Tag Archives: Design Principles

Design Principle – Symmetry

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After an enforced break caused by hackers, I hope that I can quietly continue posting free articles about enhancing your creativity. Ahh hackers – very clever people with a lot of creativity; if only they would use their powers for good in the world instead of nuisance. Of course, some do.

So I suppose an article about symmetry is an appropriate segue from the idea of good and evil in the world. Symmetry is all about reflection. By repeating and reversing the line, shape, space, and motif of an image, balance is maintained. There is a line symmetry, and point symmetry (like a snowflake). In the natural world, with the exception of snowflakes and atomic structure, the symmetry is approximate. But beauty, such as of face and form, is biologically tied to our perception of symmetry.

When we were children first playing with paint, one of our earliest endeavors might have been folding piece of paper in half with smooshed paint and opening it again to see the magical mirror image results. Paper garlands of cutout figures are exercises in visualizing symmetry. I think they are fun too.

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Symmetry is a function of Balance. The greater, or more absolute the symmetry, the more formality in a layout or design. The human hand imposing on the natural world often emphasizes the orderliness of symmetry. Absolute formality of architecture and landscaping is not in favor right now. Compared to ordinary homes, such places may have a forbidding quality, beautiful but austere, rather than a sense of welcome. However in times past the grandeur of such architecture was an indicator of class and meant to be very impressive. Perhaps that is still the case. It works in music also. Consider the very formal and dignified march by Edward Elgar, “Land of Hope and glory”, which has an undulating melody line and repetitive rhythm to the note values.

On the other hand symmetry can also be comforting because of repetition. For example children’s songs and nursery rhymes often have a sense of symmetry and stepping, such as “Itsy-Bitsy Spider”.

In point symmetry the focal point is always the center. However balance can be attained through asymmetry as well. Interest, conflict, surprise – all of these can be created by the interruption of a symmetrical scheme. Rhythm is often a function of symmetry, ongoing, even relentless, so that a sudden change becomes the focal point. The eye or the year or the emotions, are drawn to the moment where the symmetry is disrupted.

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Taj Mahal

These are all things to consider when making art of any kind. I like the old drawing exercise that consisted of cutting a photograph in half and re-creating it in pencil as a mirror image. With all our Elements and Principles of Design, when we start looking for them we see them everywhere. I’m looking out my window and I can see my ornamental pear tree that over time has been vaguely pruned into a rough symmetry. The dictates of urban living, to wit the footpath on one side, and have meant that the tree is not as perfect as it might have been. However balance and symmetry are very important for a healthy tree, and the leaves show lovely symmetry.

A visual experiment in disrupting symmetry to create a focal point


Create an abstract piece using line symmetry. It might be painting or a collage. Then cut out a simple symmetrical geometric shape, such as a circle or square, in a contrasting color and place it around in different places on your canvas. What feels balanced? What feels uncomfortable?

Go further. Create a piece using point symmetry and experiment again with your “disruptive influence”.

Design Principle – Unity

Vintage Architectural Print

Unity is the feeling that all the Elements in a design work together. A work of art can be judged as successful through its sense of Unity.

Certainly Unity can be very comfortable. The adjectives for a Unified piece might include pleasing, pretty, sleek, relaxing and beautiful. Unity is easy on the eyes and comprehension.

This doesn’t mean that there is no contrast or that the effect may not be challenging or discomfiting. For example atonal music can feel uncomfortable but has an internally unified structure. Art that is meant to challenge preconceptions or make the viewer feel intentionally off balance, might be intentionally shifting the emphasis between different elements.

John Lovett postulates that Unity between subject or content and medium or realization is even more important than unifying internal elements: “Relating the design elements to the idea being expressed in a painting reinforces the principal of unity.” Therefore Unity expresses the theme.

From Wikipedia: “According to Alex White, author of The Elements of Graphic Design, to achieve visual unity is a main goal of graphic design. When all elements are in agreement, a design is considered unified. No individual part is viewed as more important than the whole design. A good balance between unity and variety must be established to avoid a chaotic or a lifeless design.”

White considers Unity to be the middle ground.

Unity is often detectable by a feeling. Consider the balance in a piece, whether individual elements have a visual relationship, whether the theme and narrative in the design or art work are supported by the Elements or whether incongruities add to the meaning or message.

Unity is the feeling of satisfaction at the end of a great novel, or the catharsis at the end of a wonderful play or movie. It’s the enjoyment of a pleasing gourmet meal where every dish enhances the next, the charm of a pretty garden, the enjoyment of your own special room when you are surrounded by the things you love.

Mother and Child Layout

Mother and Child Layout



Design Principle – Contrast

Contrast image

Contrast is one of my favorite Design Principles because it is completely accessible and so very dynamic. In school you will recall being asked to “compare and contrast” two ideas or opinions. We have an intuitive understanding of contrast as opposites, when we see it. In politics, there is no debate without contrasting opinions. In life, change is contrast happening over time.

In designing, the idea is to use the Principles intentionally to change and effect the Elements of Design. Contrast is all about examining or depicting difference. Contrasts, especially those that are unexpected, create vibrancy, draw attention to the subject. Visual contrast creates interest and contributes to a sense of movement or balance (another Design Principle). Contrast defines edges. Uniformity is the absence of contrast. Incongruity is unexpected contrast.

Contrast does not have mean diametric opposites, however. Just like the Tonal Scale where contrast is inherent in defining it, degrees of contrast are possible. Contrast is always comparative – about the relationship between two or more values. Sometimes the degree of contrast defines a style.

One example is the 1940’s film genre Film Noir. The style is defined today by the deep contrast in tonal values of the visuals – with many deep shadows. Shadows will be cast on characters’ faces, highlighting their emotional duality and ambivalence. The audience is left with uncertainty, since every character seems to be both dark and light. The other part of Film Noir mis-en-scene will be the sense of deep shadows in the distance, much of the action taking place at night, in poorly lit cities. The visual style underscores the drama of the story, often crime dramas or mysteries, and characters’ journeys who often represent the “seamy underbelly” of society, or are engaged in some kind of deceit.

This visual style of deep shadows is known as chiaroscuro in painting, a characteristic of the High Renaissance and Baroque eras, among other periods. Painters and sculptors alike were interested in deep folds, faces looming out of dark backgrounds, and consistent looking light sources.

Shabby Chic and prim styles have an intentional lack of contrast. Blurred edges, faded prints or text, distressing and age. If it’s too white, it’s dipped in tea. If it’s too dark, it’s washed. If it’s too shiny, it’s sanded.

I’ve always been intrigued by Dazzle Painting – a high contrast method of camouflage. The key is distance. In nature high contrast often means a warning.

Dazzle painted battleships

Dazzle Camouflage obfuscates the shape

Let’s look at how contrast works with other Elements of Design.


Complimentary opposites, the colors opposite each other on the color wheel would be a Dual color scheme. Using three colors in an equilateral triangle is a Triadic scheme, while using four colors from the points of a square is Tetradic. Analogous colors have low contrast in hue, but might have high contrast when tonal values are considered.

What do you want the colors to convey? What ideas or emotions? Are you concerned with beauty and comfort, or challenging discomfort? (You see what I did there…..)


Triadic/Tetradic “texture schemes” are more interesting than just opposites. The opposite of hard is not just soft, but also spiky.

Too much of the same texture can be overwhelming. In Transformers (2007) it was sometimes tough to tell who was an Autobot and who was a Decepticon, when the two were battling. There was a lack of contrast in the bodies, and limited color palette.


The properties of Line include thickness, degree of straightness or curve, and length. Line defines shape, but so does contrast; for example where two colors come together there is the suggestion of Line. However consider that a line may have blurry edges.

Shape and Space

Shapes may be geometric or organic, vary in size or complexity.


Mid-century Modern and Danish style of furniture employs a nice tension in the contrast between the simple shapes of the furniture and the space below and around the pieces. For example the height from the floor is an important part of the sense of airiness and definition.

Intentional Design Process – using contrast

Contrast makes things interesting.

  • Define your message – the reader/viewers takeaway – what you want them to think, see, believe or do?
  • How can contrast convey this message?

Writing with Contrast

Contrast is the foundation of much great literature. The contrast between good and evil is the most basic plotline. People say that irony is the foundation of Jane Austen’s work, but the irony is impossible without the contrasts inherent that idea.

Incongruity is the contrast between the expectation and the result. It works especially well in comedy. For example when the reaction does not match the trigger – that’s comedy. (“Nobody’s perfect.”) Interesting characters contain incongruities or apparent inconsistencies. A flawed hero is far more interesting. People sometimes behave inconsistently too. There can be a contrast between their desires or hopes and their ability to realize their potential.

Mismatches between sequential images, or between the image and the soundtrack, foreshadow events, or strengthen the message. The ominous music always cues our concern when the scene is children playing on the beach. Jolly music playing from the radio strengthens the horror of a catastrophe; lyrical music emphasizes the evil of cruelty. One famous example: Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange (1971).

“A Clockwork Orange” (1971) – Stanley Kubrick

Contrasts invite value judgments – that one product is better for your needs, more suitable than another. For this reason, be cautious when considering Contrast to do with real people. Especially your kids.


Design Principle – Repetition

Giant Macramé

Looking out the window at CAFAM

In the past months I have written about the Elements of Design. Now I am starting on the Principles of Design – which may act on all the Elements to create meaning.

For a very nice summary of both the Principles and Elements, I rather like Annie Borges’  two posters. I especially like how her definitions show relationships between Principles. Actually discussing them separately is tough, just as it is hard to discuss Elements in isolation (eg line creates shape).

Repetition is the first I want to tackle, mostly because it is very easy to see and use. Repetition creates texture, rhythm or emphasis. Repetition can alter something completely, and works closely with Symmetry and Balance.


Think of Repetition in music – the way the chorus repeats, the return to the melody line after a bridge, repetition of lyrics (“She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah…”) that engender enjoyment and participation. Of course repetition can go too far and become silly or boring (“Friday, Friday, Friday….” …etc…)

Poetry – repetition gives rhythm and unity. It helps build the emotion – especially when it is read aloud.

For example in her poems Maya Angelou often repeats phrases in a kind of chorus. I especially love “Still I Rise” for that. Sometimes it is more subtle, within the vowel sounds.

Repetition in Nature

Consider honeycomb, feathers, leaves and fur. Consider atoms. Consider galaxies. Consider genes.

The repetitive work of bees

Repetitions of the same building blocks to create recognizable forms.

Visual Repetition

Rather apropos of this topic, I visited the Craft and Folk Art Museum on Sunday. All three of the current exhibits, as well as the window display of oversized macramé, specifically referenced Repetition as an important aspect of the works.

19,275 Stamps

Part of Shirley Familian’s exhibit

First I was thrilled by Shirley Familian’s Stamp Art, where she uses multiple postage stamps to create repeating patterns. The images on the stamps themselves become subsumed by the overall pattern, but still invite close examination. I read that she catalogs and counts all the stamps that she uses. Some of her work resembles mandalas, while others are witty because of the underlying object.

Lipstick on Your Collar by Shirley Familian

Lipstick on Your Collar by Shirley Familian

Upstairs the exhibit Displacements: The Craft Practices of Golnar Adili and Samira Yamin intentionally explores “repetitious gestures” and “the repetitive labor that both artists employ”. They use pinning and stitches taken from art quilting with photographic images to build very thoughtful works. One of their interests is Ayeneh Kari – or Persian Mirror work – using multiple tiny mirrors in the decoration of Iranian buildings. Mirrors symbolize hope in the Iranian culture.

Finally a retrospective of mixed media artist Timothy Washington’s body of work showed repetition in his use of motif, material and forms, as well as recurring themes about the body and race.

In all of these exhibits Repetition was more than just a tool for expression, but one of the most integral parts of the works.

Using Repetition

A single shape may be repeated to create a texture or pattern. A whole image may be repeated to create a Warhol. Repeated images or elements in a design become a motif. Another way to include repetition is to have multiples of the same shape but in different scales.

In a composition, balance is often created with repetition of color, especially in a triangle.

Pieter Breugel – The Peasant Wedding. c 1568

Knitting and crochet create a whole design by sequential repetition of stitches. I find the repetitive movement of crochet and loom knitting to be soothing and meditative.

Repeating lines create shadow and density. Engravings depend on repeated lines.

Repetition as Action – Practice

In most creative endeavors, the repetition of practice helps us improve our ability to express our creative thinking. Most things get easier with practice, and we hope get better too.

As with so many of the Elements of Design, and now the Principles, once you start looking for them, they appear everywhere.

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