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Design elements.

Components
of design

Visual communication communicates through visual language. Another term to mean visual language is visual literacy. Languages transmit meaning using components. English uses letters, sounds and words. Mathematics uses numbers and symbols. Visual literacy uses various components to form compositions. These components, without which a design cannot exist, are called the elements of design.

Students may notice that different senior high school subjects use similar but different lists of elements of design. Art, Studio Arts, Visual Communication Design, Product Design and Technology each determine their own lists. This page refers to the elements of design for VCE Visual Communication Design.

Elements of design

The elements of design are the fundamental components of a composition or visual communication. They function in the same way as elements in science in that, from elements all designs are built.

The discussion of elements of design is largely derived from the study of communication design but are equally relevant to the study of environmental and industrial design. Visual Communication Design refers to the elements of design in all design fields.

USING DESIGN ELEMENTS AND PRINCIPLES IN practical EXERCISES

Students may be asked to demonstrate their understanding of design elements and principles by drawing a given shape or letter into a new composition. Other tasks ask students to design a visual communication using constraints including design elements and principles.

Students should be mindful that in demonstrating their understanding of design elements and principles in practical examples, they need to emphasise the selected element or principle. To do this successfully, they should ensure that their selection of element or principle is clearly focussed on that element or principle. For example shape should be shown as a solid figure, without the use of line or tone.

ON CHOOSING THE BEST DESIGN ELEMENTS AND PRINCIPLES FOR ANALYSIS QUESTIONS

In written tasks requiring the analysis of design elements and principles, students should be aware that only elements and principles that clearly suit the example should be chosen. Time spent on careful selection of the best, most emphasised elements and principles is time spent well. Students then concentrate their discussion solely on the element or principle being analysed.

When discussing the role of design elements and principles in design the use of a correct verb is important. Students should note that an element is usually used to create an effect and a principle is often created by the manipulation of an element.

For example: Different kinds of shapes (element) have been used to create contrast (principle).

Colour

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Colour Additive
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Colour Subtractive

Description

Colour is different kinds of visible light. Colours are understood to operate using two different models. Additive colour is created by three different lights in screens (RGB) adding together to create white. Subtractive colour is created by three + black (CMYK) inks or paints subtracting reflected light on paper to create black.

Colour communicates optically and emotionally. We discuss colour in terms of colours relative to other colours and in terms of how it makes us feel.

Identify

The names of the colours.

The groups combinations of colours belong to including; primary, secondary, warm and cool colours, harmonious, complimentary colours.

Do not confuse the discussion of tone here. Do not identify colours as light or dark when you mean warm and cool. (They may indeed, be light and dark, but this is a discussion of tone).

The function of colour; to decorate, emphasise or categorise.

Discuss

Colours and their cultural or usual connections with human emotions or experiences. (Red = passion, anger, blue = freedom).

Relationships between colours that cause optical effects including the way warm colours advance and cool colours recede. Colour creates depth and hierarchy.

The overall emotional effect of a colour scheme.

model analysis

sample question

Describe how colour has been used to create depth in the portrait.

sample answer

Colour has been used to create depth in the portrait. Yellow has been used on the areas of the face closest to the viewer and blues have been used in the background. Light warm colours naturally advance and cool colours appear to recede. This enhances the effect of form in the picture.

SHAPE

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Description

Shape is a two-dimensional enclosure. It can be made with lines or with a 'fill'. (Colour, shade or texture).

A shape in VCD is usually filled. When asked to produce shape students should fill their shape to demonstrate their understanding of the difference between shape and line.

Shape is a common component in logos and type. Shapes communicate optically and emotionally.

Identify

The name of shape. (Circle, square, abstract).

The kind of shape. Shapes exist in two main categories - organic and geometric. Organic = natural, random or flowing. Geometric = 'man made' or mathematical like a square, triangle or circle.

The edge of the shape. Is it hard edged or soft and blurred?

The function of shape. Has it been used to organise space, create an effect or as a symbol to assist with recognition (A stop sign or the shape of a Coke bottle?)

Discuss

Organic and biomorphic shapes look like those found in animals and nature.

Geometric, rectilinear, sharp, hard edged shapes are often found in industrial design.

model analysis

sample question

Describe how shape has been used on an iPad.

sample answer

A simple, rectilinear, geometric shape was chosen for the screen of an iPad. The corners are slightly rounded to lead our eyes move smoothly around the plane. The shape is repeated, at a bigger scale for the frame around the screen. The use of rectangles with rounded corners creates a consistent brand recognition between all of the products in Apple's devices.

Line

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Description

Line is a continuous mark on a surface. There are many useful adjectives that can be used to describe line.

Line can be used to;

  • emphasise something (an outline on a character, underline),
  • to divide components in a composition (column line),
  • to create a figure (lines in an observational sketch),
  • to create tone and texture (cross hatching, shading),
  • to create form (lines on an angle),
  • to organise space (visible or hidden grid lines in a webpage).

Identify

The purpose of the line. Ask what is the line being used to do?

The kind of line. Use adjectives to precisely describe the kind of line that has been used.

Describe the kind of media that has been used to make the line. The characteristics of the line will vary between those made by computer, pen, pencil, brush, etc.

Describe the method of making the line. Does it appear ruled, freehand or made by computer. Both the media and the method used influence the character of line and are used to communicate specific intentions of the designer.

Discuss

Line can be geometric, or organic. Line can be ruled or freehand. Thick or thin. Straight or curved, solid, dotted, dashed, sensitive or flowing. 

Line can be visible or implied. (As in a grid layout).

The use of line can follow conventions for technical drawing (line work for 3rd Angle Orthogonal or Plans and Elevations).

The characteristics of the line reflect the purpose of the visual communication.

model analysis

sample question

Discuss how line was used in the sketch of a building.

sample answer

The sketch of the old building was made freehand with a dip-pen. The drawing is made from organic lines of uneven strength and length. This haphazard and random approach to building up the drawing both with the hesitant outlines and grey cross-hatched shadows captured the decaying nature of the old building.

Tone

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Description

Tone is a variation of value (intensity) of colour. Tone is described with adjectives such as light and dark. The discussion of tone can include value, percentage, tint or shade. 

Tone refers to variation in range in a monochromatic field and can apply to any colour except white.

Tone can be used to create or emphasise form with linear or radial gradients. These terms are usually connected with digital artwork.

Identify

The purpose of the tone. Has it been used to create or emphasise form? When we shade a drawing to make it look three dimensional we are using tone.

How tone emphasises the direction and intensity of a light source.

Discuss

The nature of tone. Is the tone used in an image harsh, dramatic, chiaroscuro, soft, gradual, subtle?

What is the role of tone in the emphasis or creation of form.

What is the relationship between the kind of tone and the media that has been used to create it? How does this relate to the purpose of the image?

model analysis

sample question

Describe how tone has been used effectively to depict a baby sleeping.

sample answer

A gentle, soft tone was used across the picture of the baby sleeping. Although the darker shades of grey were still quite light, there was a consistent variation between the highlights on the baby's forehead and the shadow underneath her chin. This consistent yet gradual shading across the head implied a soft light coming from the window above and to the right of her head.

Texture

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Description

Texture refers to the surface of an object or an image. Texture can be actual or implied.

Actual texture can be felt with our hands (checker-plate aluminium, rough oil paint).

Implied texture looks like real texture, although it might be printed on gloss paper.

Texture can be made from raised or lowered sections of a surface (relief, embossing, etching) or with pen, pencil, or points (cross hatching, dot rendering).

Identify

The kind of texture - actual or implied.

What the purpose of the texture. Is it for function or visual appeal?

How the texture has been made - materials, methods and/ or media.

Discuss

The nature of the texture. Is it regular or random. Deep or shallow, rough or smooth. Describe the surface sheen. Is it matte, satin or gloss?

Is the texture that of the actual material or has it been created to resemble another. (Woodgrain made on aluminium or plastic).

The presence of texture in visual communication is often associated with a more human or friendly feel to an image. Similarly a lack of texture creates a corporate, professional feel.

model analysis

sample question

Describe how texture has been used to create an aesthetic effect.

sample answer

The cardboard beer package was printed with an old fashioned woodgrain texture like that which would be seen on an old fence. This made it seem like an old packing case that might have been used to carry bottles in the past. This rustic effect very much suited the character of the strong craft beer.

Form

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Description

Form is a three-dimensional entity. It is often made from shapes, lines or even colours. Form creates space and depth.

The discussion of form includes actual form as it relates to objects in each design field, particularly industrial and environmental design. Form can also be created on a two dimensional space as in an illustration or photograph.

Identify

The names of forms. (Cube, sphere, tetrahedron, etc.)

The kind of form using similar language as 'shape'. (Geometric, biomorphic, abstract).

The purpose of the form and/ or the relationships with other design elements.

Discuss

Use adjectives as used for 'shape'.

Additional adjectives include; solid, slender, cylindrical, rectangular, conical.

The ways forms have been constructed and the materials that may have been used and the reasons for their use.

model analysis

sample question

Describe how form has been used in the Embryo Chair by Marc Newson, 1988.

sample answer

The chair was made from two contrasting kinds of forms. The body of the chair was a beautiful soft biomorphic form reminiscent of a bent jelly bean. The designer contrasted the bulk of this form with four slender legs looking like those found on insects. A plastic sheet material like vinyl was chosen for the surface of the body of the chair as it would stretch to cover the foam that made the form, and a chrome steel was chosen for the legs as it was able to be bent into shape and was strong enough to retain its shape when supporting a person.

Point

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Description

A point is the smallest mark in a visual communication. It is usually a dot or circle in shape.

Point can be used to create tone or texture in a rendering.

Points can be strung together to create line.

Point can be used to show a location or emphasise information. (Dot points).

Identify

The purpose of the point.

The shape of the point.

The visual characteristics of the point (methods or media).

Discuss

The visual characteristics of the point using similar adjectives for shape or line.

The placement of the point, the colour of the point.

model analysis

sample question

Describe how point has been used on the map.

sample answer

Large red dots are used on the map to show the intersection of train-lines that include a physical interchange for passengers. The size and colour of the point is such that it contrasts with the grey background to maintain clarity.

Type

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Description

Type is writing in visual communications. It is a special design element in that it communicates through the meaning of words and through the aesthetics of the type forms themselves.

Type has a long history and through associations with various uses, methods of manufacture including wood and metal blocks, digital and hand generation and the locations from which type forms come. Type forms themselves are embedded with meaning.

Type is classified into certain groups for communication, use and analysis.

Type forms can be broken into anatomical parts. The construction of these parts forms the discussion of type forms.

Designers who use type (typographers) make many stylistic and functional adjustments to the way the type appears on the visual communication.

Identify

The examination of type rests on our ability to determine how a chosen type form communicates ideas to an audience. One has to identify the precise characteristics of a type form as distinct from another.

The classification of type forms. (Serif, Sans serif, display, decorative). The associations these classifications have in relation to the meanings of the words they are forming. (Contemporary, objective, authoritative, judgemental, European, American, retro, futuristic, military, digital, 3d, etc). The position a type resides in a type family is considered. Is it light, roman, bold, heavy or black, condensed, regular or extended?

The function and use of the type form. (Headline, subheading, body copy).

The method used to form the type.

The aesthetic quality and anatomy of the type form. (Ratio of stroke weights to each other, proportions of anatomical parts - ascenders, x-height, etc.)

The adjustments that have been made to the arranging of type - known as typesetting. (Case, alignment, colour, size, leading, tracking, kerning, etc).

Discuss

The functional and aesthetic qualities of type forms.

Look for the ways type forms and type setting conventions and processes are used to engage audiences. How have shape, colour, weight been used to attract a particular age, gender or cultural group?

A knowledge of all of the aspects of type shown here is essential for a detailed analysis of type.

Jump to

For further information on Type click on the link at right.
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Type

model analysis

sample question

Describe the use of type in the movie flyer.

sample answer

They flyer uses a large heading for the name of the film 'The Hurt Locker'. In the upper half of the format are three lines of a modern, bold, sans serif capitalised type in a face like Helvetica Black. The type is force justified bringing the ends of each line to fill the space and is tightly tracked with very tight leading to make it appear as a block. Like an impenetrable wall. The almost solid positive form of the type, set against a black background is ideal for the technique of making it transparent revealing action from the film through the letters. Beneath this super strong title are several rows of reversed out (white) extremely condensed capitals in a light version of the same font. This light type counter balances the weight of the title.