All designs have certain basics elements or building blocks chosen to convey the message — beyond the actual words or photos used. The five elements of lines, shapes, mass, texture, and color are the building blocks of design. Other terms which you might hear described as elements of design are form, space, and value (as in lightness or darkness of color). Your first assignment is to create a folder (not on your computer, a real paper folder) or a notebook to hold your samples. In your folder, put printed samples of:
- display ads and fliers
- brochures of all kinds
- business cards
- labels and packaging
- books, book jackets
Include the good and the bad — don’t worry about the quality. Sift through your junk mail, magazines, newspapers, and your business card file. You can even include work that you’ve created yourself. Aim for a variety of materials.
Lines can be long or short, straight or curved. Lines can be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal. They create patterns. Lines in graphic design can be solid, dashed, thick, thin, or of variable width. Sometimes a designer uses a line alone to divide or unite elements on a page. Lines can denote direction of movement (as in diagonal lines and arrows) or provide an anchor to hold elements on a page (such as lines at the top, bottom, or sides of a page). You can use lines in conjunction with other elements of your design. One well-known example, the AT&T logo, is a pattern of thick and thin lines arranged in a circular shape. Go through your sample folder of ads, newsletters, business cards, books, and other projects with an eye on lines. I want you to find as many different examples of lines of all kinds used in these pieces. Are the lines used prominently? Are they part of a logo or used in other ways to divide the page or add decoration?
Exercise 1: Find examples of each of these six types of lines:
- horizontal lines
- vertical lines
- diagonal lines
- curved or freeform lines
- lines used in a pattern
- non-solid (dashed, dotted, etc.)
Circle, square, and triangle are the three basic shapes used in graphic design. Perhaps the most familiar shape to desktop publishing is the square (and rectangle). Paper is rectangular. Most text blocks are square or rectangular. While you may encounter printed projects cut into other shapes, most circles, triangles, and freeform shapes in desktop published materials are found on the page within the graphics or in the way the elements are placed on the page. Go through your sample folder of ads, newsletters, business cards, books, and other projects looking for a variety of shapes. No doubt you can find many examples of squares and rectangles but keep an eye out for other shapes. Are the examples you find actual graphic elements or can you find examples of lines or text arranged in geometric shapes?
Exercise 2: Find examples of each of these six shapes:
- square (not-rectangle) graphic element
- square (not-rectangle) text blocks
- circle graphic element
- triangle graphic element
- circle, triangle, or freeform text blocks
Mass is size. There is physical size and visual size. Size can be relative. A physically small brochure can have a great deal of mass through the use of heavy text and graphic elements. A physically large brochure can appear smaller, lighter by using text and graphics sparingly. While the paper projects you create have a certain size because of the size and weight of the paper, visual mass — how light or heavy it appears — is also an element of the design. Go through your sample folder of ads, newsletters, business cards, books, and other projects and look at each piece and analyze mass in terms of physical size of the piece and the visual mass. Does it have a heavy, imposing look due to the size or weight of the paper or the density of text and graphics? Is it small and compact or light and airy? Hold the items in your hand to see if they feel light or heavy. Compare the physical size to the visual mass of each piece.
Exercise 3 : Find four examples of mass as follows:
- physically large
- physically small
- visually massive
- visually small or light
For desktop publishing, actual texture is the feel of the paper. Is it smooth to the touch or rough? Textures can also be visual. On the Web, especially, backgrounds that simulate familiar fabrics, stone, and other textures are common. Certain printing and finishing techniques such as thermography and embossing can add both actual and visual textures to a printed piece. Go through your sample folder of ads, newsletters, business cards, books, and other projects looking for as many different types of actual and visual textures as you can find. Can you tell by looking whether a paper will be soft and smooth or rougher? Are the visual textures used in place of actual papers of that texture or do they relate in some way to the purpose of the printed piece (such as a stone texture for a tile company)? See and feel the difference in textures on embossed pieces or other types of raised printing.
Exercise 4 : Find four examples of textures as follows:
- actual smooth paper
- actual rough paper
- visual texture (simulated fabric, stone, or even water etc. printed on the paper)
- browse the Web and find a Web page with a simulated textured background.
Color is everywhere. Every single piece in the samples you’ve collected so far, even if it is black and white, exhibits the element of color. Color is used to attract attention. It can be subtle or bold. Color can be found in the paper, the text, or the graphic elements and photos. A monochromatic color scheme uses a single color, perhaps in various tints, while other layouts utilize combinations of two, three, or more colors. Color can be used to ellicit specific emotions and reactions. Red is typically thought of as an attention-grabbing, hot color. Blues are more calming or convey stability. Some color combinations are used to create a specific identity (corporate colors, school colors) or may be used in conjunction with texture to simulate the look of other objects (the look of plain paper wrapping or neon lights, for example). Color may provide cues for the reader. Sometimes considered a separate element of design, value is the relative lightness or darkness of an area compared to the surrounding area. Tints of gray or red are different values of the same color. Changing values can create contrast, movement, and emphasis. Go through your sample folder of ads, newsletters, business cards, books, and other projects and look at the variety of colors, color combinations, and the way color is used. Does the piece derive its main color from the paper? Are colors used throughout in specific ways such as just for graphic elements or only for headlines?
Exercise 5 : Find four examples of the use of color and value:
- subtle use of color (monochromatic or very little color)
- bold use of color (bright color, many colors, etc.)
- black and white only
- strong contrast in values other than strictly black and white (light and dark areas using tints of the same color or different light and dark colors)