This is a course intended as an entry level course, an introduction to design concepts and the idea of visual language. Since it is intended to serve students with a wide range of experience, no background is needed, no special skills.This is a survey course that will emphasize the relationships between concepts across disciplines, and will therefore offer more breadth than depth in many areas. Students who have taken art history and design courses may find that much of the factual material in this course will repeat material presented in other classes, but the interdisciplinary approach will offer a different perspective on this material.

The course is divided into four segments. All of these segments are intended to show how we think and communicate in visual, non-verbal ways:

  1. The language of design: Principles and elements of design. How to analyze design, and think critically about it in an objective way.
  2. Media of design and the fine arts: How materials and techniques define what we can do in art and design
  3. The evolution of visual language in the modern era: Recent history of design (Interior design and fashion) and fine arts; how they relate, and how they have affected how we see.
  4. Non-western approaches to art and design: Since this course is primarily taught from the point of view of Western (Euro-American) design philosophy, in this multicultural era we need to be aware of other approaches to visual thinking.

TheLanguage of Design

The first section of this course is concerned with understanding the basic concepts of design; How to analyze and talk about visual material. These fundamental components are known as the principles and elements of design. The approach we are going to take has a strong cultural bias. However, since European and American design is the base from which we are operating here, it is in this culture we will begin. We will eventually look at other cultural approaches to aesthetics and design.

In this section, first we will define some basic terminology essential to the understanding of visual language. We will then look at the elements of design, or the components which form the structure of a work. Finally, we will consider the design principles, the concepts used to organize the structural elements. The principles and elements of design are the basic building blocks of visual composition, and in order to understand how visual images carry meaning, we need to understand this basic vocabulary of visual language.

Basic Terminology

The phrase visual language refers to the idea that communication occurs through visual symbols, as opposed to verbal symbols, or words.

Words are also symbols, of course. They are not the thing itself, although traditional religious ideas have often centered around the idea that the word and the thing are the same. It is for this reason that, for example, in more than one religion it is forbidden to speak or write the name of God, and in most faiths great reverence is given to the written scripture. Also, words can take on symbolic meanings that may go beyond the literal definition. The word black, for example, became a highly charged symbol of political and social realities for African Americans in the 1960's. The meaning and use of this term has shifted somewhat since that time, though it continues to carry meanings that might not be apparent to someone just learning English.

There are also nonverbal symbols that we respond to as messages, though often without realizing exactly what it is that has caused us to reach a certain conclusion. These symbols are often visual, though they can be auditory or even tactile. The power of music as a non-verbal, auditory language is very apparent. However, in this course, we are going to concentrate on those nonverbal symbols that reach us via the eyes.

Those who understand nonverbal, especially visual language can and do manipulate our attitudes to suit their purposes. Yet often we respond to visual messages unconsciously, preferring to believe that our opinions are formed by our own good judgement and personal taste. Therefore we may fail to recognize that visual signals may affect our opinions about policy issues and social values, or even our preferences in cars, music, or fashions.

For example, the body language, dress, and expressions of a politician in this television age often seem to be as crucial to the success of a party's program as the policies and ideas he holds. The wrong nonverbal signals, and we simply do not trust that person on the screen, whatever his ideals and character may really be. On the other hand, effective use of visual signals can make us overlook a great deal in a politician's background. There have been many examples of both situations in the last 40 years, since television has become such a powerful presence in American life.

One of the primary objectives of this course is to raise our consciousness of visual language and visual thinking; what we understand, we can control. This is important whether you expect to be a producer of visual material, or a consumer.

Another concept that will be used extensively in this course is the term design. There are a number of published definitions of design; all seem to stress the ideas of process, organization, selection, and planning, and many do not mention visual media or ideas at all.

Since the 1980's the word "design" and "designer" have become the hot concept for selling anything from jeans to snacks to software. This popular use of the word has rendered it almost meaningless. The term "designer" for many of us has come to mean attractively presented or fashioned, or merely trendy.

For the purpose of this course, however, the rational, planned character of the word design is most relevant, and therefore the following definition is offered: Design is the PROCESS of SELECTING and ORGANIZING elements or components in order to fulfill a specific purpose. This purpose may be functional or aesthetic, or (frequently) both.

Please note that this describes a very rational approach to the creative act, and stresses process - a method for solving problems that involves choice and planning. This definition is very much focused on the goal or purpose to be achieved through this process. Aesthetic and expressive issues may play a part in this process, but they are not the only possibility, and may not even be important parts of the design process in some situations. For example, if an engineer seeks to design an improvement in an automobile's catalytic converter, its function, but not its appearance, is the issue. However, in designing a dress or a lamp, appearance is often even more important that function-and may even be the function.

NOTE: Throughout this textbook small images like those below are clickable. If you click on these images you will get a larger version of the image that shows more detail. These images should show an orange or dark red frame around the edges, the sign that they are linked to a larger image.

In contrast, we have the idea of art. The definition of art has undergone even more permutations than has the idea of design. It is obvious to even the most uninitiated that these two works express very different intentions, and embody very different ideas about the nature and purpose of art.

The history of the word art itself tells us that the purpose of art has changed over time. When we look at medieval definitions as provided in the Oxford English Dictionary, we find the focus is on skill..."as a result of knowledge and practice."

By the 18th century this idea of skill was being coupled with the goal of "the ratification of taste or production of what is beautiful..." The ideas of skill, taste, and beauty had now been brought together. This definition is about as far as many people seem to get in their understanding of what art is about.

As we will see later, by the 19th century, other concepts are added into the definition of art, such as truth, talent (not the same as skill!!), and self expression (a very late addition to the idea of art). Since the idea of art has been and remains a very fluid concept, we will not attempt a full definition at this time, but return to it later.

Another difficult but important term is taste. Taste is for our purposes here to be thought of as a matter of personal preference in aesthetic matters. We can say that a person has traditional tastes, or avant garde tastes; or eclectic (meaning varied or broad) tastes. We can even claim that a person has no taste, usually meaning someone who lacks the interest or awareness to respond to visual material.

The important point to remember is that we should all feel free to like or dislike what we will, on grounds of personal taste. HOWEVER, please note that there is a distinction between personal taste or preference and objective judgements of success or failure in a work of design or art. It is possible to recognize that a work is successful and significant, even though it does not suit our personal taste. It should be clear that unless one can lay claim to a high level of expertise it is rather immoderate to condemn a work as "bad" just because one doesn't like it. It is important for an artist to understand this distinction, and even more so for a designer, who will surely be called upon to do creative work in a framework of someone else's tastes and ideas.

It is possible to learn how these objective judgements are made. A lot of it has to do with this business of visual language, and learning more of that language is what this course is about. There are objective criteria by which we can determine whether or not a work is successful ("good"). We will be looking at these criteria later in this course.

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