide and narrow spaces between elements suggest the velocity of movement. [p. 17]

Center of Interest. An informal composition must coordinate its elements around a center of interest--an area where all elements originate, cease, or interact, providing the visual drama without which the design becomes a mere conglomeration of parts.

A formal composition, on the other hand, does not necessarily include a center of interest, particularly if there is an overall pattern based on regular translation. A radiating design based on rotation, however, will have an obvious center of reference, and a central axis underlies designs of bilateral symmetry based on reflection. When an anomaly is introduced into a formal design, it usually becomes the center of interest of what becomes an informal composition.

Although a center of interest may appear in almost any part of a design, it tends to make the design static at the geometrical center; if placed at one of the four corners of a square or rectangular design, the uneven distribution of weight can upset the balance. [p. 18]

Designs begin as blank areas that are then activated, filled, or transformed by elements. Occupied space is usually called positive, unoccupied space is called negative space. The negative space between positive shapes can either be wide or narrow.

A negative shape can represent a solid shape that is the color of the background.

Space that is divided by an invisible line can result in:

a. shapes cropped by the line
b. positive shapes that become negative on the other side of the line
c. shapes that shift position and/or direction on the other side of the line
d. the occurrence of different visual elements on the other side of the line
e. positive shapes that change at the line. [p. 19]

The Illusion of Depth in Space. A space appears to have depth when one shape overlays, but is not joined to, another. When the two shapes are the same size, the sense of depth is rather limited.

The illusion of greater depth can be achieved with various sizes of the same shape, as a larger shape appears to be closer to the viewer than does a smaller shape.

An illusion of depth can also be created by laterally turning a shape in space. A square is thus transformed into a rhombus, parallelogram, or trapezoid.

When lines in a sequence are bent, curved, twisted, or looped, an illusion of depth always results. [p. 20]

The Illusion of Volume in Space. Volumes result when planes curve to form cylinders, or when planes are joined from different directions, and seem to enclose space. Planes may be solid, a sequence of lines or points, outlined, or created with a combination of these methods.

Volume construction can produce ambiguous compositions: a plane might seem to face up and down, depending on how it is viewed, and it can be part of two adjacent cubes that are seen from different angles.

The same cube can be arranged at different angles to form an interesting design. [p. 21]

[Wong, Wucius. Color Principles. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold. 1987.]



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