Tag Archives: design process

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.

 Color

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…..)

Texture

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.

Line

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.

photopin.com

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.

 

Crafting Useful Things – Part One

Materials Based Crafting

Practical crafting is a combination of flourishing creative thinking and design, and skilled manufacturing or making. A few years ago I wrote about my process for designing craft projects for my then column in Natural Life MagazineOver the next couple of weeks I’m going to break down my project and object design process as weekly themes, and hopefully illuminate my philosophy for making those intentional design choices in the cause of making useful things.

Buttons and paper Wall Decor

By way of an overview, here’s the relevant part of the article, which was in part about my challenges in upcycling plastic bottles and packaging items.

“I do not want to design a goofy crafting project just for the sake of “cleverly” using the recycled material in some contrived way. The end product must be genuinely artful or pretty or useful – and sensible. I’m pragmatic too. Costly tools or extra materials for making it from a recycled source can doom a design idea. The project design should take advantage of the qualities of the source material as a good way to achieve the final result, rather than displaying an uncomfortable union of wishful thinking and imposed manipulation.

But most of all, especially in light of what I have learned about the recycling industry, I don’t want my crafting project to be a less green use for the plastic item than placing it intact into the collection bin. So multiple use is important.

Here is an insight into my intentional design process:

    1. I examine the material and list the qualities.                                                                                                For plastics: Generally unbreakable. Somewhat flexible, yet largely rigid – the shape is inherent to the object. Often soft enough to cut with ordinary scissors or X-Acto blades – but still retains shape. Impermeable – at room temperature – to water but may be susceptible to some solvents or dyes. Often transparent or translucent. Reactive to heat in a variety of ways and temperatures (caution required). Slick or shiny surfaces – may or may not accept paint, markers. Usually very lightweight for the size. Sometimes can be folded and retain fold. Lasts and lasts.
    2. I will often sketch ideas and, usually with recycled things, I’ll cut up a couple for experiments.
    3. I make a prototype or examples.
    4. If necessary, I test the instructions, patterns, and fun quotient by inviting friends – child or adult – to try out the project with my supplies. If need be, I make changes based on the success of the lab.”

Step 1 is unique to what I call “Materials Based crafting”. It can be great fun and a great creativity jump starter. It’s the imaginative equivalent of wandering around the arts and crafts store and asking yourself “What can I make with that?” For anyone interested in upcycling and creative reuse, it’s an essential step.

Understanding the physical qualities of the material, whether it is new or upcycled, whether it is man-made or natural, is important if you want to make something useful, lasting and beautiful, out of the material.

A similar mental process is taking inspiration from fabrics for your fashion design, rather than going in looking for a specific color or cloth.

Button Headband

People who enjoy this are often great at extemporizing with assemblage and collage. They see the potential in a stack of stuff. They are also great at using familiar materials or objects in different ways. One example is taking buttons and twisting wire to make them into brads for scrapbook layouts (my favorite). I love these found object art dolls (robots) by ckudja on Etsy.

On the other hand people who are meticulous planners, engineers at heart, also can appreciate the process of examining and categorizing material.

Some crafting materials to consider: plastic bottles (as I did), corrugated cardboard, junk mail, padded mailing envelopes, old fencing or pallets, polymer clay, air dry clay, regular clay, sticks, pebbles, concrete blocks, metal pipe fixtures, felt sheets, sandpaper, acrylic scraps, wire, rusty nails, melamine plates, ceramic pots, balsa wood, leather, raffia, canvas, chiffon, old pencils, empty jars.

It’s not a finished list by any means.

Now an idea that seems to be the opposite: Wabi-Sabi

There’s a Japanese aesthetic principle called Wabi-Sabi. The Wikipedia entry has a nice summary, including:

“beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”….materials that age such as bare wood, paper and fabric become more interesting as they exhibit changes that can be observed over time .”

It has a lot in common spiritually with Shabby Chic and Prim aesthetics, which also embrace wear, age, distressed surfaces and rough edges. But it differs from them to embody spacious simplicity with one tiny, asymmetrical flaw, and man made structures with a random seeming intrusion from the natural world.

A big part of creating Wabi-Sabi art pieces is embracing randomness (which will be an upcoming theme on its own) and improvising with imperfect or found materials.

Worn Calligraphy

Worn with age

But Wabi-Sabi is still founded on understanding and appreciating the qualities inherent in the materials along with the outward visual appearance.

Examining the material is like actors improvising a scene to play and warm up before working on the script. Next week I’ll be talking about the more structured next steps, including how the approach to materials is different when the focus in on an intended/desired outcome.

So Follow me on Twitter for the Daily Tweets. Please Retweet and use the share buttons!

If anything turns out to be useful to you, please let me know in the comments.

The Tweets of the Week!