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An Intermediate Guide to Formal Visual Design
By Cheeseburger Brown
An Intermediate Guide to Formal Visual Design, by Cheeseburger Brown - illustration by the author

The varied and sundry digital revolutions of the last thirty years have empowered many regular people to create the kinds of media that had heretofore been the exclusive domain of trained professionals with expensive proprietary hardware and specialised knowledge.

In part this has resulted in a profound empowerment of creative users to express themselves in powerful new ways; largely, however, it resulted in the wide exposure of a whole lot of really, really bad visual design by amateur clods.

Whether you are an enthusiastic user of these new technologies who would like to improve your skills through a better understanding of the formalised elements and principles of design your fly-by-night "digital design school" located above a convenience store may have failed to teach you, or if you are just a regular person who would like to sneer and poke fun at the ocean of bad design that surrounds us in a more intelligent and informed manner, this is the article for you.

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The beginning of the end for the elite design professional came when the Desktop Publishing Revolution of the nineteen-eighties first gave the average inexperienced ignoramus power over the domain of print, giving rise to things like corporate newsletters printed entirely in Olde English majuscules and wedding invitations with enough mixed typefaces to pass as ransom demands.

Next came the Desktop Video Revolution of the nineteen-nineties which put broadcast-quality expressive power in the hands of the regular user. As the reach of the average personal computer increased this wave of new, cheap video artists moved quickly from the technophiliac loner in his basement with a VideoToaster to the rows upon rows of gleaming, underpowered G4s that lace today's mid-range creative production houses. Now any fool can make TV.

With the popularization of the Internet the computer-using masses finally got their chance to become self-publishing content creators, breaking the final barrier between their imaginations and an audience potentially as wide as the web itself. This revolution (initially called The Information SuperHighway Revolution by idiots) was complete. Sensitive professional graphic designers who had killed themselves a decade earlier when the word "typeface" was replaced with "font" began spinning in their graves in disgruntled concert, knowing now that their trade had finally been irretrievably thrown to the dogs.

To intelligibly discuss why the products of these revolutions so often suck it is helpful to understand the formal elements and principles of visual design that are not underpinning them.

It is important not to mistake formalism for an argument that the creative act can be boiled down to a set of mechanical rules. Like all of the arts, visual design is a discipline comprised of a balance struck between intuition and formalism. I submit simply that work produced in complete ignorance of these formal principles is accidentally ill-formed far more often than it is accidentally well-formed.

By defining and briefly discussing the key concepts of formal visual design I hope to bring into the light a subject that is frequently obscured by the vague and slippery garbage of nonsense-spouting artbots.


The elements of design are considered to be the atomic components of any visual work. They are formatted according to the principles of design, resulting in sound composition and good form.

This is the most basic of elements, manifested in the material world with just slightly more gusto than a mathematical point (which is visually quite dull). In terms of actual media a point is a single mark from a pencil, a blob of paint, a pixel. In technical terms a point can be implied by diminishing perspective. In conceptual terms a point may refer to a specifically emphasised area or region of focus for the eye of the viewer.

Lines can be literal, like the outline around a cartoon drawing, or incidentally formed by an edge, a shadow or an intersection of two objects. A line might be implied by a series of shapes arranged loosely along a linear or curved path. In a good composition lines often serve to connect the areas of emphasis in the image, giving the eye a pathway from one focal point to another.

Shapes are distinct, contiguous areas of visual information. Shapes can be defined in terms of positive space (draw a triangle) or negative space (an anti-triangle shape is rendered in the white space surrounding the triangle when I draw a triangle). Emphasizing incidental shapes in an image helps to raise the level of abstraction, drawing the viewer's attention away from the literal forms depicted and focusing instead on their more geometric and aesthetic qualities.

The structure of common shapes lends them cross-cultural connotations drawn from the way similar shapes behave in the real world. For example, an inverted pyramid contains a far greater degree of built-in visual tension than a non-inverted one, because in the real world the former is as precarious as the latter is stable. Similarly, shapes that converge toward the top appear to be ascending and shapes that converge toward the bottom appear to be descending, because of the way these shapes mimic the effects of optical perspective distortion in the real world.

In most visual media, with the clear exception of sculpture and midget-throwing, mass is implied rather than actual. Illusions of depth, volume and weight are created by manipulating the apparent mass of an image. In general, darkness lends more mass than lightness; areas of visual tension weigh more than relaxed regions.

The relationship between visually complex regions and visually stark regions has a profound impact on the composition's sense of weight and balance. On the surface space is simply the opposite of mass, but the relationship is in fact more subtle: beyond the literal spatial relationships of the visual components arranged in the image plane there is also implied space or imaginary volumes created through illusion. This space, while virtual, can be as impactful as actual space in the mind of the viewer.

This element is often needlessly broken down into sub-components such as time, motion and transition. The common spirit is one or more attributes of an element differing across time. The change can be actual, as in the case of motion graphics and animation, or the change can be virtual, implied by something as simple as "motion lines" in comic book illustrations. The principles of tempo and rhythm guide the application of change.

One of the best examples of using subtle (but actual) change to create a hypnotic effect is the renowned painting La Joconde (also known as "The Mona Lisa") by Leonardo DaVinci. Leonardo pioneered a new oil painting technique in that work by using dozens of layers of semi-transparent applications of glaze and paint to build up the image: the effect is one of exceedingly subtle depth, leading to the eerie feeling that there is a woman trapped inside of the picture plane with eyes that follow the viewer around the room when they move. The change in the painting is almost undetectable, but it is unanticipated and can be very disquieting. (Naturally, the effect cannot be captured by conventional photography, thus leading millions of people over the years to wonder just what the hell is so special about that lady's smile.)

My personal favourite work that embodies the notion of represented (as opposed to actual) change is Marcel Duchamp's Nu descendu une escalier, a painting which depicts several seconds of quick motion as a rhythmic smear.

Value is a measure of the brightness of an image. Value can be used in a very formal, abstract way (darkness is heavier than lightness, so value can be manipulated to balance a composition), as a narrative device (to connote ethereal versus earthy characteristics), or simply as a tool for emphasis (look here).

Colour is one of the most accessible elements of design, in that it is the element most often claimed by fluff-brained amateurs to be well within the range of their intuitive expertise. This is true in some rare circumstances; it is more usual for colour to be badly managed by the well-meaning boob.

The basis of any colour system are its Primary Colours. The exact hues vary depending on the medium: televisions (RGB), oil paints (RYB) and advertising posters (CMY) each use different primary colours. Common to all is the fact that primary colours cannot be created through mixing in a given system, and are equidistant when represented on a colour wheel (where chroma is represented as a value in degrees between 1 and 360, expressing the entire spectrum available (or gamut) within a given system).

Colours diametrically opposite one another on a colour wheel are known as Complementary Colours (contrary to popular belief this term does not mean "colours that look good together"). In many familiar colour-spaces red is the complement of green: this means, among other things, that red looks redder when surrounded by green, red can be shaded by mixing with green, and that staring at red and then looking at a neutral field will cause the optical illusion of seeing green. Complementary colours can be used to accent one another (via juxtaposition) or to subdue one another (via intermixing).

Analogous Colours are three hues that are adjacent to one another on a colour wheel such as blue, blue-green and green. A good colour scheme often consists of two sets of analogous hues, and one set of opposing complementary analogous hues based on the average hue of the two sets on the other side of the wheel.

For terminology fans:
A "tint" is a given hue with added white.
A "tone" is a given hue with added black.
A "shade" is a given hue with added complement.

Colours have psychological connotations, in great part influenced by their real world expressions. Green, for instance, is perceived as lush and vibrant due to an association with flora, and blue is perceived as open and serene due to an association with clear skies. Red is the most primal colour, linked with deep reactions in the limbic system in the brain; cultures with only one word for distinguishing hues from black or white invariably identify red, cultures with two words identify red and green, cultures with three words identify red, green and yellow, and so forth in a predictable pattern of cumulative complexity. Cultures that can identify violet and indigo are considered to be sophisticated in terms of colour differentiation; cultures that can identify taupe are just pretentious.

As we acknowledge that a point is not a point of mathematical precision or that a line is really a smear of graphite of finite width on paper, we must also take into account the effect the medium we are using has on the image we are creating with it. The media can be relevant through actual visual traits (quality of the paper/videowall/filmstock from which the work is viewed), illusory traits (impressions of glossiness or coarseness created through artifice), contextual traits (a farm scene painted on a wooden panel gives a different impression than a farm scene rendered out of neon tubes), and tactile traits (the actual feel of the materials used in sculpture, art installations and industrial design).

Despite the fact that typefaces are compound visual objects they play such a significant role in visual design that they are considered to be an element unto themselves. The mastery of typography is a refined and subtle art covering an array of skills whose depth and dullness is beyond the scope of this article.

Frequently and mistakenly mixed-up with ratio, a principle of design, scale is one of the most basic building blocks for framing how a work will be perceived by the viewer. For instance, a finger-sized figurine of the Hamburglar has a distinctly different feeling than one thirty storeys tall. Similarly, viewing an encyclopaedia thumbnail of Michelangelo's David makes a different impression than standing at the foot of the superhuman-sized original.


The principles of design represent the most general classes of tools available for determining the ideal arrangement of the elements of design for any given visual work.

The concept of balance is fundamental to well-formed design. Most of the following principles are forces which are used in opposition with one another to make artful use of visual tension; when these loci of tension are aligned with one another in such a way as to serve the overall form of the design, the image is considered to be balanced (or to "have good composition").

The twin underlying principles of good composition are balance and direction (discussed below). In the most basic sense, balance ensures that the design is perceived by the viewer as stable (factoring in effects such as the imaginary sense of gravity imposed by the human psyche) and direction ensures that the design is perceived as interesting (the eye finds things to see in the places where it is pushed to look).

Overall compositional balance can be achieved most directly with simple symmetry, but this is seldom desirable because perfectly centred compositions tend to be boring (due to an imposed excess of unity, discussed below). Dynamic but balanced compositions can be created by arranging elements in mis-matched opposition. For example, a large shape on the left can be balanced by a small shape on the right, if the smaller shape is darker (or otherwise visually "heavier" due to added visual tension, complexity or mass illusions created through shading).

The course a viewer's eye will take through a composition is shaped by actual or implied lines, and actual or implied geometric shapes. Manipulating this course well is the mark of a master designer.

The viewer's eye should be considered to be like water. Once it has entered the picture plane it will seek the course of least resistance, left to its own devices content to slosh around randomly and be tugged upon by imaginary gravity and the conventional reading direction of the viewer's society.

By using line, direction and emphasis the artist can provide strong pathways for the viewer's eye to adhere to, sweeping through the prime areas of focus and steering safety away from falling out of the edge of the picture plane. When this manipulation is perfected the viewer will feel that they "cannot look away" from the image.

In general, images dominated by rectilinearity (strong verticals, horizontals) have a more static or stately quality compared with images dominated by diagonality (slanty lines, triangles) or orbicularity (sweeping curves, spirals) which tend to impart a feeling of sweeping motion and dynamism.

This principle refers to the proportions of elements within a given composition (distinct from overall scale, which is the size of the work itself). The relative sizes of things can be adjusted for the purposes of creating a perspective illusion, exaggerating comparative apparent attributes, as a message or metaphor, or simply to achieve a balanced layout in terms of the distribution mass and space.

Ratios can also be considered on a purely aesthetic basis. The Ancient Greeks had a number of homoerotic cults dedicated to mathematical masturbation among whose principle fetishes were various quests for divine ratios. Their most famous product was the Golden Section (also known as Phi) which can be found so: divide a line (AC) at a particular point that will yield unequal sections in which the smaller one (AB) is to the larger one (BC) as the larger one (BC) is to the entire length (AC), or AB:BC = BC:AC. The ratio can also be expressed as 1:1.618. Common in nature (in the Fibonacci spiral of a snail's shell, for instance) and universally pleasing to the eye, this ratio is at the heart of many world-famous sculptures, paintings and buildings.

Another source of inspiration for those clever, lusty Greeks was the human body itself. The proportions of pillars, porticos, platforms and all sorts of other forms in architecture directly reference the human proportions of hand to forearm, head to body, leg to foot. Human beings are designed to find human proportions pleasing -- curves and spatial relationships semblative of human biological design often score high points with the viewer's subconscious.

Also known as proximity, juxtaposition is the act of placing one thing next to another for the purposes of harmony or contrast in visual form or in meaning. Very different images can be placed side by side in order to force the viewer to confront both simultaneously, or very similar images can be juxtaposed in order to blend with one another seamlessly. Juxtaposition is one of the most powerful tools for creating tension, by pinching spaces between some objects and bloating the space between others, alternately constricting or expanding the passage the eye is inclined to follow through the work.

Repetition is the process of creating identical instances of an element or assemblage of elements. (Repetition is the process of creating identical instances of an element or assemblage of elements.)

Variation is the process of creating non-identical instances of an element or assemblage of elements by adjusting one or more attributes, such as hue, value or direction. (Variation is the act of reproducing a given element as a nearby permutation of the original.)

Patterns are regular assemblages of repeated and/or varied elements. There are ten generally recognised classes of pattern: orbicular (anything derived from playing with pi, like circles, spheres, radia), mosaic (many images combine to form a meta-image), lattice (periodic configuration of interlocking elements), polyhedral (repeated shapes), spiro-helix (including volutes), meander (organic wandering river-like lines), bifurcation-circulation (branching, some Arabesques), modulation/phasing (waves), reflection (symmetries) and fractal (reiterations of a single element, self-same on all scales).

Pattern is a powerful tool and should be used carefully. Different patterns can stimulate sensations of motion, directional forces, scintillation, roiling and crawling in human vision. Patterns figure heavily in tribal art, dream imagery and narco-hallucinatory experiences. Scotsmen and DeadHeads alike agree: patterns are trippy.

An article in the December 2002 issue of Scientific American describes computer analyses of several famous "action painting" works by Jackson Pollock, revealing that Pollock built up fractal patterns through a methodical layering process. Human test subjects reacted strongly to a specific range of fractal complexity in which Pollock's works lie, which may dispel the mystery of why the "action paintings" created by your kindergartener don't hold the same appeal to the world at large as their multi-million dollar counterparts hanging in museums: not enough fractal structure.

As in music, rhythm is the use of similar motifs or stresses in a specific sequence, pattern or grouping of more than one element. Rhythm can be used with narrative time (as in animation) or in subjective time (as the viewer's eye takes a path through the work). Likewise, tempo can be literal (a time-lapse movie) or not (a frenetically busy illustration of a street scene). Rhythm and tempo figure heavily in the graceful use of type.

Emphasis, also called focus in some schema, is the act of causing some regions of an image to seem more important than others. Creating a balanced series of emphases is critical to creating a good overall composition: too many emphases is chaotic, too few is boring. When the eye is not directed where to look, it tends to just look away.

To contrast is to set elements in definite opposition, in order to highlight differing attributes or juxtapose similar qualities. Irony, satire and morally didactic messages can be communicated through the effective use of subtle contrasts of subject-matter. Manipulating the colour or value contrast in photography can dramatically change the feel of the light in an image. High-contrast images tend to have more apparent abstract qualities, highlighting graphic shapes over actual forms.

Too much variation and/or too much contrast between elements can ruin an image's sense of harmony. In a harmonious composition, even the elements that stand in opposition share enough common attributes with their surroundings to seem a part of the whole. Harmony in design is about finding a kind of visual rhyme-scheme, expressed through any single attribute or sets of attributes; for example, faint touches of colour in common can connect two otherwise unrelated quadrants of an image.

Often mistakenly confused with harmony, unity is a stronger quality in which all elements of a composition are directly linked by one or more attributes. Images where unity is required but absent seem weak and insipid; images where unity is present but unnecessary seem static and cramped, locked into place. Flags, seals, and logos feature extreme unity. In some media more than others a certain amount of unity is imposed by the medium itself: in black and white photography, for instance, all aspects of a given image are united in terms of hue by default.

Yes Virginia, there is such a thing as art for art's sake, but it is rare. Everything else has a more definite function, and this is a principle which far too many visual designers trample upon or ignore. In many wise lectures on the principles of design the concept of function is not even touched upon, thus arming a generation of university-trained designers with nothing more than a furrowed brow and a grunt of confusion when confronted with the realities of having to compromise a design for the sake of delineating intelligent information flow on websites or assuring readability in broadcast design packages.

The bottom line is that in the real world things have to work: design must serve function. No matter how beautiful a design may be, if it interferes with functionality it is unadulterated guano.


Occasionally, highly successful works are created in a formal vacuum, executed by artists based entirely on an intuitive process. This is called Folk Art. The term refers specifically to diamonds in the rough and not, as is sometimes implied, to simply any art generated by regular folks (the proper, snotty term for which is "hobby art"). Sometimes amazing things can happen in the hands of hobby artists.

Usually, however, it is advantageous to have some understanding of the formal aspects of art in order to better manipulate them to create better works, and to more meaningfully scoff at inferior works. In a professional context, formalism provides us with a language and a framework for constructing effective bullshit for pitches or for justifying resistance to revisions. In a social context, formalism gives us the analytical tools to cut through the inferior bullshit of soft-headed flakes who would hide behind vague, emotional justifications for the structure of a work.

While this article has barely scratched the surface of the subject of visual design, I hope that it has provided the reader with an engaging and informative overview of some of the issues involved. At the very least, the reader should now be able to toss off a few pompous art terms at their next cocktail party.


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