While working on the book this morning, I was struck by the number of admonitions about “rules” in craft work – either laying down a list of things to do and not-do, or urging you to break all the rules and “just do it”.
I think both approaches are wrong.
There definitely are design rules, and being aware of them will lead to better design. But the rules don’t have any moral force; you’re not going to be a better or worse person (or artist) based on following or breaking the rules.
To me, design rules are more like the laws of physics. Some of them are probably biologically hard-coded, like the way the eye is drawn to movement. Others are culturally influenced, like the Western tendency to “read” two dimensional art starting at the top left. (That’s because most European languages read from left to right and top to bottom, so in Western tomes, one naturally starts by looking at the top left corner.) But put together, they describe the way the reader’s eye is likely to travel through the piece, and the emotional impact that the design will have on the viewer. That’s all.
It took me awhile to work out this understanding of “the rules”. Like everyone else, I started with a confused jumble of advice – “Don’t put blue with orange!” “Stick with one wedge of the color wheel!” and was afraid to break the rules lest I wind up with a hideous mess. I read through books on color theory and emerged only slightly less bewildered.
The trouble was that I was looking for a set of rules that said, “Do this! Do that!”, with the guarantee that as long as I did this and didn’t do that, I’d come up with a nice finished piece. I was looking for safety. But following the rules all the time is no way to live your life, and it’s also no way to create an interesting, original design.
After a long time, I realized that there really wasn’t any one magic formula for making a wonderful piece. In some ways designing a piece is like designing a bridge – you have to get from one point to another, but whether you choose a suspension bridge or a cantilevered bridge (or a blimp ferry service!) is entirely up to you, as are the choices about how to decorate it, what materials to use, etc. There are certainly tried-and-true ways to build bridges, and you might choose one of them for budget or efficiency reasons, but there are lots of different ways to achieve the same goal, getting people from one end to the other.
In the end, I realized that instead of “Thou shalts” on stone tablets, what I had was engineering guidelines – a set of rules for how the eye reacts to certain stimuli. And that was extremely empowering, because it meant I could design freely once I understood the principles. I quit asking the question, “What should I do to make good art?” and started asking, “How can I design this piece so the viewer reacts the way that I want?” The first is a child-like search for rules; the second makes it into a question of visual engineering – a question I can break down, analyze, and answer – intuitively or analytically, as I prefer.
What are these rules? Well, I’m still sorting them out – some are explicitly covered in the study of design, some are not. Here are a few:
- The eye is drawn to contrast – in color, in shape, in size, etc. Put a small yellow block in a sea of deep purple, and the eye is instantly drawn to the contrasting color and size.
- Horizontal lines are calming; vertical lines are more energetic; diagonal lines are most energetic.
- The eye is drawn to movement or the appearance of movement – so put movement where you want to attract the eye.
- Objects make more visual sense if the eye travels naturally through the piece – so connect the visually interesting spots to each other using “bridges” (a common color, a pointing finger, etc.) to let the eye travel naturally through the piece, isntead of getting “stuck” partway through.
I’m still compiling the list of design rules – obviously there are a bazillion of them, but I’m trying to sort out the most important ones to include in the book. I think the most vital thing is to explain how the eye moves and what it is attracted to, and the second most vital thing is information on how to set the “mood” of a piece using color. But tell me – what else am I missing? What other rules should I include?