Graphic Design: The New Basics: Second Edition, Revised and Expanded (2015)
Under cities you always find other cities; under churches other churches; and under houses other houses. Pablo Picasso
Layers are simultaneous, overlapping components of an image or sequence. They are at work in countless media software programs, from Photoshop and Illustrator to audio, video, and animation tools, where multiple layers of image and sound (tracks) unfold in time.
The concept of layers comes from the physical world, and it has a long history in the traditions of mapping and musical notation. Maps and time lines use overlapping layers to associate different levels of data, allowing them to contribute to the whole while maintaining their own identities.
Most printing techniques require that an image be split into layers before it can be reproduced. From ink-jet printing to silkscreen and commercial lithography, each color requires its own plate, film, screen, ink cartridge, or toner drum, depending on the process. Digital technologies automate this process, making it more or less invisible to the designer.
Before the early 1990s, designers created “mechanicals” consisting of precisely aligned layers of paper and acetate. The designer or paste-up artist adhered each element of the page—type, images, blocks of color—to a separate layer, placing any element that touches any other element on its own surface.
This same principle is at work in the digital layers we use today, mobilized in new and powerful ways. The layers feature in Photoshop creates a new layer whenever the user adds text or pastes an image. Each layer can be independently filtered, transformed, masked, or multiplied. Adjustment layers allow global changes such as levels and curves to be revised or discarded at any time. The image file becomes an archaeology of its own making, a stack of elements seen simultaneously in the main window, but represented as a vertical list in the layers palette.
Layers allow the designer to treat the image as a collection of assets, a database of possibilities. Working with a layered file, the designer quickly creates variations of a single design by turning layers on and off. Designers use layered files to generate storyboards for animations and interface elements such as buttons and rollovers.
Although the layered archeology of the printed page or digital file tends to disappear in the final piece, experimental work often uncovers visual possibilities by exposing layers. The Dutch designer Jan van Toorn has used cut-and-paste techniques to create images whose complex surfaces suggest political action and unrest.
Many designers have explored an off-register or misprinted look, seeking rawness and accidental effects by exposing the layers of the printing and production processes. Contemporary graphic artists Ryan McGinness and Joshua Davis create graphic images composed of enormous numbers of layers that overlap in arbitrary, seemingly uncoordinated ways.
Layers, always embedded in the process of mechanical reproduction, have become intuitive and universal. They are crucial to how we both read and produce graphic images today.
Cut and Paste
The cubist painters popularized collage in the early twentieth century. By combining bits of printed paper with their own drawn and painted surfaces, they created an artistic technique that profoundly influenced both design and the fine arts. Like the cubists, modern graphic designers use collage to juxtapose layers of content, yielding surfaces that oscillate between flatness and depth, positive and negative.
The cut-and-paste function used in nearly every software application today refers to the physical process of collage. Each time you copy or delete a picture or phrase and insert it into a new position, you reference the material act of cutting and pasting. The collaged history of an image or a document largely disappears in the final work, and designers often strive to create seamless, invisible transitions between elements. Foregrounding the cut-and-paste process can yield powerful results that indicate the designer’s role in shaping meaning.
Mixing Media Published in 1989 to commemorate the Declaration of Human Rights a century earlier, this poster by Jan van Toorn used photomechanical processes to mix handmade and mass-media imagery. Scraps of paper radiate like energy from the central handshake. Jan van Toorn, La Lutte Continue (The Fight Continues), 1989.
Cut, Paste, Tape, Splice These posters originated from hands-on experiments with physical cutting and pasting, which then evolved into digital interpretations. Luke Williams, Graphic Design I. Bernard Canniffe, faculty.
Printed Layers Nearly every color printing process uses layers of ink, but the layers are usually compiled to create the appearance of a seamless, singular surface. The screen prints above use overlapping and misaligned layers of ink to call attention to the structure of the surface. John P. Corrigan, MFA Studio.
Makeready To conserve materials, printers reuse old press sheets while getting their presses up to speed, testing ink flow and position before pulling their final prints. Called “makereadies,” these layered surfaces are full of beautiful accidental effects, as seen in this screen-printed makeready. Paul Sahre and David Plunkert.
Typographic Layers In everyday life as well as in films and animations, multiple stories can unfold simultaneously. A person can talk on the phone while folding the laundry and hearing a song in the background. In films, characters often carry on a conversation while performing an action.
This typographic exercise presents three narratives taking place during a two-minute period: a news story broadcast on a radio, a conversation between a married couple, and the preparation of a pot of coffee. Typography, icons, lines, and other elements are used to present the three narratives within a shared space. The end result can be obvious or poetic. Whether the final piece is an easy-to-follow transcription or a painterly depiction, it is made up of narrative elements that define distinct layers or visual channels. Graphic Design MFA Studio.
Yong Seuk Lee
Temporal Layers This publication records a collaboration between two universities in China and Russia. The large-scale numerals reference numbers in a calendar. Overlapping forms, images, and text blocks suggest depth and motion. Li Shaobo and Wenjie Lu.
Maps compress various types of information—topography, water systems, roadways, cities, geographic borders, and so on—onto a single surface. Map designers use color, line, texture, symbols, icons, and typography to create different levels of information, allowing users to read levels independently (for example, learning what roads connect two destinations) as well as perceiving connections between levels (will the journey be mountainous or flat?).
Sophisticated map-making tools are now accessible to designers and general practitioners as well as to professional cartographers. Google Earth enables users to build personalized maps using satellite photography of the Earth’s surface. The ability to layer information over a base image is a central feature of this immensely powerful yet widely available tool.
Data Layers: Static This map uses point, line, plane, and color to indicate geographic borders, topographical features, towns and cities, and points of interest, as well as radio systems used by pilots in the air. The purple lines indicating radio signals read as a separate layer. Aeronautical map, 1946.
Data Layers: Dynamic An image of Hurricane Katrina has been layered over a satellite photograph of Earth. The end user of a Google Earth overlay can manipulate its transparency in order to control the degree of separation between the added layer and the ground image. Storm: University of Wisconsin, Madison Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies, 2005. Composite: Jack Gondela.
Comparing Data Layers In this graph from Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth, the designers have used color and transparency to make it easy for readers to compare two sets of data. The graphs show how climate change is affecting the life cycle of animals and their food supplies. Alicia Cheng, Stephanie Church, and Lisa Maione, MGMT Design, An Inconvenient Truth, 2006.
In musical notation, the notes for each instrument in a symphony or for each voice in a chorus appear on parallel staffs. The graphic timelines used in audio, video, and animation software follow this intuitive convention, using simultaneous tracks to create composite layers of image and sound.
In soap operas and television dramas, parallel threads unfold alongside each other and converge at key moments in the story. The split screens, inset panels, and text feeds commonly seen in news programming allow several visual tracks to play simultaneously.
From musical notation and computer interfaces to narrative plot lines, parallel linear tracks (layers in time) are a crucial means for describing simultaneous events.
Musical Notation This score shows the notes played by four different musicians simultaneously (first violin, second violin, viola, and cello). Each staff represents a separate instrument. Ludwig van Beethoven, musical score, String Quartet No. 2 in G Major, 1799.
Interactive Notation Digital composer Hans-Christoph Steiner has devised his own graphic notation system to show how to manipulate digital samples. Time flows from left to right. Each color represents a sample. Each sample controller has two arrays: the brighter, bigger one on top controls sample playback, and a smaller, darker one at the bottom controls amp and pan. The lowest point of the sample array is the beginning of the sample, the highest is the end, and the height of the array is how much and what part of the sample to play, starting at that point in time. Hans-Christoph Steiner, interactive musical score, Solitude, 2004.
Audio Software Applications for editing digital audio tracks employ complex and varied graphics. Here, each track is represented by a separate timeline. The yellow lines indicate volume, and the green lines show panning left to right. Audio composed by Jason Okutake, MFA Studio. Software: Apple Logic Pro Audio.
Physical, Virtual, and Temporal Layers In this project, designers began by creating a series of six-by-six-inch collages with four square sheets of colored paper. (We used origami paper). Each designer cut a square window into a larger sheet of paper so that they could move the colored sheets around and experiment with different designs.
In the second phase of the project, designers translated one of their physical collages into digital layers. Each physical layer became a separate layer in the digital file. They generated new compositions by digitally changing the color, scale, transparency, orientation, and position of the digital layers.
In the third phase, one digital composition became a style frame (the basis of a sequential animation). Each designer planned a sequence, approximately ten seconds long, that loops: that is, it begins and ends on an identical frame. They created nine-panel storyboards showing the sequence.
In the final phase, designers imported their style frames into a digital animation program (Flash), distributing each layer of the style frame to a layer in the timeline to create strata that change over time. Graphic Design II. Ellen Lupton, faculty.
Life History Historical and contemporary photographs and documents are layered over a satellite image from Google Earth of the land these people have inhabited. Transparency is used to separate the elements visually. Jeremy Botts, MFA Studio.