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.