Graphic Design: The New Basics: Second Edition, Revised and Expanded (2015)
The form of an object is not more important than the form of the space surrounding it. All things exist in interaction with other things. In music, are the separations between notes less important than the notes themselves? Malcolm Grear
Perception is an active process. Human cognition simplifies an enormous range of stimuli into understandable units. The myriad colors, shapes, textures, sounds, and movements that confront us from moment to moment would be overwhelming and incomprehensible if the brain didn’t structure the so-called sense data into coherent objects and patterns. The brain actively breaks down and combines sensory input. It merges what we see with what we know to build a coherent understanding of the world. Building on memory and experience, the brain fills in gaps and filters out extraneous data.
By exploiting the brain’s capacity to find and create order, designers construct simple, direct logos, layouts, and interfaces. In addition to seeking out clear, direct communication solutions, they can also use the processes of perception to invent surprising forms that challenge viewers to fill in the gaps.
Visual perception is shaped by figure/ground relationships. We separate figures (forms) from the space, color, or patterns that surround them (ground, or background). We see letters against a page, a building in relation to its site, and a sculpture against the void that penetrates and surrounds it. A black shape on a black field is not visible; without separation and contrast, form disappears.
People are accustomed to seeing the background as passive and unimportant in relation to a dominant subject. Yet visual artists become attuned to the spaces around and between elements, discovering their power to become active forms in their own right.
Graphic designers often seek a balance between figure and ground, using this relationship to bring energy and order to form and space. They build contrasts between form and counterform in order to construct icons, illustrations, logos, compositions, and patterns that stimulate the eye and mind. Creating ambiguity between figure and ground can add visual energy and surprise to an image or mark. Figure/ground, also known as positive and negative space, is at work in all facets of graphic design. When creating logotypes and symbols, designers often distill complex meaning into simplified but significant form; the resulting marks often thrive on the interplay between figure and ground, solid and void. In posters, layouts, and screen designs, what is left out frames and balances explicit forms.
The ability to create and evaluate effective figure/ground tension is an essential skill for graphic designers. Train your eye to carve out white space as you compose with forms. Learn to massage the positive and negative areas as you adjust the scale of images and typography. Look at the shapes each element makes, and see if the edges frame a void that is equally appealing.
Recognizing the potency of the ground, designers strive to reveal its constructive necessity. Working with grouping, patterns, and figure/ground relationships gives designers the power to create—and destabilize—form.
Bubble Dot Typeface The letters of the alphabet are so ingrained in our memory that they are still recognizable when fragmented or distorted. Typeface by Cornel Windlin.
Sense Data + Experience
In the act of perception, the brain puts together past experience and immediate sensory input in order to successfully navigate the environment. We know a chair has four legs, even when some of them are hiding. When we see the top part of a face, we reasonably expect a mouth and chin to follow. Designers crop, overlap, and fragment images to create dynamic forms that exploit the brain’s powerful ability to fill in missing information.
Typography is an especially powerful system of sensory objects. Because reading is such a deeply ingrained habit, we immediately recognize the shapes of letterforms. It is difficult not to read a word sitting in front of us. Yet letterforms are also abstract symbols built from lines and curves. They make no sense outside the regime of literacy. By blocking, cutting, or distorting letterforms, designers exploit the tension between meaning and abstraction, familiarity and strangeness.
Perception isn’t just visual.1 As we walk through a city street or shady forest, layers of sound surround us. We navigate this complex sensory environment by intuitively associating sounds with objects, from the drumbeat of footsteps to the song of a bird and the shriek of an ambulance.
How Many Cars? We perceive two cars, a red car and a blue car, even though our sensory information about the red car is incomplete.
How Many Legs? Based on our knowledge of chairs as well as the sense data provided by the picture, we intuit that each chair has four legs.
The Power of the Gaze The human brain is keenly attuned to facial features, especially eyes. Designers often focus our attention on the eyes. Blocking the eyes can create emotional tension.
Fill in the Blanks Our brain connects the parts back into wholes in this logotype for an exhibition. Philippe Apeloig.
Denying Eye Contact The blocked eyes produce a sense of psychological erasure. Paula Scher, Pentagram.
In human perception, grouping serves to both combine and separate. As a process of combining, grouping transforms multiple elements into larger entities based on size, shape, color, proximity, and other factors. For example, we might group three blue circles and three yellow circles into two clusters. Interface designers use the principle of grouping to color-code buttons with related functions (similarity) as well as to position related buttons close together (proximity).
As a process of separating, grouping serves to break down large, complex objects into smaller, simpler ones. When we simplify criss-crossing marks into a few overlapping lines or shapes, the mind turns complex sensory input into more manageable objects.
Grouped for Function This digital control panel groups related actions together.
Project: Six Modes of Grouping
Psychologists have identified various principles of grouping; six common ones are diagrammed above. Designers often manipulate one or more principles of grouping in order to create images or compositions that are clear and focused or unsettled and surprising. Interesting effects emerge when we use our powers of perception to reassemble lines, shapes, or images that have been pulled apart or interrupted. Grouping prompts the observer to build parts into wholes.
Designers were challenged to create a series of diagrams that use a common language of line, shape, scale, and/or color to demonstrate six principles of grouping. As a starting point, designers researched the range of diagrams typically used by psychologists to demonstrate these principles, such as those shown above. Nick Fogarty, Laura Brewer-Yarnal, Angel Kim, Trace Byrd, Typography II. Ellen Lupton, faculty.
Simplicity We see two circles rather than three odd shapes.
Similarity We see two groups based on the size of the elements.
Proximity We see two groups based on the closeness of the elements.
Closure We close the gap in the shape.
Continuity We see two long lines crossing rather than four short lines converging.
Symmetry We tend to close symmetrical forms to make a single object.
Project: Grouping + Typography
At its most basic level, all typography employs principles of grouping. Letters cluster into words (proximity). Shifts in weight, style, or size signal differences and hierarchies (similarity). When we create “lines” of text out of letters and words, we exploit the power of continuity, which sustains the illusion of a single gesture or path.
This project encourages designers to experiment with the basic principles of typography. Each student creates multiple interpretations of a given text by using spacing, composition, and alignment. Designers explore the impact of principles such as proximity, similarity, continuity, and closure to create new patterns of meaning that exploit the mind’s ability to reconnect fragments and build wholes out of parts. The text in this project comes from the Bill of Universal Human Rights. Typography II. Ellen Lupton, faculty.
Proximity The disordered letters cluster together to form words. Devon Burgoyne.
Continuity The converging words read as two lines crossing. Laura Brewer-Yarnall.
Closure Our powers of perception close the gaps in the letterforms. Angel Kim.
Broken Curves The lines break into panels of color wherever they cross over other lines, yet our powers of perception make them hold together. Felix Pfäffli, Feixen.
Proximity The letters in this neo-Dada poster have been scrambled and mismatched, yet they still read as words because they cluster into groups. Designers United.
Similarity The words have been split apart across the surface of the poster, but color helps reunite the parts. Felix Wetzel.
A stable figure/ground relationship exists when a form or figure stands clearly apart from its background. Most photography functions according to this principle, where an obvious subject is featured within a setting.
Reversible figure/ground occurs when positive and negative elements attract our attention equally and alternately. In stripes of equal width, each set of lines can come forward or recede as our eye perceives it first as dominant and then as subordinate. Reversible figure/ground motifs appear in ceramics, weaving, and crafts produced in cultures across history and around the globe.
Images and compositions featuring ambiguous figure/ground challenge the viewer to find a stable focal point. Figure flows into ground, carrying the viewer’s eye in and around the surface with no discernible assignment of dominance. Cubist paintings mobilize this ambiguity.
Designers, illustrators, and photographers often play with figure/ground relationships to add interest and intrigue to their work. Unlike conventional depictions where subjects are centered and framed against a background, active figure/ground conditions churn and interweave form and space, creating tension and ambiguity.
Optical Interplay This mark for Vanderbilt University employs a strong contrast between rigid form and organic counterform. The elegant oak leaf alternately sinks back, allowing the letterform to read, and comes forward, connoting growth, strength, and beauty. Malcolm Grear, Malcolm Grear Designers.
Artful Reduction A minimal stack of carefully shaped forms, in concert with exacting intervals of spaces, instantly evokes this architectural landmark. Malcolm Grear, Malcolm Grear Designers.
Fast, informal visualizations allow designers to explore different figure/ground relationships in a low-risk environment that fosters invention and discovery. While verbalizing ideas helps designers build a bank of potential concepts, sketching pushes these ideas closer to reality. Multiple sketches yield a more valuable process than single sketches, as drawings begin to speak to one another, opening the mind and eye to new connections.
Search and Find The designer explored multiple iterations of core symbols in order to create emotionally charged icons that compress multiple ideas into a single image. Chen Yu, The Illustrated Poster.
Letterform Abstraction In this introduction to letterform anatomy, students examined the forms and counterforms of the alphabet in many font variations, eventually isolating just enough of each letter to hint at its identity. Each student sought to strike a balance between positive and negative space. Typography I. Jennifer Cole Phillips, faculty.
Is Negative Space a Privilege of the Rich? This poster challenges designers’ attraction to “white space” by analyzing (and materializing) the distribution of unprinted areas in magazines designed to appeal to readers with different levels of wealth. Sally Maier, MFA Studio.
Retouched Figure becomes ground and interface becomes image in this poster about digital manipulation. Shiva Nallaperumal, MFA Studio. Winner, 4th Biennial Graphic Design Festival, Breda, Netherlands.
Trafficked Luggage tags represent proof of ownership when baggage is moved from one destination to another via modern transportation networks. In this poster about the scourge of human trafficking, a female figure has been cut from a luggage tag, taking shape as negative space. This vulnerable, voided body has been stripped of identity. The bar code is scannable, linking readers to critical information about the magnitude and economics of human trafficking. The poster was exhibited in the Netherlands, a country where prostitution is legal and trafficking is endemic. Katrina Kean, MFA Studio. Winner, 4th Biennial Graphic Design Festival, Breda, Netherlands.
No Entry These crudely punched letters are readable against the sky and sea, whose contrasting value lights up the message. Jayme Odgers.
Counter Hand The simple device of cut white paper held against a contrasting ground defines the alphabet with quirky style and spatial depth. FWIS Design.
1. For an outstanding introduction to the science of perception, see Michael Haverkamp, Synesthetic Design: Handbook for a Multisensory Approach (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2013).
Interface Overload Graphic interfaces are a constant presence throughout the design process. Here, the interface itself—and its excessive accumulation of windows—becomes a design object. Yeohyun Ahn, MFA Studio.