Ideas Gen Week 10 – Production week

|| DESIGN 02 : Form & Shape ||

What is a shape?
A shape is an area that is visually perceived as being separate from the surrounding space. Created in 2-dimensions by using an enclosing line, either actual or implied (through colour or value), it has defined outer edge.

Shapes can be organized under any number of categories, the most common being rectangle, oval and triangle. Others include square, circle, diamond, hexagon, rhombus, octagon, star polygon, parallelogram etc.

Design, or composition, is basically the organisation and arrangement of shapes. As spoken about in the previous lesson, all we see can be broken down into simple shapes. An artist does not paint a chair, but instead paints the shapes that make up a chair. Of course colour, texture and hierarchal value play a big part, but the basic element of all art, after line, is shape. This includes the shapes that come into existence through the defining of space between two shapes. These are often called negative shapes, as opposed to their positive counterparts.

When we add a third dimension to a shape we give it volume or mass. The best way to think about this is if we compare a 2-dimensional painting with a 3-dimensional sculpture. The shapes in sculpture can best be described as masses. Architecture and Industrial design are professions that deal most with 3-demensional shapes.

Shape types
There are two terms that are most often applied to shapes: curvilinear and rectilinear.

Curvilinear – Describes the curvature of a shape, or how much it deviates from appearing flat. Each change of direction within a shape comes gradually producing sweeping arcs rather than angles. Curvilinear shapes can be thought of as natural forms. Their smooth, flowing lines suggest the shapes we find in nature.

Curved shapes are often found in nature.

Rectilinear – As the name implies, rectilinear shapes have sharper angles. Each line of the shape ends in point where the next line begins at a contrasting angle providing sharper shapes. Because of their plotted existence they are more associated with geometry and thus have a manufactured look implying a man-made artificial base.

Rectangle shapes carry a man-made feel.

This of course is very general as you do tend to get rectangle shapes in nature, especially under microscopic views, just as many designers construct objects with free flowing curves.

In art and design we can create a strong impact when we unbalance these two types. Think about how a curved archway changes the feel of a rectangle room or what a cubed building would do to a backdrop of rolling hills.

Study for Holiday by Jeffrey Smart does a great job of contrasting the square box shapes of the balcony with the curve of the man.


Negative space appears as soon as the first shape is placed within a visual. It carries the picture by supporting the subject (holding it in place), what is often overlooked is that by doing this it becomes a shape in itself. If we call the subject (the focal point) the positive shape, then we can name the shape it creates around it – the negative shape.

Can you see the talking heads?

In painting and drawing negative space is often used as part of the process to help the artist refocus on observing, rather than drawing from memory. For example when painting a common object, such as a vase, it is very easy to think ‘I know what a vase looks like’ and stop focusing on the precise angles and lines that make up that vase. By shifting our view from positive to negative shapes we are forced to once again examine the object intimately, and draw what we actually see, not what we think we see. In experiments it has showed that people drawing only negative space often end up with more accurate pictures. Think of it as an effective way of turning off ‘auto-pilot’.

A good example of shifting you view is experienced when we realise that this painting, by Franz Kline (1910-1962), is called ‘White Forms’.

As designers we need to learn to notice the negative shapes whenever we look. It’s in these spaces that we find the more interesting and inspiring shapes that often, unbeknown to most; make the picture what it is. It will also help your understanding of compositional balance and how that affects the visual.

The balancing out of positive and negative shapes in composition is considered by many to be the essence of good design, especially in publication design.

What’s the difference between negative space and silhouettes?
‘First Kiss’ by Ninja vs Penguin uses negative space and silhouettes well.

Nell, a collective of Mexican designers uses both silhouettes and negative shapes in their furniture, made from white packing foam. This series is called ‘Fill In The Cat’.

The use of negative space (also called white space) in a page layout can help maximize effect and make the page more appealing to the viewer, frequently without their knowledge, by giving the eye a place to rest. Using white space can also often lend a certain sophistication or classiness to a layout. When this is added to sensitive typography and photography/illustration you can create a perceived expensiveness and intelligence to your design.

Frank Miller is a master at using negative shapes, silhouettes and white space to bring extra drama to his art.

White space is not necessarily white and doesn’t need to be passive either. You can use white space to direct a viewer’s attention, in much the same way a physic line directs, this is called active white space. Leaving adequate space around an object you want people to notice, or contrasting an area with a busy area can do it.

This 1st book cover below does a great job of using white space. The viewers eye is directed to the title while also making the 3 subjects look even more lonely and bleak. Imagine how this might have changed if there had been less white space at the top and more road at the bottom. There is a good chance it might have been a more positive cover – in a ‘getting to the end of the road’ sort of way.

In the 2nd example there is an enormous weight upon the book, a fitting illustration of the power of philosophers words upon society. The 3rd book cover uses the white space to create an area for the viewer to project their own images into – what is he thinking, what is he imagining – that contrasted with the title of the book suggests hope. The 4th implies isolation, something Kofi Annan became quite aware of.

Passive white space could be considered as the space between letters or lines, by increasing it you affect the viewers experience by making it lighter and easier to read but the reader doesn’t necessarily notice (unless of course compared with a heavy and tight version.)

This is a great example of where white space is used to
lead the readers eye through the article.

Look at how much emphasis the white space causes in this example.

…and the power this pull quote has after the white space directs your eye.

Class Exercise 02
The Curse of the Black Square!

By only using black squares you are to express each word you’ve been given; order, increase, heavy, constrict, tension and Britney Spears. You can use as many squares as you’d like, at any size, at any rotation – but only black squares.

There are six smaller boxes where you can practice ideas before selecting the most effective and drawing it in the larger box. Using only black squares may seem a rather limited palette for expressing such diverse words but consider how the squares can be expanded into a more comprehensive language by utilising various design principles – such as negative space.

Discoveries result from experimentation – so experiment!
Try to complete all six practice ideas.

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