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Updated on May 9, 2009

What is Design?

Design is the arrangement and organization of all the elements of a work of art or other man-made object. Design is determined by the intention of the artist or designer and by the materials with which he works. The term "design" is chiefly used in connection with the visual arts. Visual design can be achieved on a flat two-dimensional surface, as in painting and the other graphic arts, or in three-dimensional space, as in sculpture, architecture, and most industrial design. The design of a painting is often called its composition.

In most paintings and similar works of art, even those that attempt to represent scenes and figures from reality, the artist does not merely reproduce his subject matter. A landscape painting, for example, is seldom the same as the scene it represents, but instead reflects the artist's response to the scene. By selecting and rearranging the different elements of the scene and organizing them within the overall design of his work, the artist indicates his response and tries to give the spectator a particular impression.

In certain other art forms, such as architecture, the artist intends his work to serve both a practical and an aesthetic function. A well-designed building must provide shelter and living or working space and should also have a pleasing appearance. In industrial design, which is the design of useful, mass-produced objects, the usefulness of the product is generally the most important consideration.

Basic Principles of Design

Not everyone responds in the same way to a given work of art because what a person sees or feels is influenced by his training and experience. For this reason, the principles of design are not considered a set of ideals toward which any design must strive in order to be successful. However, a knowledge of the principles helps broaden one's understanding of art.

  • Proportion. Proportion in a work of art or design usually refers to the relationship among all its elements in terms of size or scale. The artist establishes proportions that will create a sense of harmony in his work. Sometimes he may exaggerate the size of a certain element in order to give it special emphasis.
  • Rhythm. Rhythm is established by the repetition of certain elements in a work. It directs the attention of the spectator and enables him to grasp the patterns of a design. In painting, the repetition of shapes, lines, colors, and other elements may be rhythmical. In architecture, rhythm may be achieved by the emphasis of strong vertical or horizontal structural elements or by the placement and relative sizes of window openings.
  • Tension. Tension is the play of conflicting forces in a work of art or a designed object. By emphasizing these forces the artist maintains interest and avoids monotony. Tension exists between such opposites as light and dark, between opposing colors, and between unlike shapes and textures. It can also be achieved by contrasting the sizes of objects or by deviating from a symmetrical arrangement. An architect can choose to demonstrate openly the tension between opposing mechanical forces in the construction of his building.
  • Balance. Although tension between the elements of a painting, building, sculpture, or designed object is desirable, these elements should be brought into balance in the work as a whole. A balance of forms can be achieved through a symmetrical arrangement of elements, such as the placing of similar shapes at the same distance from the center of the composition. This kind of simple balance, however, is rarely the aim of artists. It is more interesting if two dissimilar shapes are somehow made to balance. Aside from a harmonious arrangement of forms, there may also be balance between light and dark areas and between bright and dull colors. Designers frequently offset richly filled areas with relatively empty areas.
  • Unity. Unity in a work of art concerns the total impression conveyed by all the elements together. In a successfully unified work no single feature of the design is out of place and all the elements contribute to the emotion or mood the artist wishes to convey. The unity will be such that the absence of any of the elements would change the nature of the total work.


Design is about ideas, alternative ways of doing things, looking at things from new viewpoints.

Design is about communicating.

Design is about problem solving, with a strong emphasis on the visual element external form, shape and colour communicate.

The steamroller and the Porsche are both mainly metal and to be driven but as soon as we look at them we know instinctively that their functions are different.

To quote the words of an early architect: “firmness, commodity and delight”.

Or of a more modern designer: “form follows function.”

And the Designer

A good designer understands the Subject, the Medium and the Object(ive) and works best when these are clear.

The subject needs to be clearly defined at the briefing stage and therefore good storyboarding is the key activity.

The medium is decided by brief, storyboard, output device and the nature of the target audience: unaware/interested/naive


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    • bebostation profile image


      10 years ago

      Gotta have good design to represent who you are and what you're trying to say.


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