Design: the parts and the whole — chapter 7 – value




In the world of art and design the term value refers to relative light and dark. Much of our perception is dependent on being able to distinguish light and dark; such contrasts of value are very important in understanding our visual environment. Natural and artificial light sources are the generators of all value. Without a light source we have no contrast; we have darkness. The type and intensity of light source influences the way we perceive value. A light bulb, for example, gives a very different illuminating quality than natural daylight on the same subject.

Value scales depict transitions in value from light to dark. Common increments on the scales are seven or nine steps from white to black, but the steps could be in the hundreds as the real range of value is infinite. An interesting visual phenomenon occurs when a square of the same middle gray is placed in the center of each step of the value scale. All the interior squares are exactly the same gray but the small squares on the light end of the value scale appear considerably darker than those inside squares on the on the dark end which appear much lighter. This phenomenon can be called value interaction. This is an important concept to be aware of as it clearly shows that the perception of all values – and everything has a value – is affected by values around them. In other words values interact. When we look at a gray horse standing in front of a white barn it appears darker than it does standing in front of a gray haystack or a black mound of earth where it will appear a darker gray.




As a contour line is used to describe the linear qualities and edges of shapes, value can be used to show how a light source affects a space, shape, or mass. This often involves trying to imitate the shadows cast by and on the objects being depicted. This emulation of shadows and light is called shading or rendering.

Chiaroscuro is an Italian term referring to a systematic approach to shading. It attempts to carefully define how light affects a surface.  Many times it tries to use only value to describe and eliminates all use of contour line. Tenebrism is chiaroscuro taken to extremes. The Tenebrists were artists who used exaggerated lights and darks to create dramatic effects in their works. One of the originators of this practice was the Italian artist Caravaggio who in the early 17th Century used stark light and dark contrasts to create theatrical compositions, usually of religious subjects. Caravaggio’s huge paintings seem to be larger than life “stills” from a stage production with spot lit subjects. Later in the 17th century the use of dramatic light was brought to its unsurpassed height by Rembrandt.




There is often a section of a composition that the designer wishes to be an area of emphasis, a place in the work that the viewer’s eyes are guided to. Many techniques can be used to create these focal points or areas of emphasis and a major one is the use of value.  An obvious way to use value contrast to focus the viewer on an area is to have a generally dark use of value throughout the composition and have the focal point be very light. The strong contrast of the isolated light area in a field of dark immediately draws us to the light area.  The reverse of this process works well also, when the designer keeps light values dominant and uses heavy dark areas as emphasis points. There are many steps between these two polarities in which more subtle use of value can create emphasized areas of varying intensity.  Most compositions have values working to create emphasized areas but the average viewer is not conscious of them.  Students of design can learn much by analyzing the lights and darks in masterworks, studying how the eye is led through the composition.



Value has expressive and emotional overtones. Dark values can be thought of as gloomy, ominous, dramatic, or even frightening. Light values are generally considered to be more cheerful, positive and uplifting. Grays have a multitude of expressive qualities with middle grays usually thought of as neutral, boring or subdued. These generalized expressive qualities can and often are used by designers to create moods and expressive qualities in their works. It must also be considered that not everyone has “generalized” reactions to value.  Each individual has a backlog of reactions to light and dark that might not fit neatly with research. Each person brings to a work of art his or her own unique associations.

Art history abounds with individuals who were masters of expressive value: Goya, Picasso, Klee, Kline, and in our own time Anselm Kiefer . For the ultimate example of expressive value my own preference returns us to Rembrandt. Certainly his value was used to describe his figurative subject matter, but the true genius of the work was in the power of value to express emotional qualities. In some of his works this expressive quality (created by value and other elements) is truly beyond words. The emotional qualities of some of his paintings can only be experienced personally and then fully only in the presence of the original. Reproductions cannot convey the complete impact of the work.




The term value as used in design can at first confuse the beginning art student, who has used the term and heard it used to refer to worth, price or degree of excellence. Value also finds its way into the fine art world of music. There it has the meaning of the relative duration of a musical note. There is also the mathematical use of the term value as a numerical quantity assigned or computed.

Another application of the plural term “values” can apply to ideals, morals, ethics, beliefs and customs. This use of the term returns us to our design definition of contrast between light and dark. In the subjective area of “values” there is also a scale of good and bad, right and wrong, that could be equated with values of light and dark.

Design, economics, music, mathematics, and morals all claim the term value. It is a very complex word and one that must cause some confusion in those people learning English as a second language.





materials: Illustration board 14″ X 20,” pencils 2H-HB-2B, eraser, ruler, black marker.


objective: to produce two controlled value scales and then apply the skills and control learned in the  scales to the rendering of a geometric still life.



1. put a 1″ border on the illustration board.


2. 1” down from the top border with ruler draw a nine step value scale: each square 1 1/2″ square, 1/2″ between, start first square 1/4″ from left hand border.


3. inside each of the 1 1/2″ squares (except #5) draw a 1/2″ square.


4. using the HB pencil smoothly render #5 square a medium gray; then shade all the 1/2″ squares in the other  eight 1 1/2″ squares the same medium gray as in #5 (use  no finger or stump blending in any of this project).


5. leave the #1 square the white of the board.  Shade #9 as black as possible with the 2B pencil.


6. next shade #7 to be a value half way between #5 and #9; then shade #3 to be a value half way between #1 and #5.  Finish with values #2, #4, #6, and #8.  ( Use the  pencils best suited for the value…2H will produce  lighter values as it is a harder graphite, 2B will  produce darker values as it is a softer graphite, HB is  between the two.)


7. 1″ below the nine-step scale draw a continuous bar 1 1/2″ wide the same length as the upper scales.


8. shade this bar as a blended run from white to black. It should follow the same value transitions as the nine-step scale but with no breaks; each value should  smoothly blend into the next.


9. from the clearly illuminated set of plaster geometric forms set up in the room render a cube and sphere on the lower  section of the illustration board. Use the careful  process of chiaroscuro, attempting to capture all the  subtle variations of light on the surface of the  objects and all the shadows that they cast on the tabletop. Use some exaggerations of light and dark to enhance your illusion of volume. Use little or no line.


10. on the front, lower border label with your name and Value Scales and Chiaroscuro.

Design: the parts and the whole — chapter 6 – space




Space is a constant reality. We exist within spatial context and relationships. We are three-dimensional objects and space exists around us and even within us. We all have exclusive space that only our bodies occupy; it is truly our “private space.” The space around us can be extended to the edge of the room, the country, the planet, the galaxy, the universe.  There seems to be no limit to space.




In order to understand how we perceive space, we must first have some understanding of how we see. We imagine ourselves as having the ability to see panoramic scenes all at once; it seems we are looking out on a scene and taking it all in as one unit. In reality our vision doesn’t function




that way. Our eyes gather information from point to point – a tree, a cloud, a bug, a fence

– then our mind puts them together to form the scene we are looking at. The brain functions this way because it needs to react immediately to the visual stimuli it receives (part of our survival instincts). If the brain received all the details of a scene at once it would overload. It would be like a crowd of people shouting different things at you all at the same time (Bevlin 68).  The eyes take pieces of information to the brain that assembles them as a whole. The brain considers the need to identify what we see a serious matter and has evolved to make “sense” of what we see.




Flat space is self-explanatory; it is space that has two dimensions, height and width. A piece of paper, a canvas or a video screen are all in their unsullied states flat spaces, and in most cases remain flat even after their manipulation by an artist. Some artists prefer flatness and do little or nothing to interfere with it. They create flat shapes that compliment the flat surface. Henri Matisse was one of the greatest masters of flat space in the twentieth century. His cut colored paper works of his later years are some of the most joyous images ever made.  But artists dealing with flat space did not originate in the twentieth century, indeed they go back to cave paintings we mentioned earlier.  Many, if not most, cultures through history used primarily flat space in their religious, decorative and functional arts.  The Maori of New Zealand, the Aztecs of Mexico, the tribes of the Northwest coast of America, all had traditions of creating dazzling works of flat shapes in flat space. Even cultures that reached some of the highest levels of cultural achievement, such as Japan, maintained marked preferences for flat space, though they did use some spatial illusions.



When creating a design on a flat space, a shape or shapes are placed on that surface to suit the needs of the designer. Those shapes introduced can be called the positive space and space left around those shapes can be called the negative space. Other terminology commonly used is figure (for the positive space) and ground (for the negative space). A discussion of the positive and negative spaces in a composition can be called a study of the figure-ground relationship.

Many beginning students seem to be pulled to and sometimes held captive by the positive space. In creating a design or drawing they focus all attention and thought on the positive space, the subject of the work. In doing this they inadvertently ignore much of the space of the composition, the negative space that is as equally important as the positive. The two spaces are interlocked and symbiotic. Every change in one affects the other, and the neglect of either can weaken a composition. The best designs occur when both are in harmony, when the shapes of the negative space are as interesting as the shapes in the positive space. An appropriate analogy is the Chinese concepts of Yin and Yang. Yin represents the female forces of the universe, Yang the male forces. Both are powerful omnipresent elements of our existence but either by itself is doomed to failure. Only through constructive and varied interplay between the two forces can good reign. So it is with positive and negative space.






As previously stated, paper, canvas and screens are flat spaces, but if the artist arranges the visual elements on such flat spaces in a certain arrangements, illusions of depth can be can be achieved. When our brain interprets these flat spaces containing illusions (realistic pictures) and associates them to past experience we very often accept the illusion. If a cat or dog were to sniff the same picture it would readily identify it for what it is, a flat piece of paper or canvas (Myers 40). Humans are a very easily fooled mammal.

When many people uneducated in the arts look at a two-dimensional work of art, they expect to see an illusion.  If they don’t see one, they are often disappointed or even offended. They believe that all art should or must show an illusion of space. As far as they are concerned the “realer” it looks, the better it is. This confusion of mistaking the skill of creating illusions with quality is unfortunate. It keeps many people from gaining information and enjoyment from a large area of art.

The history of making elaborate illusions of space on a two-dimensional surface isn’t particularly long. This should not be too surprising, as illusion making is a rather unnatural thing to do. The first masters of illusions of space seem to have been the Greeks of the classical age, fifth century B.C. Their fascination with human form and the idealized recreation of it in stone and bronze can be seen in sculptures that have been preserved. We have documents that also tell us of the great painters of the time but no paintings have survived the centuries. The closest we have are the paintings of Pompeii from the first century BC. They were done in Italy but primarily by Greek slaves. They are probably not as accomplished as what was produced in the classic period and many seem very commercial in purpose, but they do give us some idea of the skill achieved by the Greeks. The frescoes also show that at least some of these artists had what we would call perspective “problems.”

When the Roman Empire slowly crumbled and the centuries of Christian domination of Europe began, classical illusions of space were mostly abandoned.  The Church was not interested in illusions of this world but of spiritual images of the “other” world. To achieve this, they found flat space to be more effective.

In the fifteenth century the Renaissance saw a return to both two-and three-dimensional illusions. In their illusions on flat surfaces the inquisitive Renaissance artists soared past their Greek and Roman models. They developed a system of linear perspective that enabled them to create the most convincing illusions of space ever achieved. The techniques spread throughout Europe and became the standard for spatial depiction until the late nineteenth century. Then something remarkable happened. A smattering of individualistic artists started to abandon the slick illusions of space that had dominated Europe for centuries.  Manet, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Cezanne created paintings that to varying degrees returned to flat space. It shocked and horrified most of the art world and certainly the general public.

The evolution from illusions of space to flat space continued to develop through the twentieth century to the 1950’s and 1960’s reaching its ultimate expression in the works of the minimalist painters. Their huge, simple, flat color areas exist in simple flat space.  While this evolution was taking place, illusions of space didn’t disappear or even stand still. The twentieth century has seen a multitude of new and exciting approaches to creating illusion of space. A particularly startling one followed on the heels of minimalism and was accepted in the high art world. It was a type of realism that became classified into many subcategories: photorealism, superrealism, hyperrealism. The artists used photo-technology and other means to create works that were “realer” than your eyes would normally see.






Probably the most elemental way to suggest an illusion of space on a two-dimensional surface is size. From experience we all know that objects of equal size will appear to be smaller if they are farther away from us.  Therefore if one wishes to depict a tree more distant in a composition than one already drawn, the second tree can be drawn smaller and it will appear to be more distant, deeper in space.




A second simple but very effective way to show depth is by overlapping. By placing one shape so it appears to hide part of another shape, you immediately give the appearance that one shape is in front of another and therefore the illusion of depth. This is an amazingly successful device and is a major spatial tool in many cultures.



The placement of shapes higher on the flat space can indicate that the higher shapes are meant to be perceived as further away. This tiering or vertical location is a common device used by children and by many cultures. Tiering can also be successfully used in conjunction with more sophisticated illusions of space.



Atmospheric or aerial perspective is based on the fact that objects that are more distant from our eyes are less clear. This is caused primarily by two factors: first, the air between the viewer and the object softens the image as distance is increased; second, the human eye cannot discern detail as objects become more distant. Atmospheric perspective attempts to imitate this effect on the flat surface by making objects that are meant to be perceived as distant less detailed and more blurry and grayed than those objects meant to be seen as closer to the viewer.




The most complex of all the devices to create illusions of space is linear perspective. Developed in the Italian Renaissance, first by architects and artists as a system to document Roman ruins, it rapidly conquered Europe as a successful system of complex visual illusions.

The basis of linear perspective is fairly simple. As parallel lines (such as the side of a building) recede from a viewer, they appear to come together, converge, and eventually meet at a point. The complications begin when the systems of one, two, and multi-point perspective apply their many guidelines.

A linear perspective drawing begins with the placement of a horizon line on a level of the picture plane (the surface of the paper or canvas).  The horizon line is where the horizon of the sky would be and is also the viewer’s eye level. On this line all the converging parallel lines of the composition will eventually meet (and some of the lines might meet well off the picture plane if extended to their meeting point). The points at which the extended converging lines meet are called vanishing points. One-point perspective has one vanishing point; two-point perspective has two vanishing points; and multi-point perspective has many vanishing points.




Another device to give the illusion of three-dimensional space to a flat surface is rendering, also called shading. Rendering is an attempt to show how light affects a surface or object by creating lighter and darker values on the picture plane.  These various values are made to correspond with the values created by the light source on the object being drawn or painted. The designer attempts to show the highlights and various shadows on the object and also the shadows cast by the object onto other surfaces. The success of this technique is often determined by depicting the light source consistently and often exaggerating the lightest and darkest values to enhance the illusion of volume on a two-dimensional surface.



Closed space refers to compositions in which all or nearly all the components and action take place within the borders of the picture plane.  Figures and major elements are grouped to form contained units that draw the viewer’s attention to areas of emphasis. Closed space dominated European art from the Greeks to the mid nineteenth century. Then, as with the break from what was by then traditional illusions of space, a group of mainly French renegades started to break the rules. Some of these artists were the same as the flatness proponents already mentioned; Manet, Gaugin, Toulouse- Lautrec, and Van Gogh (Dutch). Others who broke out of the closed space were Degas, Renoir, Monet, and Cassatt (American) – a heavy-hitters list of Impressionists. All these artists began creating compositions that did not appear to be confined within the four borders of the picture plane. Their compositions looked cropped and suggested that more was happening around the edges of the space. This is called implied or open space.

The development of implied space by these nineteenth century artists had two major influences. The first was the influx of Japanese woodblock prints to Europe. For centuries the Japanese had been creating implied compositions, cropping their compositions, thus showing a little but implying a great deal. It allowed the viewer to become more involved with the work; the viewers finished the composition with their own minds. It should also be noted that the bold, flat color areas of these same woodblock prints were what influenced these same adventurous European artists in flatness. The second influence on the development of implied space compositions was photography. Photography had been evolving since the 1830’s and by the last decades of the nineteenth century it was a common part of urban life.  Some artists were already using photography as an aid in their art. When a photograph is taken, it automatically crops the edges of the space, sometimes dramatically. This fact caught the eyes of artists who saw the potential of unusual cropping to show different points of view. Edgar Degas used this idea in some stunning ways.




The old sayings of “seeing is believing” and “trust your eyes” can be misguided advice. You can’t always believe what you see. The skilled designer can create compositions that convincingly show you what couldn’t possibly be, or alter what seems real to fit the designer or client’s needs, leaving the viewer the victim of the artist’s skill.

Once the designer has mastered the devices to create illusions, there is little in his/her path to stop the manipulation of those devices to make the viewer see what the designer wishes. The twentieth century style of Surrealism is a sensational example of this. Salvador Dali created a shocking nightmare world on canvas where the impossible became slickly rendered and spatially correct. Rene Magritte took our standard understanding of space, texture and scale and stood them all on their ears, making us see common things in entirely new ways. Yves Tanguy created spaces and shapes that transported us to a world different from but spatially as believable as our own.

In commercial design the manipulation of illusions is usually not as obvious as in surrealism. In the advertising world such manipulation is more subtle and functional. The illusions are put to use in selling a product, service or idea. It is normally the designer’s job to present the sales item in the most positive way possible. If this involves creating illusions that might not always reflect reality, many designers seem more than willing to do so. This can be as simple as making a candy bar look larger in size in an advertisement than it actually is. Or the deception can be as complex as making a car look like a sexually desirable object. A child may be disappointed to find that the candy bar is not as large as it appeared in the ad. An adult may be subconsciously disappointed to find that sexual satisfaction is difficult to achieve with an automobile.

Deception in the advertising world can range from the innocent to the dangerous, from necessary to excessive. Wherever the deceptions fall on this spectrum, they all alter the consumer’s perception of reality. The result: we now live in a culture so inundated with illusions that it is becoming increasingly difficult to recognize reality. The advent of computer technologies has made the capabilities to create sophisticated deceptive illusions available to whoever has the technology. Programs for photo manipulation now makes it possible to create fictitious imagery with the most convincing subtleties in photographic images. People are conditioned to respond to photography as a reflection of reality and can be easily manipulated.

Our eyes sometimes have a difficult time distinguishing and interpreting illusions. A fairly common problem is in distinguishing figure from ground in a composition. The classic example of this figure-ground ambiguity is the picture of a vase that is formed by two silhouettes of the human face. Flat patterns can also easily create this same reversal of figure and ground. An artist whose mastery of figure-ground and linear perspective has been surpassed by few is M. C. Escher. His delightful puzzles of figure-ground and perspective entanglements are complex lessons in spatial illusions.




In the extended world of design, space continues to be a dominating element. In architecture the complexity of spatial design extends to both the outside and the inside of the structure. How the space is shaped within the building is just as important as the overall mass it creates on the outside. The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was acutely aware of this fact. He was one of the Western originators of open spaces within the home, breaking up the traditional small rooms that dominated Victorian design. Wright’s spacious connected living spaces were illuminated by large window areas, making them seem even larger and bringing the outdoors inside. These ideas seem very commonplace today but the were revolutionary at the turn of the twentieth century when he was developing them. A major influence on Wright’s sense of space was Japanese architecture; again the Japanese have a major impact on modern concepts of space in the West.

Space doesn’t have the solidity of mass, shape, texture, or even line. Although the reality of space in undeniable, it is somewhat abstract and more difficult to grasp. This may be partially due to its vastness. One of the major applications of space in “the big picture” is that of outer space; we have spacemen, spacecraft, space flight, space stations, and space medicine. The limits of this space are truly unknown. Is there an edge or end of the universe or are there more universes beyond this one? Is the universe all there is, or is the universe merely one part of a whole as an electron is part of an atom? The vastness and complexity of inner and outer space is a great mystery.






materials: tag board 19″ X 23″ and 9″ X 10 1/4″, scissors, rubber cement, four 8″ X 10″ pieces of black  construction paper, pencil, ruler, fine tip  black marker, exacto knife.


objective: to create four highly contrasting compositions of positive and negative spaces using the same still life as  the source



1. Divide the 19″ X 23″ tag board into four equal 8″ X 10″    rectangles with a 1″ border and 1″ in between. Put a 3″  border on the 9″ X 10 1/4″ tag board and with ruler and  exacto knife cut out the interior rectangle creating a  viewfinder.


2. Each of the four compositions is to contain an arrangement of positive and negative spaces as seen in  the still life. Use the viewfinder held at arms length  to find interesting arrangements of positive and  negative spaces in the still life. Move around the room to get new viewpoints, try close up and far away. Attempt to get radically different arrangements of positive and negative space. On each of the four  8″ X 10″ pieces of black construction paper carefully  draw each of these four spatial arrangement with  pencil.  All compositions must be either horizontally or vertically oriented. Then cut out the negative spaces with scissors  and exacto knife and glue them with rubber cement to  the four spaces on the tag board. You may glue either the positive or the negative shapes to the board but stay consistent with all four compositions.


3. Ink the borderlines with ruler and marker.  Label on the front, in the lower border, Positive and Negative Space and your name.





materials: old magazines (outdoorsy ones esp.), tag board 14″ X 20″, marker, pencil, ruler, exacto knife,  rubber cement.


objective: To create a collage of magazine images that brings together in one composition all the devices to create illusions of space discussed in Chapter Six in a convincing illusion of believable space.



1. Put a 1″ border on the 14″ X 20″ tag board.


2. Search through magazines and collect images you can piece together to create new illusions of space.  You must show examples of each of the following devices: size, overlapping,  vertical location, atmospheric perspective, linear  perspective, and rendering. Use some dramatic implied space in  the composition.


3. These examples must all “fit together” to form one overall convincing spatial composition. Object in the composition need not make conceptual sense (they may be unrelated, outrageous, silly). But they must make rational spatial sense.


4. On the front border label the project Illusions of  Space and your first and last names.  NOT with marker;  instead cut letters from magazine ads and headlines  (ransom-note style).


materials: tag board 14″ X 20″, black construction paper, rubber cement, exacto knife, scissors, ruler,  pencil, marker.


objective: To create a black and white composition in which the figure and ground are interchangeable  and both have recognizable subject matter.



1.Do quick black and white shape sketches within rectangles. Study the negative spaces created and manipulate the positive shapes to make the negative spaces more recognizable.


2. Draw out an interesting shape of a recognizable subject on black construction paper (tree, plant, animal,  etc.).  Cut out the image, then trace it and cut out  the reverse image of the original . Place the two shapes on a white surface and move them about creating  shapes between them. Watch the negative space carefully  and manipulate it to form recognizable subjects in the  white. You may have to alter your positive shapes to  enhance your negative shapes. If you cannot form any  recognizable negative shapes, start over with new  positive shapes.


2. Remember that all the white and black spaces in the composition must be recognizable. You will need to do considerable adapting of shapes and experimentation to achieve this. When you have succeeded glue the shapes down with rubber cement.


3. Label the project on the front in marker, Spatial Ambiguity and your name.

Design: the parts and the whole — chapter 5 – line




The study of visual design may be approached in many different ways, as the rows of books on the library shelves will testify. I prefer the approach of studying the parts of design and then applying that knowledge to an understanding of the whole. There is an inherent danger in this approach. The danger is that the student, and the teacher, can become so engrossed in the parts that the whole is either forgotten or superficially approached. This danger permeates not only the study of design but also the study of many areas of human knowledge. The old saying of “not being able to see the forest for the trees” rings true in many areas of modern study. Trying to remain conscious of this danger may help us avoid falling victim to forgetting the big picture as our studies proceed.

The study of visual design can be divided into visual elements and visual principles.  The visual elements are the raw materials of what we see: line, space, value, shape, mass, texture, and color. The visual principles are how these elements are arranged to form wholes or designs: unity, variety, balance, emphasis, rhythm, proportion, and scale.



Line has always been at the core of human expression. Early humans used line to express themselves on cave walls with tremendous dexterity and skill, showing a sophistication that suggests a long held tradition rather than a crude beginning. From incised line in stone to bold painted outlines, early people used line as a creative vehicle in possibly a very literal sense. It is speculated that by creating these images of animals in deep hidden caves they may have been ritually performing the act of producing the animals in the womb of the earth to stimulate and perpetuate the herds on the surface that the people’s sustenance depended upon.

The long “lineage” of line making seems to extend to all of us. There are few people who don’t instinctively make lines. A major manifestation of this behavior is doodling. Whether listening to a lecture or talking on the phone, many people almost subconsciously make lines. The lines are many times without subject or meaning; they are examples of line for the sake of line – quite a remarkable behavior when you stop to think about it. Children use lines to create games. In urban and even rural areas groups of youths use line in graffiti to mark territory and proclaim identity. The lines in a businessman’s tie might proclaim club or school affiliation. On many levels line is tied to human expression.

Line does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. A line usually begins with a dot or a point, which is then extended to form a line. That line must exist in the space that it is placed. In most cases the line creates a shape within the space. The line is visible because of its value contrast to its environment, light on dark or dark on light. Therefore in producing a line, automatically space, shape, and value come into being.  Three more visual elements are present, interacting, creating a whole of sorts – the parts creating a whole.  This seems a rather easy beginning for design. Make a line on a piece of paper and you have four visual elements creating a design. The difficult aspects arise when questions are asked. What is your objective in making that line? Have you achieved that objective? Is the success of undertaking to be evaluated by anyone beside you? These questions seem to be cruel distractions from what can many times be the enjoyable and even joyous experience of making a line and sometimes the questions can be ignored for the pure joy of the experience; but many times these questions are a necessary part of the design process.




As with all inspiration, the greatest reservoir of linear inspiration lies all around us in nature. From the linear spiral of the galaxy that we live in to the linear tracings of the movement of sub-atomic particles, and everywhere in between, line abounds and many times dominates our visual environments. Dew and sunlight dancing off an intricate spider web, tremendously varied line and color in an autumn leaf, cracked and shattered linear patterns in a sheet of ice created by shifting pressures and temperatures – these are a few of the images that are etched on my mind and are a tiny fragment that abound for our enjoyment and inspiration. What can be learned from the observation of these lines is far greater than anything that can be taught in class. What it takes to gain this knowledge is a re-education of the eyes; learning to look and think and feel.

Our man-made environments are also a storehouse of linear knowledge. The geometry of lines that dominate these spaces are the straight lines and right angles that find their way into so much design due to their high degree of functional and economical qualities.




One of the most common uses of line in design is using line to describe.  The primary approach for this description is using line to show contours.  The contour line is one that attempts to show the edges of the object being drawn. This type of drawing many times extends beyond the outside edges of the subject and also draws the inside edges of shapes and even shadows. Contour line can create an image of an object that in reality has little or even no actual lines. It does this by producing lines where the edges of shapes exist.  It would seem that such a system would produce flat, lifeless images; but in the hands of a skilled and sensitive artist, contour line images can be full of energy and expression from the variety of lines used and the personal style and approach of the individual.




A line is not simply a line. It is a thick line or a thin line, a straight line or a crooked line, a swirling line or a jagged line, a light line or a dark line, a happy line or a sad line, an energetic line or a tired line, and on and on. Lines can express deep human qualities when tied to a subject or even with no subject matter attached. Lines themselves can evoke emotional responses from fear to calm, from puzzlement to understanding. Only when one understands the variety of line can one fully use the quality of line, whatever the problem being worked on. The variety of line is many times dependent on materials available or required for the job at hand. The varieties of lines that can be created with charcoal vary greatly from the variety that can be made with brush and ink. The type of brush used will change the variety of lines possible. The type of paper and ink will also change the line qualities at your service. A welded steel sculpture offers vastly different possibilities for line quality than computer-generated imagery where line is tied to hardware and software capabilities. The common ground is that line quality and its expressive potential is waiting to be used in all media.




An important area of linear design that is sometimes ignored in Western culture is that of line that creates symbols.  The letters of our alphabet, the numbers and symbols of mathematics, and musical notation are all linear systems of storing and recording information. While we generally think of these linear marks as functional elements of communication, we rarely think of them as vehicles of expression or beauty.

The importance and potential of our alphabet has not escaped the advertising world, which depends greatly on it to communicate messages in print and electronic media. What advertising designers call typography is the refined art of thousands of variations on the alphabet. Nuances are created so subtle that the causal observer never sees them. The type style selected for promotion of a Wall Street stockbroker is going to be very different from that selected to headline an ad for a pizza parlor. The line of our alphabet symbols can express meaning beyond their phonic qualities; they can express responsibility, dignity, lightheartedness, fun and a thousand other quiet or loud messages.

Expressive linear symbols reached their zenith long before Madison Avenue advertising agencies were around. The Chinese have a cultural tradition reaching back five thousand years. In China calligraphy was not considered a hobby or craft. It was considered one of the highest forms of artistic expression. The accomplished calligrapher spent not years but decades learning the art and was considered a mature artist in his sixties or seventies. This attitude held true about mature artists in general in China and Japan as shown in this quote by one of Japan’s greatest artists of the early 19th century, Hokusai:


From the age of six, I had a mania for drawing the form of things. By the time I was fifty, I had published an infinity of designs, but all that I have produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-three I have learned a little about real structure of nature, of animals, of plants, birds, fishes, and insects. In consequence, when I am eighty, I shall have made more progress; at ninety, I shall penetrate the mystery of things, at a hundred, I shall have reached a marvelous stage, and when I am a hundred and ten, everything I do, be it a dot or a line, will be alive.


Written at the age of seventy-five by me, once Hokusai, today Owakio Rojin, old man mad about drawing.


While Hokusai talks of drawing (brush and ink) the same life-long learning was equally applicable to calligraphy.  The entire process of painting the symbols was brought to a near ritual state; the ink, the mind, the brush, and the body must all be in harmony to create the finest calligraphy. This tradition grew and flourished in Japan and China .

Another culture in which the writing of words became the highest of art forms is in the Islamic world. I clearly remember being dazzled by the huge banners of beautiful swirling lines and dots that covered America’s TV screens at the end of the 1970’s. It was a contradiction to find out that translated these beautiful symbols meant “Kill the American Pigs” during the American hostage crisis in Iran. The Islamic faith prohibits the making of any religious images, taking very seriously the Old Testament edict of making no graven images. This prohibition, along with the great importance of the word of God as written in the Koran, made writing these words a religious and artistic exercise of the most holy form. It was a way to express the beauty and truth that believers found in those words.

The letters of our alphabet can be called arbitrary symbols; they are assigned to particular sounds in spoken language, so they have only a phonic meaning. The symbols of Chinese writing are ideographic symbols, meaning that many symbols are abstracted images of what they represent. For example the symbol for “tree” is based on a linear image of a tree. After thousands of years of evolution and revisions they are very abstracted (Bevlin 36). While this makes for a visually delightful written language, it requires the literate of the language to know thousands of symbols compared to the twenty-six of our alphabet.

Many children seem to have no problem in creating ideographic symbols to depict and symbolize their worlds. While the meanings of their symbols might not be immediately obvious to the viewer, children can often explain in amazing detail their complex symbols. Unfortunately this wonderful creativity is often extinguished by foolish teachers or cruel classmates forcing the child to make things look “right” (realistic).





When lines are repeated in a design the result can be a pattern of lines. If those lines also result in a physical texture or the suggestion of a physical texture the line has also created texture as well as pattern. If the texture is one that has a three-dimensional quality that can be felt, it is called a tactile texture. If it doesn’t have a three-dimensional presence but still looks as if it does, it is called an illusionary texture. A scan of the environment you are now in, even if it is as drab as a dorm room, will reveal a multitude of patterns and textures produced by line.

Sometimes the materials a designer uses automatically produce linear patterns. The grain in wood is a complex example of this. Created by the growth pattern of the tree and then by the way wood is cut at the mill, it offers the artist many of ways to manipulate its patterns to fit his/her needs and expressive ends. The more experience the artist has with material, the more skilled he/she will be in creatively exploiting the possibilities inherent in the beauty of the natural linear patterns.

The process of production can also create linear patterns and textures.  The mortar used in brick, block, or stonework, the grout used in tile work, and the lead used in stained glass – all create a linear pattern from their functional qualities. When a potter throws a vessel on a potter’s wheel, the circular movement of the wheel and the upward pull of the potter’s fingers naturally form a linear movement of concentric circles around the vessel. The potter can control the amount of this pattern, from deep ridges to complete elimination by sponging and other techniques.



Line plays an important role in nearly all areas of art and design, but line is much more than visual. “You’re giving me a line”…”a line drive”…”train lines”…”drop me a line”…”the party line”…”hereditary line”…”fishing line”…”lined up” ..and on and on.  Lines are everywhere.




materials: drawing paper supplied, 2H pencil, ruler, fine tip black marker


objective: To describe, research, write about, and study very, very closely the intricate linear qualities in a small piece of nature.



  1. On your drawing paper with your 2H pencil draw out a series of four shapes (about 7” X 5” rectangles – or 6” squares or a combination of both) you may draw the shapes freehand or with a ruler


  1. In one area of the borders of the paper write the most comprehensive description of your subject matter as possible.  Every detail should be described with the closest observation. Describe all sensory information you can gain – sight, smell, touch, taste (only after you research to find if the plant is poisonous). Let the description roam around the drawn shapes as needed, do the writing with your 2H pencil. Label this area as “Description.”


  1. In another area of the borders write a complete a research report as possible on you subject. Your subject comes from either a tree or a bush. Find out what kind it is and write all the technical information you can find on your subject. Use library sources and/or the Internet. Use your 2H pencil and label this area “Research.”


  1. In another area of the borders do a creative writing piece inspired by your subject – a poem, a short story, a haiku, an obituary— other? Use your 2H pencil and label this area the title of your work.


  1. Now, with all this as your background, draw your objects. With your pencil carefully draw all the inside and outside edges of shapes that you can see. Go slowly.  Look at your subject.  Draw what you see. Keep your lines continuous; pick up the pencil only when you come to the end of a line. Be very detailed. Draw large and allow shapes to appear to runoff the edges of your rectangles or squares. Draw different angles, perspectives, and distances in your four drawings.


  1. After the pencil drawings are complete, ink the drawings with the fine tip black marker. Lighter and darker, thicker and thinner lines may be used to suggest the variety of lines your subject has. Use no shading of any kind. Also ink the borderlines of the four drawings.


  1. Erase all pencil lines still showing in the drawings.  Sign your name legibly in the lower left hand corner of the paper. The composition may be vertical or horizontal. Clean the work thoroughly.  (“Cleanliness is next  to Godliness.”)


materials: 4-5 sheets of newsprint, drawing paper supplied, brushes (any and all that you have),  waterproof black India ink


objective: using one word that you find interesting (but not obscene or profane) write that word with brush and ink with as many different line qualities as possible



1. With brush and ink on newsprint, experiment with simply making lines – thick, thin, wet, dry, fast, slow,  jagged, straight, etc., etc. Fill an entire page with  experimentation. Try all the brushes you have.


2. Think of words that have expressive potential.  Try writing them with lines that express what they mean. When you find one that you really connect with practice it with every line quality that you can think of and your brushes can make (all on newsprint).


3.  When you a confident that you have really explored the word, write the word on the drawing paper – covering the surface with the same word written with every conceivable line quality you can produce.


  1. Sign your name legibly in the lower left hand corner of the paper. The composition may be vertical or horizontal. Clean the work thoroughly.  (yes, “Cleanliness is next  to Godliness.”)




materials: 2-3 Black Sanford Rub-a-Dub Laundry Marking Pen, short sleeve, solid white all-cotton T-shirt (your  size), a piece of smooth cardboard or poster board cut to fit into the T-shirt, ruler, practice  paper, one clothes hanger.


objective: To create a minimum of four highly varied non-objective linear patterns that merge over the entire surface of  a white T-shirt.



1.  On practice paper doodle, doodle, doodle. Create a  large variety of linear patterns with no recognizable  subject matter.


2. Choose four to six of your most interesting and diverse linear doodles and decide how you can merge them together to cover the entire surface of the T-shirt, front, back, sides, collar, pocket, everywhere. Think of how you can  use the patterns with the form of the body that will be in the T-shirt.


3. Cut a piece of smooth cardboard or poster board to put inside the T-shirt to stretch it to a tight but not distorted shape to draw on. Do not try to pencil the designs on first, begin directly with the textile  marker – if you make an error improvise it into the  composition.  The entire shirt is to be covered with the  patterns.


4. Somewhere on the surface of the shirt place a small legible signature (not too large). You will model your shirt or present the shirt to the class on a clothes hanger for discussion of the project. All shirts will be handed in on a hanger.



Design: the parts & the whole — chapter 4 – the design process




When studying the concept of visual sensitivity a quote by the great painter and colorist Henri Matisse was used. To begin our study of design process the quote will come from another great colorist, Joseph Albers:


To design is

to plan and organize

to order and relate

and to control.

In short it embraces

all means opposing

disorder and accident.

Therefore it signifies

a human need

and qualifies man’s

thinking and doing.

(Lauer 12)


This quote brings us back to chapter one and the big picture. Human beings have an intuitive drive to order and organize. It is true that all people are designers or artists to some extent. Wendell Berry has expressed this as follows:


… everybody is an artist – good or bad, responsible or irresponsible. Any life, by working or not working, by working well or poorly, inescapably changes other lives and so changes the world…. As Walter Shewring rightly said, both “the plowman and the potter have a cosmic function.” And bad art in any trade dishonors and damages Creation. (110)

We are all shaping, changing, and designing our private and public worlds — consciously or unconsciously. We are continually interacting within designs. You are a part of this class, a part of this university, a part of a family, a part of a community, a part of a nation, a part of the world, a part of the universe.  How you design your interaction with these various parts and wholes could be called the art of living.  

On the level of visual design the approaches to organization can be as varied as the individuals who organize, but there are some basic methods to problem solving in design. One process can be described as definition, creativity, analysis, production, and clarification (Bevlin 24). The order and form these stages take vary greatly with the individual and sometimes stages are omitted, intentionally or unintentionally.

Definition of the design problem is the process of coming to an understanding of what is to be ordered or designed. This could include something as specific as the detailed requirements for an advertisement, including copy, headlines, and visuals, or something as general as a fine artist attempting to resolve visually an as yet undefined expressive or intellectual concept. To a greater or lesser extent an understanding of what is needed must be formulated. Diagrams, sketches, maquettes, models, research and other means are utilized in defining what is needed.

Creativity has already been discussed at some length. In the problem solving process it can and should play an important role in producing a design of merit and value. The elements of observation and stored information and mental models are of the utmost importance. The designer needs this backlog of mental associations to draw on in order to arrive at a creative solution. Simply using previous models does not arrive at the creative solution; the designer combines previous models in new ways to solve the problem at hand; new associations are formed, and a creative solution is applied.

Analysis is applying the nearly always-present constraints of time, money and function (Bevlin 24). The project must fit the deadline in many cases; this requires careful planning of time and, if the luxury exists, staff. The design must fit the budget that has been set for it. This difficult task can make or break a designer, whether ceramist, sculptor, filmmaker, or art director for an advertising agency. A knowledge of production costs is a necessity for survival in a market system. The final restraint is that of function. The design must, in the end, offer a solution to the definition. This seems rather obvious but it is actually quite easy to become so caught up in other aspects of the design process that this major goal is forgotten or at least partially ignored. The designer’s enthusiasm for the creative process, for the materials, or for the use of the elements of design can sometimes overpower the function that the design was originally intended to actually fulfill. An example of this in the advertising world would be where a designer creates the most exquisite, beautiful advertisement imaginable but if the design does not sell the product or communicate the idea intended – the design is a failure.

Production is the process of actually making the desired product. This involves the designer’s knowledge of materials and processes. This step must be done in concert with the processes of analysis and creativity. It is of the utmost importance to remain flexible during the production process. This flexibility can involve changes and improvements that the production process itself can create or dictate. The complexities of the production process often open up some of the best opportunities for creative associations and solutions.

Clarification is the final step of the design process and could also be called evaluation. In most cases there comes a time for the artist/designer to become their own critic. Some individuals seem better suited for this task than others. While a short-term project might be relatively easy to step back from and objectively assess the strong and weak points, a project that the designer may have spent years on can be very difficult to appraise without the bias of the deep convictions that have grown with the work clouding objectivity. Difficult or easy, clarification is a necessary part of the design process. To become a critic of one’s own work is one way to improve and continue evolving as an artist.

A common problem of art students is that they are overly demanding critics of their own work. They are constantly confronted with professional examples to judge themselves by and if they don’t immediately measure up they are ready to demean themselves.  This is not healthy self-analysis. Their goal should be professionalism in their work; but they must keep in mind that professionalism is not gained in giant leaps but in small increments. They need to look for ways to improve their capabilities. Students’ reaction to problems should not be to condemn themselves for their deficiencies but to find ways to overcome them in the next problem. An understanding attitude toward yourself and your work is a tremendous asset in the process of learning.

An accepted attitude in our society is an appreciation of competition. Some people believe that it is the basis for our social and economic system. To some degree this may be true, but I do not believe it is the best way to learn and grow as an artist. Much of the condemning students do of themselves is when they look at other students work, which they or their instructor perceive as having accomplished the objectives of the assignment better than their own performance, then from this comparison the student becomes disappointed and discouraged. This disappointment sometime leads the student to try to outdo others. Sometimes the comparison leads the student to give up the study of art. I believe both reactions are a disservice to the student. Students all have strengths in different places in the study of art. When students give up because others have strengths that are different from their own, they many times never find their own strengths and talents. Striving to be better than everyone else is futile and narcissistic activity. Striving to be the best you can be is a productive learning experience. There are always going to be individuals who seem to learn more quickly and easily than others. This is simply the nature of people.  Rather than competition and envy, cooperation and admiration should be the basis of relationship between students. Students can usually learn as much from each other as they can from the instructor. If an atmosphere of cooperation and communication between students can be achieved, a true community of learners can be shaped and the educational and social experiences are enhanced for everyone.



Design: the parts & the whole — chapter 3 – inspiration, originality, creativity, aesthetics, integrity




The title of this chapter is a barrage of lofty terms, words that have long been at the heart of the artistic experience in theory but sometimes on the perimeters in study, practice, and product.




Inspiration is by and large the result of observation.  I return to the wisdom of Rachel Carson:


A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength. (42-43)

I believe that the sense of wonder that Rachel Carson is describing and lamenting its loss is never completely lost to anyone. I believe the seeds of this joyous perceptual awareness lie buried in everyone — deeper in some and shallower in others. As a student of art and design you are probably already on your way to rediscovering this awareness. It can be done and its rediscovery is critical to any person wishing to live fully. While this sense of wonder is crucial to everyone’s enjoyment of daily experience, for the artist or designer it is also the foundation of inspiration and creativity.

The mind needs to function as a sponge, absorbing information and sensations to be stored and later put together forming the inspired idea. The gathering of information to form the basis of inspiration can take many forms. Observing, reading, traveling, eating, watching films, viewing art, contemplating nature, making love, sleeping and much more can all be inspiring experiences in different ways. While there is no magic involved in this process, sometimes new associations of inspired thought seem to crystallize at unusual times; long distance driving, soaking in the tub or taking a shower. Psychologist George Pransky believes that these times of inspiration are no accident. He believes that they occur because the mind is at rest and open during these times. He calls this receptive thinking in opposition to analytical thinking, in which we are consciously trying to solve problems or dwelling on information from the past or worrying about the future. Pransky holds that in analytical thinking we tie ourselves to current knowledge are not truly open to new association our minds are capable of making. When we relax our minds and are receptive to whatever is happening in moment, the mind is then capable of jumping beyond the known and putting together experience to form inspired, truly creative ideas (Pransky). While this may at first seem a bit strange, many artists describe this or very similar experiences as being their optimum working states of mind.




It has been said that the only truly original works of art were done on a cave wall and artists have been stealing from one another ever since. In some ways the statement is basically true, but I would substitute the word “learning” for “stealing.”

Students often have a distorted idea of originality as something that strikes an artist like a lightning bolt – a divine kind of experience.  Such is usually not the case. Original ideas are worked for; they are the results of a mind capable of making new associations from existing materials and stimuli. As suggested by the cave wall example, artists learn a great deal from each other and from past artists. This is especially true in methods and techniques, the mechanics of making art. There is no shame in this process of learning from other artists. In many cultures the only way of learning to become an artist was years of patiently copying the works of master artists. In Western (European/American) culture this learning procedure fell into disregard during much of the 20th century, but I believe master study can still be a very useful learning experience.

As mentioned in the last chapter, in the past few decades the art world has been showing a great deal of eclectic art that has borrowed heavily from the past. These revivals of past style have produced some very enjoyable and interesting works, but the work has been short on what some people would consider originality. In some ways this is a strange twist from the first seven decades of the century when individuality was the supreme goal of art making. The extreme stress on individuality was a logical reaction against the growing conformity, mechanization, and sameness that was engulfing so much of modern life. The artist became the symbol of non-conformity, of originality. This stereotyping had its origins in the Renaissance with artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the modern model was formed with extreme individualists like Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec. In the 20th century Picasso took the role of individualist supreme and played the part flawlessly and cruelly for over six decades.

It is often thought that the originality of some of artists, and some of those just mentioned, developed due to mental illnesses of various kinds. In limited cases there may be some truth in this, but in most cases I believe it is not true. In so much as the illness was a part of their total personalities and did influence their perceptions, the illness did impact their work. But in most cases I believe artists who have suffered with mental illnesses have achieved greatness in spite of their illness rather than because of it. The problems that the illness inflicts on the artist are far greater than any benefit to be gained from it. One type of mental illness that occurs in artists more often than the general public is manic-depressive illness. This tendency for dramatic mood swings can range from mild to life threatening. It is not known why there is a heavier occurrence in artists. It may be that people with these tendencies gravitate to the arts because the arts are known to be more accepting of people with abnormal behavior, or there may be something within the profession of being an artist that may help to simulate the inclination toward mood swings already within the individual.

The writer Wendell Berry gives this somewhat heretical view of originality:


We must see that no art begins in itself; it begins in other arts, in attitudes and ideas antecedent to any art, in nature and in inspiration. If we look at the great artistic traditions, as it is necessary to do, we will see that they have never been divorced either from religion or from economy. The possibility of an entirely secular art and of works that are spiritless or ugly or useless is not a possibility that has been among us for very long. Traditionally, the arts have been ways of making that have placed a just value on their materials or subjects, in the uses and the users of the things made by art, and on the artists themselves…. The great artistic traditions have had nothing to do with what we call “self-expression.” They have not been destructive of privacy or exploitive of private life. Though they have certainly originated things and employed genius, they have no affinity with the modern cults of originality and genius. (112)

The heretical aspect of this statement is, of course, the demeaning of “self-expression” and the “modern cults of originality and genius.” The 20th century has seen these very qualities as the highest goals of art. Berry looks at this deification of originality and says the results have been in many cases the degradation of not only art but also of people.

Rabindranath Tagore offers a differing viewpoint and calls for the preservation of the uniqueness of the individual:


If this individuality be demolished, then though no materials be lost, not an atom destroyed, the creative joy which was crystallized therein is gone. We are absolutely bankrupt if we are deprived of this specialty, this individuality, which is the only thing we can call our own; and which, if lost, is also a loss to the whole world. It is the most valuable because it is not universal. … The universal is ever seeking its consummation in the unique. And the desire we have to keep our uniqueness intact is really the desire of the universe acting in us. It is our joy of the infinite in us that gives us our joy in ourselves. (Tagore, S, 70)




In the previous chapter’s discussion of visual perception it was stated that the basis for understanding the world is the ability to use mental models to compare visual information. In a very similar sense some psychologists believe that the ability to form associations is one of the primary characteristics of creativity. It is the ability to draw associations between similar and apparently dissimilar objects, concepts, actions, or reactions that we can arrive at new theories, systems, and products. This system of association helps us make inferences that permit us to put together seemingly unrelated information to form a new or different theory or idea. Association is a way to store new knowledge and use that new knowledge to change perceptions (Myers 154).

This ability is essentially one of forming new connections between previously not associated areas. These connections can be some of the richest areas for art. John Myers has put it this way:


Broad connections sharpen our art by giving it transfusions of the blood of life from sources outside ourselves, outside our social circles, our country, and outside the arts.

If I am a man, a connection is knowing and feeling how a woman feels; if I am a white Caucasian, it is knowing and feeling like a black person; if I am a Republican, it is knowing and feeling like a Democrat; if I am a citizen of the United States, it is knowing and feeling like an Iranian.

It is knowing and feeling the likeness as well as the differences among things: apples and oranges, pine trees and cyprus trees, leaf cells and body cells, the animate and the inanimate (183).

A grumbling sometimes heard among university art students is “Why do I have to take all this non-art stuff?” That is English, history, natural and social sciences, etc. Myers’ statement eloquently answers that question. The myth of creativity being an innate gift is for the most part just that, a myth. Creativity comes from an open, active mind. A mind that is eagerly exploring new information and making new associations – new connections. Apart from a few exceptions, art is not about art. It is about life. And according Abraham Joshua Heschel:


Life is concern.  …A man [person] entirely unconcerned with his self is dead; an man exclusively concerned with his self is a beast….  Man is a being that can never be self-sufficient, not only by what he must take in but also by what he must give out.  A stone is self-sufficient, man is self-surpassing.  Always in need of  other beings to give himself to, man cannot  even be in accord with his own self unless  he serves something beyond himself. (109)


Art is about religion, history, science, psychology, mythology, business and all other areas that human beings become involved in.  The creative artist and designer is a life-long student of life.




For many people aesthetics has been an intimidating word with esoteric overtones and perplexing meanings. The word “aesthetics” is derived from the Greek “aisthetikos,” defined as  “pertaining to the senses” (Bevlin 8). From the very early use of the word and concept, aesthetics was related to the study of beauty: how it is defined and how people experience and understand beauty (Block & Atterberry 16). Modern times have seen an expansion and modification of that definition. Now the study of aesthetics spans the entire range of human reaction to art. This includes not only the delight, admiration, ecstasy, tranquility, or intrigue that might accompany the study of a work of beauty, but also the shock, disquiet, revulsion, disgust, or even disinterest that might be provoked by a work of art without the traditional sense of beauty (Bevlin 8).

In the late 20th century it is not unusual to find a large portion of the general public and even a good number of incoming art students, who hold to the belief that all art should be what they think is appealing or entertaining.  In the late 20th century a great controversy brewed over government financing (grants from the National Endowment for the Arts) and censorship in the arts. At the core of this controversy is a narrow interpretation of aesthetics. Those who would censor and restrict or eliminate government financing have a view of the arts that focuses on what they believe is worthy and non-offensive work. They seem to believe that this view should be forced on the nation as a whole. It is difficult for some people to accept that shocking, disquieting, ugly or even repulsive works of art have merit. If one looks at art as an expression of life, it is obvious that it cannot only deal with the beautiful.  If it did it would be ignoring many parts of our thoughts, experiences, emotions and desires. But this is not to belittle beauty, which I have grown to hold as my preferred aesthetic and the one I believe can give me not only enjoyment but also better health and the maximum potential for growth as an artist and human being. The Benedictine sister, Joan Chittister, has expressed this eloquently:


Beauty steeps us in the highest levels of human thought and possibility. It is not a luxury. It is a necessity. Without it, a person can never be fully human. (63)


No matter how perfect the symphony, how excellent the painting, how compelling the writing, how magnificent the scene, if we fail to develop a lifestyle and a heart that nourishes itself on beauty, life will be barren indeed. Beauty lies all around us. It simply waits to be born daily in us. (60)

This leads us to a recurring theme in the early chapters of this book: tolerance and understanding. Art can be an important avenue in learning how to broaden your understanding. The multiplicity of expression in the art world reveals that there are many ways of approaching and perceiving life. It is inevitable that there will be many that do not match with our own preferences. We can learn from these varying approaches and we can certainly reject some of them. But it is important to remember that our personal rejection doesn’t invalidate these opposing ideas. What is valid for us does not have to be valid for everyone. For me this seems true not only in art but also in philosophy, religion, government, economics, and personal relations. Tolerance and understanding do not mean acceptance or acquiescence to ideas you don’t believe. On the contrary understanding gives you the right to hold beliefs as strongly as you wish, but tolerance acknowledges the right for others to hold beliefs different from your own. These are concepts at the center of individual and collective freedom.

Another aspect of aesthetics has been called the “aesthetic experience” (Maquet 50). This is an experience that has the power to remove you from everyday life and eliminate competing mental and physical concerns. It is an experience that encompasses your mind and holds your attention. It could be the tranquil, harmonious beauty of early Mozart or the thrashing, crushing power of early Metallica. It could be a dense textural, figurative composition by Andrew Wyeth, or a sparse, minimal non- objective composition by Elsworth Kelly. If a work of art is an engrossing experience for you, you are having an aesthetic experience. Design plays a large role creating such an occurrence. The use of color, line, shape, space, value, texture, and mass can have a great deal to do with holding viewers and transporting them into the world of the art.  These elements stimulate the emotions and/or the intellect and create the aesthetic experience. The aesthetic experience takes us back to George Pransky’s concept of receptive thinking. An aesthetic experience is an experience of receptive thought. We are taken from our analytical thinking and transported to the world of the art where our minds can openly experience it.  One of the ways this happens most often within our culture is in the world of film and TV. When experiencing an engrossing film our minds are not wandering into our own thoughts, it is experiencing the world created by the filmmaker — it is an aesthetic experience. It can be one that entertains us, deepens our understanding, or poisons our minds, regardless of which, it is still an aesthetic experience.

This experience is cross-cultural; all peoples have aesthetic experiences that fit their traditions and culture. These aesthetic traditions have varied as widely as the organic, natural aesthetic of the tea ceremony of medieval Japan to the elaborate, decorative aesthetic of Rococo France. The last decades of this century in the United States have seen the rise to dominance of an extremely unfortunate aesthetic — the aesthetic of violence. The entertainment industry of the nation decided to capitalize on the very old knowledge that violence has the power to create an aesthetic experience.  Viewing violence and vicariously participating transport the audience transported from their everyday world into an adrenaline-filled world of brutal excitement. Especially in a society where many people feel powerless, this quick fix of brief highs temporarily fills a void with fulfillment. The negative repercussions of this dominant entertainment in our country are many. Heschel has expressed it in broader perspective:


Modern man may be characterized as a being who is callous to catastrophes. A victim of enforced brutalization, his sensibility is being increasingly reduced; his sense of  horror is on the wane.  The distinction  between right and wrong is becoming blurred.  All that is left to us is our being horrified  at the loss of our sense of horror. (192)


Within another realm of aesthetics is the feared question “What is art?” The answer varies from person to person.  There is no answer and there are many answers. Marjorie Elliot Bevlin states, “Art is concerned with the creation of a work that will arouse an aesthetic response”(8). John Canaday gives us the following functions of art: “To bring order to the chaotic material of human experience” and “To clarify, intensify, or otherwise enlarge our experience of life” (3 & 5). Lois Fichner-Rathus gives the following imposing list: art as beauty, art as truth, art as elevation of the commonplace, art as expression of the universal, art as reflection of social and cultural context, art as immortalization, art as order and harmony, art as the product of heart-hand- mind, art as the source of intellectual stimulation, art as meeting the needs of the artist, art as recording and commemorating experiences and events, art as expressing religious values, art as social protest, art as decoration, art as commerce (V). To all these definitions I would say, yes. Art is all these things and more. To answer the question from an even broader viewpoint, Rabindranath Tagore has said, “’What is Art?’ It is the response of man’s creative soul to the call of the Real.” (Tagore, WR, 139)

A debatable separation in defining “what art is” involves the many divisions created within the large realm of art: the difference between art and design, fine art and applied art, art and craft, fine art and commercial art, and other borders that are formed to create insiders and outsiders.  I have no problem calling whatever falls in any of those areas art – even to the level of hobby art and crafts.  These, too, are art and serve the function of amusing, entertaining, and giving gratification to many people. Do hobbyists create work of the same high quality of many professional artists and craftspeople? Certainly not.  While I have no problem in calling a wide range of activities art, I believe there is a wide spectrum of quality in that range. I believe that there is “good and bad” art. Making these judgments is a subjective exercise but I believe a necessary one.

An irritating attitude held by a few people in the art world is that anything functional or commercial cannot be considered “art.” Our recent list of what art is puts to rest this narrow and somewhat “uppity” view. The snubbing of commercial art seems pointedly out of place in our society. In many early societies art functioned as a necessary component within the whole society; the religious, political, and social uses of art made it essential to the functioning of the entire society. Examples abound; the indigenous tribes of the Americas, Africa, and the Pacific provide dazzling and immensely diversified cases.  In larger civilizations, it is difficult to think of an exception to this rule. From the Egyptians to the Renaissance, art played a vital part usually allied with religion and government. With the rise of the industrial age, the role of art in society diminished, and this still seems the case today in our “post-industrial” society.  What role does the contemporary art of the galleries and museums play in our society? While it may play an important role in the lives of many individuals, how does it affect the workings of our civilization? Well, there is the monetary function of investment and auction, and if one wishes to be more philosophical, the avant-garde sometimes serves as a kind of barometer or “canary in a coal mine” for the rest of society. But in practical everyday terms there is little relationship between the fine arts and the day-to-day workings of our society. On the other hand, the commercial arts, and especially advertising design, play an enormously important role in making our capitalist-consumer society function. For better or worse, commercial art is one of the driving forces in the cycle of money and goods. Advertising design distributes the information and creates the desire for the new and the dissatisfaction with the old that makes consumerism work. Commercial art serves the economic system of today in a very similar to the way art served the Catholic church of the middle ages, or the way art served the religion and government in city-states of ancient Greece. In some ways consumerism is the new contemporary religion being served by art.

In future centuries, if we can sustain ourselves, I wonder how art historians will study our times. Will they look at the “fine” arts or the “commercial” arts as truly reflecting the essence of our society? Will they look at our contemporary museum art or at Calvin Klein and Nike ads?


The final term in the long list of lofty words that make up the title of this chapter is “integrity.” As with all this list, there is no general consensus, by those in the arts, as to its meaning.

A broad definition of integrity is the quality or state of being whole (Bevlin 26). This definition implies a pure and unaltered state — the quality of wholeness in a philosophical sense. Integrity can relate to all aspects of design. Integrity of materials suggests materials that are used to their optimum, materials of which the designer’s knowledge is complete and whose qualities are not compromised by misuse or distortion. Metal is not made to look like plastic, plastic is not made to look like wood or tile. Materials are to be used in accordance with their limitations and advantages. Materials in architectural constructions must be strong enough to handle the stresses that will be applied to them. Outdoor sculptures must weather the elements. Paintings should not crack, flake, or peel (Bevlin 26). All materials have an innate quality of integrity that is either used or abused by the designer or artist.

A classic area of integrity in design is that of integrity of form, the shape and mass of the designed item. The famous Bauhaus school of design that functioned in Germany between the two world wars formulated the dominant theory of integrity of form in the 20th century. Their famous decree was “form follows function.” The clearness and directness of the statement itself reflects the integrity of the concept. In their designs, primarily architecture, textiles, furniture, and household items, they believed in stripping away all unnecessary and decorative elements. They wanted to pare the design down to the essential so that the form would be an indication of the function. The item was to be a direct reflection of the function, the materials, and the machine process used to produce it (Bevlin 28). In Bauhaus thinking a chair didn’t need embellished carving and spindle legs. It didn’t need elaborate upholstery or claw feet. A chair needed to support the seated human figure and design should attempt to accomplish that objective with simplicity of shape and economy of materials. This concept became so ingrained in 20th century design that its revolutionary nature is sometimes forgotten. We need to remember what a dramatic break this was with centuries of elaborate and decorative design as seen in the styles of the Art Nouveau, Romantic, Rococo, Baroque, and Renaissance.

In a way the Bauhaus was really returning to a rule of a nature in design. “Form follows function” has always been the ultimate rule of nature’s designs – from the tiniest to the largest. The process of natural selection in nature is a process of refining form to facilitate function; that is, to create the most functional designs possible in relation to the environment. One of the most fascinating places to observe this is in the structures animals and insects build. The efficiency and simplicity of the constructions are models of form following function.

Directly related to integrity of form is integrity of function itself. The use of materials and the item designed leads to the functional integrity of the product: how does it work?  Does the drawer open and close well? Does the coat keep you warm?  Does the car run dependably? Does the computer perform the functions it is supposed to? Modern life is plagued with innumerable examples of poor integrity of function but also with many astoundingly good ones.

A final area of integrity, the integrity of the individual producing the work, is one that is usually ignored in discussions of art and design. Integrity and honesty have much in common. Both deal with the concept of wholeness as mentioned in our original definition of integrity and, indeed, in our original definition of design itself. An honest person is a whole person, one who has not broken her or his integrity into pieces. Integrity is an area where some people see a deep crisis in our society.  Integrity can be interpreted as a spiritual sense of wholeness and commitment as expressed by Heschel:


The central problem of this generation is emptiness in the heart, the decreased  sensitivity to the imponderable quality of  the spirit, the collapse of communication  between the realm of tradition and the inner  world of the individual. The central problem  is that we do not know how to think, how to  pray, how to cry, or how to resist the  deceptions of the silent persuaders.  There  is no community of those who worry about  integrity. (251)


To have integrity as an artist and designer is to have an honest approach to the concept, the production, and the distribution of your work.  Integrity can and should extend beyond individual integrity and encompass the artist/designer’s responsibility to society and the environment. The ramifications of one’s art and design must be considered in a broader sense. The integrity of one person does make a difference. It makes a difference in what that person does and in the example that person sets for others. Integrity is a gift to yourself and to others.

In the commercial arts designers can make a major difference in how responsibly our finite resources are used, in what materials to design for and what materials not to, and in how to design for the use of more renewable resources rather than continuing to design for nonrenewable materials. The designers can rethink package design in our society and eliminate the excessive packaging that adds to the snowballing garbage problem. Designers must decide what they will promote and what they will not.  Will they create beautiful, luring advertisements to encourage people to smoke? Will they distort sexuality to sell nearly everything? Will they produce dazzling, creative ads that induce people to excessive alcohol consumption?  These are questions of integrity.




objective: To apply the five concepts of this chapter to an artist or designer.



1. Write a report on a nationally or internationally recognized artist or designer, one whom you admire and would like to learn more about. You may choose from any field of art and design. It should be an artist or designer who you can find adequate materials to research.


2. The report should have four primary sections, one for each of the categories: inspiration, originality and creativity (combined), aesthetics, and integrity.  Each section should explain  in detail how the artist’s work and/or life relates to the  concept. The report should be based on some library research but most of the report will be your own personal analysis. Some of the  concepts are not going to be obviously explained in research information that has been written about the artist. You  are going to have apply your understanding of the  concept to the artist’s work and formulate your own  opinion.


3. All areas of the report using written sources (books, magazines, and minimal Internet) must acknowledge those sources using footnoting or the Works Cited procedure (as used in this text). This citing must include all direct quotes and all information that you have summarized from other sources.


4. Photocopies of the artist’s work should be included with the report as supportive visuals. The report is to  be word processed in 12 point Times New Roman font and presented in a clear plastic report folder with a title page listing your name, the project title, and your topic’s name..


5. The report will be due at mid-term (date to be announced in class)

The report will be evaluated for the depth in which you cover each area, format & presentation, writing skills, and source acknowledgement.

Design: the parts & the whole — chapter 2 – visual perception, literacy, and sensitivity








The study of visual design requires at least a glimpse into the complex world of visual perception: how we see. The complexity exists because visual perception encompasses psychology, spirituality, biology and physics, and because much is yet to be understood about visual perception.

It is believed that how we see evolved, along with all our other capacities, through the process of natural selection – our survival characteristics (Myers 1). How we see developed and was modified by natural selection to best enhance our chances to live and procreate. To maximize our chances for survival, visual perception had to convey clear information such as distinguishing a branch from a snake. With this kind of urgent, survival need our brain developed to seek clear meaning from our visual field. The process is immediate and subconscious. It has been called the “perceptual imperative” and is a major survival characteristic. When the brain cannot understand or decipher meaning from a visual experience, the individual may turn off, ignore, disregard or even become hostile. This can help explain much of the general public’s reaction to a great deal of 20th century abstract art. Experiments in sensory deprivation have shown that when we cannot find meaning in our visual environment, mental disorientation and even mental illness can result, and if there is no meaning evident we may invent one (Myers 4).

Biological evolution is not the only influence on our visual perception; experience and learning also play very large roles. We have not only eyes but also ears, nose, skin and tongue. All bring us a barrage of information every second of our waking hours. The brain must take this information and give it meaning. It does so by continually comparing new information with models or paradigms that we already have experienced and have stored in our memories. How each individual interprets the information of their senses is dependent on many things, but primarily on what is already stored in the mind. Our perceptions can be greatly altered by our “state of mind.” Illness often affects how you see and interpret information, as do other physical and mental states such as exhaustion, depression, or elation (Myers 9).

Knowledge and experience provide us with information and models needed to form and change perceptions. Information of the senses alone cannot be relied on. If we did rely on the senses alone, the world would still be flat and the earth would be the center of the universe.

Due to each individual’s unique background and physical qualities no two people receive exactly the same visual information. Our unique visual experiences are due to differences in education, psychological tendencies and our individual imperfections. Our perception is not a constant but a continually evolving process that changes as we change in many ways. What we see around us is not objective reality but a subjective, personalized vision (Myers 10). Our sense of reality is shaped by our thoughts. This is a difficult concept to grasp as we are led to believe that reality is trust upon us by forces outside ourselves. The truth is that we can create a sense of reality by how we think about what we see and experience (Pransky). As an example, suppose we see a garter snake. If we look at the garter snake and think about the beautiful colors and patterns of its skin and about how incredibly rhythmic and controlled its movements are, we create a reality of beauty for that snake. On the other hand, if we look at the same snake and think of negative associations we may have heard concerning snakes we can create a reality of fear.

The uniqueness of each person’s sense of reality is yet another invitation to the concept of tolerance (previously mentioned in relation to subatomic particles). With our perceptions of reality altered by our own personal experiences and physical makeup, it would be highly irrational to expect everyone to see, think, or behave the way you do.  This understanding goes beyond tolerance and accepts the reality of individual differences and acknowledges their right to exist.

A great deal of what we think we understand is illusion and we readily accept it as reality. Both perceptual (what we see) and psychological (what we think) worlds are real to the individual (Myers 10). In the late 20th century, discerning illusion from reality has become a very difficult task. In the “information age” mass media has become the major source of information for most people, and for most people the television is the favored vehicle, providing both verbal and visual information and illusions. A problem with this system of information and illusions is that the main function of television is not to disseminate information about understanding life but to make money. Illusions are created to achieve marketability and to inspire quick-repeated consumption. The commercial necessities of our television system make it imperative to create desire for the new and dissatisfaction with the old, keeping the fire of consumerism constantly burning. Our perceptions are persistently shaped as we are told what to want and how to live. This shaping is not done by just advertising but by nearly all programming seen on commercial television.  The redundant sit-coms and soaps that revolve around the lives of the rich or almost rich serve not only as entertainment but also models of what we should “want” next in our own life-styles. Paid product placement in television programs and films is a growing area of marketing. It is rarely by accident that a recognizable product is seen in a movie or television program. A fee has been paid and many times through a competitive bidding process. A famous example of missed opportunity was when M & Ms turned down buying their product into the film ET. Instead Reeses Pieces paid the fee and their sales went through the ceiling. Our sense of reality, be it international, national, local and even personal, is formed by the illusions needed to sustain our economic structure. Television and film are perfect vehicles for those illusions.

It is often the business of artists, whether fine or commercial, to create illusions of one kind or another. The study of fundamental design seeks to enlarge the student’s vision and perceptual skills because those skills are at the core of forming new and fresh ideas, which are the essence of all art (Myers 11). In our economy idea and not the product is the basic commodity of art. The end product – the painting, the ad, the video, the sculpture – can be produced by a trained craftsman or technician, but the idea, conceived through creative visual perception is the real thing of value. The structure of an advertising agency verifies this, with the high monetary reward going to those who conceive the ads and considerably less to those who produce them. The same basic structure prevails throughout the business world. The creative idea is the germinating force in a market system.

Perceptual imperative was defined earlier as our brain’s intuitive drive to create meaning out of visual perception. One of the ways by which it does so is by creating “meaningful patterns.” This involves organization (pattern structure) and meaning (recognition). To do this the brain uses comparisons between a new visual perception and a series of models already in our mental storehouse. A search for similarity looks for a match to clarify the new visual experience.  After this match is found, the brain continues to look for more models to confirm the first finding.  It is a process of discrimination and of recognizing differences or unique qualities in our visual perception. This is why qualities of uniqueness always attract our attention (Myers 11, 13). The mind is stopped by the new visual experience and forced to search more. In a culture awash in visual imagery trying to catch your attention, the truly creative visual image that manages to stop you is a valuable commodity.

Out of necessity we pay attention to only a small part of the sensory stimuli around us. The number of messages that continually bombard the brain is so great that the brain must tune many of these messages out or we would cease to function – we would shut down. This ability to filter sensory experience is called “perceptual selectivity.” A problem a rises when this process of selectivity takes over and we begin to see only what we expect and want to see and remain unaware of those things we don’t expect. “Perceptual set” is the term given this thought pattern. This trait develops to a high degree in some people and governs how they react in nearly all circumstances. Wishing to retain stable norms, they ignore all that fails to conform to the norm and dismiss the unexpected as irrelevant (Myers 17). As an example a person may have developed the habit of always looking for the bad in people and circumstances. It can become such a mindset that the good in people or situations may be completely missed; the person has become so focused on finding and fixating on the bad. It is a way of creating a negative sense of reality with your thoughts by what you choose to perceive.

To review, perception is a process of forming patterns from information received by our senses, the information is compared to models already in our memory, and from this we make distinctions and evaluations. These perceptions govern much of what we do: what needs attention, what we can ignore, what we learn, what actions we take. At its most fundamental level perception functions as a survival activity. Perceptions are processed by the brain to protect us from harm, to obtain sustaining nourishment, and to maximize reproductive capacities (Myers 19). A key to remember is that as an artist or designer it is imperative to keep your mind to possible to new ideas, to let your perception be open. It is through exposure to new ideas, thoughts, and experiences that you will grow as an artist. To become caught in perceptual sets is to stagnate as a creative force.



The word “literacy” suggests being able to understand messages in a written language, to gain knowledge from the meaning of words and how the are put together. “Visual literacy” implies the ability to decode and understand visual messages. In the case of visual literacy the basic components are not letters or words but the basic elements of visual perception: line, space, shape, mass, value, color, and texture. How these elements are arranged creates the system from which meaning is drawn, as a sentence structure gives meaning and context to words. The arrangement possibilities for the visual elements are as infinite for human-conceived design as they are for nature’s diversity. The objective of the aspiring artist is to learn how to structure and manipulate these elements to achieve the meaning desired. The significance of the visual elements is in how they are used; that is, in the structure that is created – the design (Myers 4).

Visual literacy is no more universal than any other mode of communication. If anything it might have a smaller group of “literates” than most major languages. Those literate in the visual elements and their organizing are those who have been trained in either their appreciation or application. Nowhere is the smallness of this insider group more evident than in the appreciation of modern art, where many times the focus of the work is on the visual elements in their pure forms…the use of color for color’s sake, shape as pure shape, etc.  This “formal” use of the visual elements produces no meaning for the works outside the intrinsic value of the elements themselves and the value that the viewer brings to the work. To understand/enjoy many modern works, a knowledge and background in the visual elements is necessary: visual literacy. People lacking this literacy automatically judge such visual experiences as “meaningless.” The reaction can be as we discussed in visual perception: turn off, ignore, or even become hostile. An artistic elitist point of view sometimes snubs those who aren’t visually literate, who don’t know the “secret handshake.” This attitude makes about as much sense as snubbing someone who doesn’t speak Swahili. The fault lies not with the individual but with an education system that puts no emphasis on visual literacy.

The products produced by those who are visually literate have a major impact on all of us through our exposure to the mass media. But many people do not understand how this visual language produces what they see any more than they understand how physics put a man on the moon or how medicine created a vaccine for polio. The public is confronted with the end products of these foreign disciplines, but few understand the languages that create these products. There is no good reason for this widespread visual illiteracy. The language is easy to learn and offers many rewards.



Much of the study to become a visual designer or artist is involved in learning “how to see,” how to identify and structure the visual elements. Most of our lives we use our vision incidentally as part of a larger activity (Myers 18); we see but we don’t really look and think about what we see.

The ability to gain information from the perceptual experience could be termed visual sensitivity. A primary objective in studying art and design is to heighten this sensitivity, thereby increasing the stored information with which creative associations can be made.

In the technology driven world our society has created there is little doubt that people have an abundance of visual experiences.  The question is whether this experience is sensitizing or numbing visual creativity.


In 1953 one of the 20th Century’s finest artists, Henri Matisse, wrote:


Everything we see in our everyday life undergoes to a greater or lesser degree the deformation given by acquired habits, and this is perhaps especially so in an age like ours, when cinema, advertising, and magazines push at us a flood of images which, already made, are to the senses what prejudice is to intelligence.  The necessary effort of detaching oneself from all that calls for a kind of courage, and this courage is indispensable to the artist who must see all things as he did when he was a child.

(Honor & Fleming 639)


The flood of visual images mentioned by Matisse five decades ago has developed into a unending torrent. So prevalent is commercial, mass-produced imagery that its impact on would-be artists and designers is rarely contemplated; it is simply taken for granted. The permeation of our lives with what Matisse alluded to as visual “prejudice” is as much a part of our environment as the air we breath and the water we drink; both of which can also be polluted.

One of the most unnerving aspects of Matisse’s statement – his contention that we must learn to see as we did when we were children – refers to the innate visual innocence, excitement, and curiosity we had when we first began to explore our visual environment. But what are the children of today seeing? What is filling their visual memory banks? By the age of eighteen, students have spent more time watching television than doing anything else except sleeping (Liebert et. al IX). In this new age of computers and the Internet, the time spent glued to the monitor may now exceed that of sleeping for some children.

Television is a one-way experience. The viewer takes in sensory material and gives out little or none (Winn 4). It is a non-demanding activity in which the child viewer has no opportunity to discover strengths or weaknesses; where fantasies are supplied complete with auditory and visual components. There is no need for the child to create any component of the experience. Watching replaces doing, thinking, and touching. Passivity replaces activity (Winn 7). Individual experience is replaced with mass experience – experience that is being fed to millions of people at once. The sameness – the common experience, at best mediocre, at worst detrimental – becomes the child’s basic fund of mental associations from which we expect creative thought to arise. While there are more interactive aspects in electronic gaming and the Internet, it is yet to be seen how much creative thought is stimulated by these new time consuming activities.

The desensitization produced by technology transcends the visual and also deadens another critical aspect of creative thought: emotional sensitivity. Violence in mass media is probably one of the most widely researched facets of technology. Page after page was written in the sixties and seventies about television violence and its impact on youth.  The fear that detective and cowboy shows would incite children to aggressive behavior now pales with cable television, electronic games, and the internet bringing appalling, sadistic and gruesome imagery and behavior into homes a cross the country. Movie after movie and game after game attempts to be more grotesque than the last, and young audiences make profitable the simulations of unending mutilations. It is frightening to me that so many people enjoy and are willing to pay to see brutality and sadism. But beyond this fear is the consequence that the bombardment of visual violence can deaden sensitivity to the real violence that permeates our lives. Genocide in some far away country, the murder across town, and the child abuse next door are all accepted as part of everyday life.  Another change that electronic media is bringing to the potential artist is that of limiting the attention span.  Images flash before the eyes at a phenomenal rate -a major trend in music videos, film, and advertising. This steady stream of images traps the viewer because the mind is so busy making associations to gain an understanding of the flow that there is no time to break away – no time to think. A kind of passive habituation can develop in response to this visual barrage. As a result people so habituated find it difficult to concentrate on slow moving or static visual images such as paintings or sculpture. When asked to think about what they are looking at people can become very confused.  Looking and conscious thinking are no longer related activities.  Instead, when one looks at an image, explanation is given through audio or by the flow of successive images. Looking at images has become a passive part of life, not an experience that requires conscious or involved thought.

What will the impact of visual, emotional and attention-span desensitization be on the designers and artists of tomorrow? We might not have to wait until tomorrow to see some of the effects. The younger artists being promoted by the art world today grew up in the world of technology. Much of the work of these young artists falls into a category being called “post-modern,” a catchall term. One of the characteristics of much of this art is that it is “eclectic,” meaning that it borrows heavily on the past. There is a heavy emphasis among many young artists on using approaches and imagery they have seen to the extent of outright “appropriation” of previous art. It is a kind of passive approach to making art. The thinking and creative association that have made the visual arts a dynamic, visionary part of the 20th century seem to be on the decline. There are undoubtedly multiple reasons for this, but I believe one of the explanations is that our new artists are children of the technology era. The capability of creating new visual experiences has been lessened by the sameness of the mass experience.

My rather bleak assessment of technology’s impact is not shared by everyone. There are positive qualities that technology has to offer: educational experiences, as seen in public television; expanded choice, as seen in cable television; and the enormous access to information, as seen on the internet. It can be claimed that this access of information and potential audience gives the artist a vast resource to farm into creative expression. This is true only if both artist and viewer approach technology with an analytical eye. The problem is that little or no effort is given to teaching people how to see analytically, be it looking with or without technology. The illusions presented us are generally accepted as reality.  If they generate a profit, they are promoted; if they do not, they are eliminated.

In 1957 the scientist and environmentalist Rachel Carson wrote these words to parents:


Exploring nature with your child is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies around you. It is learning again to use your eyes, ears, nostrils, and fingertips, opening up the disused channels of sensory impressions.

For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we walk about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind. (52)


The importance of youthful awareness is expressed in spiritual terms by Rabindranath Tagore:


When I was a child, God also became a child with me to be my playmate. …  The things that kept me occupied were trifling and the things I played with were made of dust and sticks. But nevertheless my occupations were made precious to me and the importance that was given my toys made them of equal value with the playthings of the adult. The majesty of childhood won for me the world’s homage, because there was revealed the infinite in its aspect of the small. … The infinite is within us in the beauty of our childhood…. (Tagore, TR, 286)

Tagore’s homage of the world was symbolized in his being the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. In this quote he is acknowledging that it was his ability to keep the insight and wonder of childhood that contributed to his success.

In 1955 Abraham Joshua Heschel expanded on the importance of the sense of wonder:


As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder. (41)

To open up our senses to our environments is to begin to experience wonder. It is not impossible to regain some of the openness and appreciation Matisse spoke of earlier in this section.  As students of art and design it is absolutely necessary to unclog the unused channels of sensory experience and purge them of the stereotypes stuck into them from years of mass media.  We are partially blind and we must learn to see again and also to think again. We can learn to make our own associations, clearing the path for the creative process.  This is not as difficult a task as one might think, it is based around learning to identify and analyze the visual elements – the alphabet of visual literacy. An awareness of color, line, shape, mass, value, texture , and space can be the first and most important step to unclogging the visual channel. Opening the sensory channels provides not only an unending reservoir of information for the artist; it also provides a richer experience of life for anyone interested.

People are becoming more aware that what they eat/consume becomes a part of them. The food we put into us becomes a part of us. If those foods contain poisons those poisons damage us. The same is true of mental consumption. Our minds are affected by what we put into them. If we fill them with violence, nihilism, stupidity, sexual excess, and greed, even in the form of entertainment, those qualities will become a part of our minds, a kind of poison in our minds. If on the other hand we fill our minds with beauty, love, knowledge, understanding, wonder, hope and gratitude, we will nurture ourselves to not only pursue productive lives but also happy ones. It is our choice what we fill our minds with and how that impacts us as human beings and artists. It is, and always has been, a difficult choice to make because much of the mental poison in our society is served up on very tempting and artistic platters. Many of us have become addicted to negative mental consumption, especially in the realms of violence and sexuality. This type of addiction is as difficult to overcome as what we think of as physical chemical addictions: alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, heroin, etc. The truth is that negative mental addictions are also chemical addictions, stimulating chemical reactions in our brains and nervous systems. As with all addictions, one of the best ways to overcome the habit is to replace it with other behavior that has more positive rewards. As artists and designers we have the wonderful advantage of using our creative talents to form these new behaviors with our art.

This is not a call to return to the “good old days.” The “good old days” are now if you choose to make them so. While we need to function within the culture and  technology of today, this culture and technology must not force us to abandon visual and emotional sensitivity. As artists and designers we have the great joy and responsibility of shaping not only our own perceptions but also those who come in contact with our work. It is up to us to shape the medium, be it paint, stone, advertising, or digital signals.


Design: the parts & the whole — chapter 1 – the big picture


The Parts and the Whole

An Artist’s Perspective


Mark W. McGinnis

Northern State University

Aberdeen, SD



Tom Hansen

copyright  © 1991

revised 1993, 1997, 2002


My incentive for writing this book was not the lack of good design books available. On the contrary, a stimulus was the availability of so many good sources. My intent in the following pages is to bring together the thoughts of many people with my own. It is my hope that I have arranged the basics of design with some clarity and made them accessible to the beginning design student. It has also been my purpose throughout the text to relate the design fundamentals not only to the process of producing art but also to many areas of knowledge outside the visual arts, which are the source of inspiration for the artist and designer. I have written this text in a more personal, first person, manner than is traditional for an textbook approach. This reflects my belief that art and design is a subjective field of human endeavor, even in its basics. I have attempted to write more as an artist than an academic.The lack of illustrations in this book is the result of local publication and the attempt to keep costs down. This lack of printed visual support will be compensated for by the extensive use of color slides in the daily introductory lectures.

I would like to thank my friend, colleague, and editor Tom Hansen, who for years has been making me sound more literate than I really am. I would also like to thank Northern State University for the sabbatical leave that allowed the time to put these thoughts together.

Mark W. McGinnis



My reasons for producing a second edition are twofold.  First, after four semesters of use in my design class there were many areas of copy and project structures in the text that needed fine-tuning.  Second, the design curriculum at NSU was revised to create two sequential semesters of basic design. This positive development has given me the opportunity expand this text to cover two semesters rather than the rushed single semester it was originally written for. Color has been expanded to cover more complex areas and an entirely new area has been added focusing on three-dimensional design.  The first semester will cover the first three parts of the text: the Introduction, the Elements, and the Principles.  The second semester will cover the last three parts of the text: Color Concepts, Mass and Three-dimensional Design, and the Conclusion.

Mark W. McGinnis



This edition has undergone a major revision in the project structure of the text. I have eliminated, revised, and added projects. The major visual support for the text is a series of seventeen video lectures that uses color slides to illustrate the concepts of the text. These were produced in the summer of 1997 to support this new edition.

Mark W. McGinnis



This revision focused on updating and fine-tuning both text and project structures. A few new areas were added and quotes from newly found authors were added. I also reformatted the entire book, giving the book a more streamlined and compact structure.




Design is a relatively small word with an enormous range to its meaning.  It has been defined as the organization of parts into a coherent whole (Bevlin 3). There is very little in our existence that doesn’t fit into this broad definition; from the universe to atomic structure, parts make a whole with predictable coherence. One place this definition does begin to break down is in the strange world of subatomic particles. In this minute world electrons and quarks do not always act in what one might consider a “coherent” way. In this tiny domain there is a realm of uncertainty and a possibility that the mere observation of the particle activity may change or actually creates the activity observed. This 20th century discovery has had a major impact on how scientists and intellectuals view our world and its design. From the 16th century science has been confidently dissecting the great design of nature, finding and recording the wondrous ways that parts make wholes.  The breakdown of this predictable system at the subatomic level is disturbing to some observers.  In many ways I see this exception as a welcome component to nature’s overall design. The concept of uncertainty on the subatomic level leads to the concept of tolerance; if one cannot have absolute certainty about actions and structures that constitute our world, one must keep an open mind to new and different ways of seeing and thinking – all is not predictable. The great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore has reflected on this condition in a different way, “The detail of reality must be studied in their differences by science, but it can never know the character of the grand unity of relationship pervading it, which can only be realized immediately by the human spirit.” (Tagore, RM, 102)

But much of nature’s great design (or God’s great design, depending on your personal beliefs) is stunning in its organization of parts into a coherent whole.  Examples abound everywhere in the natural world.  Consider the structure of a leaf; then consider the relation of leaf to branch, of branch to trunk, of trunk to roots, and then of all these parts to the whole.  Finally consider all the species of trees found in nature; the diversity of one basic design is mind-boggling. Human beings are incredibly complex designs; the neurological, muscular, circulatory, digestive, and reproductive systems need to work in harmony for us to function (Bevlin 4).  When you think of all that is going on inside you at this moment, it is a wondrous working of parts creating a whole that is you.

It should come as no surprise that humans strive to create order.  Not only does nature’s order surround us, but we are ourselves a part of that order.  Humans create myths and religions that nearly all arise from the desire to create order out of chaos or nothingness.  The quest for design and order is evident in all human undertakings. Religion attempts to create a structure of understanding/ethics/morals/goals by which people can live. Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and countless tribal religions have all attempted to create bodies of instruction, organizing and designing individual and collective lives (Bevlin 4).  There are critics in contemporary society who see the decline of people adhering to religious designs as a major problem. Religious order gave, and gives, people a reason for existence beyond themselves.  The same sense of meaning and belonging is difficult for many people to find in science or through other secular orders. Critics observe that with no “higher” design to follow people fall into patterns of self-gratification, putting themselves at the center of the big picture and expecting all to revolve around them. It has been expressed by the great 20th century Jewish sage, Abraham Joshua Heschel as follows:

Absorbed in the struggle for the emancipation of the individual, we have concentrated our attention upon the idea of human rights and overlooked the importance of human obligations.  More and more the sense of commitment, which is so essential a component of human existence, was lost in the melting pot of conceit and sophistication.  Oblivious to the fact of his receiving infinitely more than he is able to return, man began to consider his self as the only end. Caring only for his needs rather than his being needed, he is hardly able to realize that rights are anything more than legalized interests.

Needs are looked upon today as if they were holy, as if they contained the totality of existence. Needs are our gods, and we toil and spare no effort to gratify them. (129)

Religion is one of many organizing designs of humans.  Another is government.  Through the ages a myriad of forms have been attempted, from small tribal organizations to nation-states to global organizations such as the UN.

Human designing extends into all areas of human activity, religion and government to your sock drawer. Humans have become so successful at designing and redesigning that in some cases they have forgotten that they themselves are part of nature’s overall design.  In forgetting this we have put ourselves in the position of being superior to the overall design and therefore having the right to exploit whatever components we wish for our own short-term gain.  The results of this arrogance are now plaguing us in the environmental damage seen around the globe.  The impact of massive consumption of finite resources such as oil and minerals, the pollution of our air and water, and the mindless disregard to other species of life on earth has become startlingly evident. A long overdue realization seems to be developing: if you destroy the environment, you destroy yourself. It remains to be seen if this realization can spread far and deep enough to stop and reverse the damage before major breakdown in the systems create global disasters.


For the purposes of the artist and designer the definition of design must be narrowed while still keeping in mind the “big picture” is where inspiration abides. Visual design can be defined as the organization of elements and materials to achieve a purpose.

The first part of our definition is organizing which could also be termed planning or ordering.  Artists and designers take many approaches to this process.  Some develop strict guidelines and procedures, moving through a plan step by step. A painter might start with extensive research of his subject, then execute thumbnail sketches, then larger rough sketches, then refined drawings, then color studies or preliminary paintings before beginning the final work. Another painter might begin by directly applying paint to the final work, consciously eliminating all planning, hoping for maximum spontaneity.  Other artists might take approaches anywhere between or even more extreme in either direction. Artists find the planning method that best suits their nature and their needs.

The second part of the definition deals with elements that are to be organized.  These elements are the visual elements: line, space, shape, mass, value, color, and texture. These are the components that make up our visual experience. They are what must be organized by the designer to create a visual experience. They are the content of the design.

The materials of our definition are the physical substances that manifest the elements. The line, shape, colors, etc. are manifest in paint on canvas, graphite on paper, light on a video screen, clay, stone, or hundreds more materials that the artist can use as a vehicle for the visual elements.  The materials the artist uses can be chosen by himself or a client or dictated by the needs of a project. If an artist works a great deal with a chosen material, a kind of bonding can occur between material and artist.  A famous example is Michelangelo claiming that his works were already existing inside each block of marble and that it was his job to release them. To a lesser or in some cases maybe a greater, degree this kind of relationship develops with many artists and their materials.  The smell of cut wood, the texture of the clay, the touch of the yarn, the favorite brush or tool; all can become part of the addicting nature of making art. To become the true master of a material is to know the material so well that conscious thought is no longer given to it; it is second nature. It is more than mastery; it is the materials becoming part of the artist.

Our final part of the definition of visual design is that the organization of the elements and materials are supposed to achieve a purpose. At first this might seem a rather confining aspect of the definition. To achieve a purpose sounds very functional and utilitarian, and many times design is just that.  Machines, utensils, furnishings, clothing, shelters, vehicles must all conform their designs to their functions to a greater or lesser extent.  The range of these functional designs is endless in their possible variations.  Think of the various designs of drinking vessels you are aware of; then imagine how many you must be unaware of. The design of a drinking vessel is confined by the need to produce something that will contain a liquid which can be transported to a human mouth, but confining limitations give way to the unending variety of creative design. The achievement of a purpose does not always need to be so explicit or functional at all. Purposes can also be very subjective.  An artist’s goal might be to create an illusion or a decoration. It might also be to evoke a feeling or to stimulate thought. The purpose might be to pass the time of the artist or to act as personal therapy.  All are legitimate purposes in designing.  Some purposes may be accessible to many people; others might be limited to very few.  The purpose of a work of art shouldn’t be limited to one interpretation. One of the great attributes of visual art is its open-ended nature; many people can bring their own experiences to a work of art and come away with something new and personal.