Exploring Unity & Composition

Become a better designer, as in NOW. Design Principles 101 is a learning place dedicated to supporting and developing designers and creatives of all stripes. Design principles are the tools of composition. They help coordinate how visual things engage with other visual things. Understanding this is key to getting your ideas into a form that others can access and appreciate besides yourself.

And then there’s rhythm – the wild card of design principles. Have you ever come across a course in visual rhythm? Neither have most people. Until now.

Rhythm engages viewers and this learning environment contains a course in it. You’ll learn about how design principles work, the various kinds of rhythm, examples and explanations, as well as a number of helpful videos.

(Tip #1: Repetition and Variation are the key to how rhythm works.)

This course is comprised of three learning sets: (1) Exercises in Unity & Composition, (2 ) Exercises in Rhythm, and (3) Videos & Exercises. Sign up now for full access to all the videos and all the exercises!

This course is very helpful towards building a sensibility and appreciation of structure, but the longer-term goal is to wean one’s self away from obedience and orthodoxy. Order needs chaos and chaos needs order. Chaos is about spontaneity and intuitiveness. Order is a set of tools. It all comes together as a means towards finding your own voice.

So welcome to your initial step and please keep in mind, education is a non-stop activity especially when your passion gets involved. Enjoy!

© Copyright 2023 Howard Schneider, all rights reserved.

  • Introduction Exercise Completed

    Nutritional irony: a pattern of holes for breakfast.

    Design is the structure of art. Art is more about the dynamic, creative response to the condition of living. Not all art requires structure though it’s hard to find an artistic expression that does not involve structure even at a minimum. Even the sky is a stage.

    Now let’s switch from design as a docile noun to design as a dynamic verb. Here’s a definition you might find helpful as you use the exercises and resources in this site:

    Design is the logical selection and arrangement of visual elements for order with interest.

    Design involves logic and intuition, though necessarily not in that order. Design is not merely the result of knowing a program or mastering a technique, but it does rely on tools. The visual arts landscape is comprised of two primary sets of tools: Design Elements and Design Principles.

    Design Elements are the more tangible of the two. They are comprised of:

    Dots | Lines | Shapes | Volume | Value | Color | Texture | Space

    Design Principles however are a different animal. They are all about coordinating any of the Design Elements with each other. Design Elements by comparison are pretty easy to recognize. Design Principles on the other hand feel more elusive; more abstract. A comb is a comb. A “passive area” is a what?

    Each of the Design Principles listed below contains examples of how each principle functions in art, design or photography. The goal here is not to be consumed by these principles, but to become increasingly comfortable in using them. After a while, these principles will become a set of tools readily available at your whim and service.

  • Notes to Educators Exercise Completed

    DesignPrinciples101.com is a supplemental and highly flexible learning tool. It can either serve as a virtual text book for a particular course or program, or it could serve as a reference tool towards which a student can be directed if they need additional help in a particular area. For example, an educator could ask a student to review a particular module or lesson, then return to a previous work they’d created and consider what they’d do differently about that particular work in light of what they’d just read or viewed.

    Research conducted over twelve workshops reveals that a reintroduction to Design Principles appears to have a decidedly positive affect in part because for some students, abstract ideas introduced early on need time and experience to begin making sense.

    A highly unique feature is the site’s deep dive into Rhythm. Rhythm in the visual arts as a cohesive, stand alone area of discussion has been very hard to find. Until now.

    Exercises are included as well and can be found spread throughout this section on Exploring Unity & Composition and the conclusion of the Rhythm section under Just Videos. A reintroduction to Design Principles appears to have a decidedly positive affect in part because for some students, abstract ideas introduced early on need time and experience to begin making sense.

    The learning modules – including the videos – are short and can be taken in while waiting for waiting for one’s coffee to brew up! Binge watching the videos is encouraged.

    This course is less about the rote activity of remembering specific terms as it is about getting familiar and friendly with the principles of design and principles of rhythm. However, owning the vocabulary is an invaluable possession. It is essential to the development of a powerful creative cognition both within one’s self and in sharing with others.

    • A1 Proportion: Harmony, Balance, Contrast & Weight Exercise Completed

      Proportion is all about the amounts used of anything. Harmony is a state of cohesive balance in which similarities are achievable despite contrasts or variances. A harmonious musical chord will have a structure composed of various notes, yet will blend together the instant it is heard. Balance is all about achieving an equilibrium. Three factors control balance: size, value (or color), and location. Some might add a fourth: shape, since some shapes are more attention-grabbing than others. Contrast is the most dynamic expression of proportion. Visual weight refers to the lightness or heaviness of an item as well as the item’s hierarchal or relative importance within a composition.

      Balanced contrast is a state in which diverse elements have combined in ways to create a harmony. Not all art strives to find it, but being able to make the necessary adjustments is a measure of craft unto itself. Here are a few examples with descriptions added below:
















       Cielito Lindo expresses a visual balance between the geometric (rectangle) and the organic (angel) by managing the amount of one versus the other; Broad to Disney juxtaposes details of two adjacent buildings – a mass of swooping, curved and darkly diagonal shapes against a brightly illuminated diagonal area in the visual center; ■ Wabi Sabi Plus Flower balances the amounts used of decayed wood against a partial reveal of bright yellow roses; ■ Rose Parade 2023 balances a bright red rose against a more generously displayed palm tree. Though the rose becomes a focal point, the importance of the tree balances out the overall narrative or concept; ■ Branching Ballet finds balance between the figure and the branching area by dialing down the color and saturation of the latter; ■ Dimitri’s Bakery is an homage to Piet Mondrian, a Dutch 20th century modernist who used grids, colors and solid shapes to achieve compositions of precise, asymmetric balance. Continue on to the next module and dive into the exercise.

    • A2 Proportion: Harmony, Balance, Contrast & Weight Exercise Completed

      Achieve a balanced harmony by controlling proportions. Three factors control balance: size, value (or color or texture), and position. Some might add a fourth: shape, since some shapes are more attention-grabbing than others. All of these factors have a decided affect on the distribution of visual weight within a composition.

      The goal in creating an ideal sense of balance in a visual space is to create a state where all visual items are seen at the same instant despite their inherent differences. In that ideal state, nothing dominates over anything else.

      Balance may not be everyone’s objective, and certainly not all the time. A desire for emphasis would require that a hierarchy be established. Hierarchy would help the viewer determine where the viewer would go initially and then successively. Towards achieving hierarchy, the same factors we used to achieve balance would be employed: size, value (or color or texture), and position. And let’s not forget the role of shape.

      Exercise in Balance: Create a white square with a very thin black frame, digitally or by hand, any size. Next, add three circles in three very different sizes. Next, fill each circle in with a different value: light gray, medium gray, and black. IMPORTANT: the frame or stroke of each circle should not be visible. Finally, arrange your circles within the square or up to or beyond (“bleed”) the edge. Make sure there’s no overlap of circles and that they’re not touching each other. If any portion of a circle goes outside the frame, trim away the excess.

      Your goal is to create a sense of balance whereby all three items are seen at the same instant. No single circle dominates over the other two and no two circles dominate over the third. Each circle must be very different from the others in term of size, value and location (but with no overlapping or touching). Any of your circles can “bleed” over the edge, but the excess must be trimmed off.

      Test your results: Want to see if you’ve achieved balance? Hold a blank sheet of paper over your composition and stare at it for 30 seconds. Then quickly pull it away. Balance or imbalance will reveal itself immediately. Make the necessary adjustments in terms of size, value (or color or texture), and position. (A good double-check is to turn the composition upside down, then do the paper test.)

      The lesson here is two-fold. If you can control balance, you can also begin to control hierarchy. Hierarchy aids in the exploration of any composition. Its helps identify which areas have greater importance over others. It helps in the navigation of those areas will likely be taken in fist, second and so on.

      Examples representing balance:

      Edgar Degas, Mlle Bécat at the Café des Ambassadeurs, Chicago Institute of Art









      Examples representing hierarchy:

      Johannes Vermeer, Woman Reading a Letter, 1663, Rijksmuseum


    • A3 Proportion: Contrast Exercise Completed

      Contrast is about as dynamic as proportion gets. Contrast takes no prisoners and provides no quarter. Contrast can be a confrontation, a precipice, or a life-saver.

      FYI, the following exercises have a legacy: the Bauhaus. Joost Schmidt’s intro course included two exercises in contrasts. The first one involves a symbol. The second one involves imagery.

      Exercise #1: Contrasts abound. Your task is to create nine types of contrasts using a plus sign (+) as your basis. Can be digital or hand drawn or any combo. Nine individual studies.

      Exercise #2: Your task is to create nine individual studies. Each study must contain an optical and thematic contrast. Imagery must be involved. Concept or narrative (story) is involved here as well. Can be digital, found, hand drawn or in any combo. Images can be used in whole, cropped, modified or outlined as desired.

      For additional inspiration: Bauhaus founding director, influential Swiss painter, designer, writer and theorist Johannes Itten identified a range of contrasting conditions in his basic course at the Bauhaus school of post-WW1 Germany. The types of visual contrasts he suggested were inspiring and varied:

      Rigid vs Fluid

      Flat vs Textured

      Color vs Gray

      Stable vs Random

      Thick vs Thin

      Large vs Small

      Long vs short

      Much vs Little

      Straight vs Bent

      Pointed vs Blunt

      Horizontal vs Vertical

      Circular vs Diagonal

      High vs Low

      Plane vs Line

      Plane vs Volume

      Smooth vs Rough

      Hard vs Soft

      Still vs Moving

      Light vs Heavy

      Transparent vs Opaque

      Steady vs Intermittent

      Sweet vs Sour

      Strong vs Weak

      Loud vs Soft

      (and in any combination)

    • A4 Proportion: Contrast & Scale Exercise Completed

      Contrast of Scale – another form of Proportion – is all about comparing varied size relationships. It could be a simple, everyday contrast of scale such as toy car placed upon the hood of a real one, or perhaps a reversal of expectation such as in a surreal environment.

      Contrast of Scale plays its strongest role when an artist or designer wishes to heighten tension or extend a sense of depth…or even reverse one.

      It’s your turn! Exercise in Scale: Find an image of something normally small, like a bee, and enlarge it dramatically to present a very bold perspective. Make the size 5″x8″. Now find something normally large and related to your first image. Reduce its size dramatically and cut it out. On a white 8½”x11″ format, integrate one image with the other by trying to express an ironic pairing. Change the opacity of the enlarged image if desired to achieve balance.














      When you’re done, post and share: Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram.

    • A5 Proportion: Hierarchy & Focal Point Exercise Completed

      Johannes Vermeer. The Love Letter, 1669/70. The Rijksmuseum

      Hierarchy aids in the exploration of any composition. Its helps identify which areas have greater importance over others. It helps the viewer identify which areas will likely be taken in first, second and so on.

      A focal point is the most active area in a composition. Some prefer calling it an entry point. Not every composition requires one, depending, of course on the nature of the composition, intention or outcome.

      As seen in the Vermeer painting on the left, a focal point can lead the viewer into secondary areas of interest and thus into the heart of a story or narrative by way of creating hierarchy. (Hierarchy and focal point are also covered under the Active/Passive definition, shown elsewhere within this section.)

      Below are examples of hierarchal compositions and hierarchal compositions with focal points: Six Donuts; ■ Unity & Rhythm screenshot; ■ Rose Parade 2023; ■ Flood Refugees; ■ Chairman’s Letter, 2003 PFCO Annual Report; ■ What Makes Communities Stick? 

      How is the artist controlling what we see first, second and so on?


      Walker Evans. Flood Refugees; 1937, Library of Congress



    • A6 Proportion: Hierarchy & Focal Point Exercise Completed
      The automobile ad is typical of consumer advertising from the 1950's. This one has all the cliches, including the notion: "Everything's of equal importance". Contemporary design typifies the notion that immediacy and resonance are the holy grail.

      This automobile ad is typical of consumer advertising from the 1950’s. This one has all the cliches, including the 19th/20th-century advertising notion: “Everything’s of equal importance”.

      It’s your turn! Exercise in hierarchy and focal point; details: Find a vintage magazine or newspaper ad with multiple focal points. Deconstruct the entire ad and reassemble it into a composition with a visual hierarchy starting from a single focal point.

      When you’re done, post and share: Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram.


    • A7 Proportion: Hierarchy & Focal Point Exercise Completed

      One example of the exercise, emphasizing visual hierarchy.


      It’s your turn! Create your own version of Hierarchy through the medium of your choosing: photography, painting, drawing, digital tools, mixed media, etc. Details: Create a composition that’s a layering of three visual items. Make whichever adjustments you need (size, brightness/dullness, color, texture, positioning) to create a hierarchal composition that also features a focal point.

      Advanced: See if the net result can communicate something stronger than that which is suggested by the individual parts alone. If not, see what adjustments need to be made to make that happen while still maintaining a hierarchy and a focal point.

      When you’re done, post your exercises to Facebook, Pinterest, or Instagram.

    • A8 Proportion: Symmetrical & Asymmetrical Balance Exercise Completed

      Balance can be proportionally affected by visual weight and also by structure. In general terms, the most frequently used means of establishing structural balance involve symmetry and asymmetry.

      Symmetrical Balance involves mirroring an image along an imaginary axis. The compositions immediately below demonstrate four different types of symmetrical balance: vertical, diagonal, horizontal, and radial. In each case there’s an imaginary axis that provides this kind of underlying structure. Vertical symmetry: National Watercolor Society poster; Keep Your Head Above Your Heart poster; 5 Generaciones wine label; Diagonal symmetry: Beef Consumption poster; Horizontal symmetry: Angel Hearts; or Radial symmetry: Snowbird Marathon logo; Staircase, Sagrada Familia.












      On the other hand, asymmetrical balance does not involve a mirrored structure or axis, but rather a felt sense of balance. The sense of structure is typically more fluid and possesses more random qualities. The compositions below; DADA/no; To Our Shareholders; DP101 Robot; Church of the Nazarene – demonstrate asymmetrical balance. In each case there’s a felt sense of balance borne out of proportional considerations (size, value or color, weight and placement).



      Walker Evans. The Church of the Nazarene. Tennessee, 1936. Library of Congress


    • A9 Proportion: Balance & Hierarchy Exercise Completed








      It’s your turn! Create your own composition through the medium of your choosing: photography, painting, drawing, digital tools, mixed media, etc. Details: Create or find another item or image of something that’s symmetrically balanced. Now create or find another image that is asymmetrically balanced. Then integrate these two images into three compositions: (1) favoring asymmetry; (2) favoring symmetry; (3) a balance between things symmetrical and asymmetrical. 

      When you’re done, post and share: Facebook, Pinterest, Flickr, or Instagram.

    • B1 Direction & Movement Exercise Completed

      Direction & Movement: There’s a difference. In the example on the left, a pattern of black dots is shaped into a line with a decidedly diagonal direction. This line also has a sense of movement. It is a bit bumpy and fairly active in addition to flowing diagonally.

      The diagonal direction being expressed by the dots is entirely the result of alignment and of the dots being close enough (tension) for a sense of unity to take place. This same line of dots reinforces the overall direction (or orientation) of the canvas which is diagonal.

      Movement is reflected by internal forces within the line contributing to a felt sense of advancement or progression. There is also a counterpoint or balance: an orange line which acts as an alternately diagonal, subordinate source of direction. The direction of both the dotted line and the orange line are echoed and repeated by the lightish blue strokes behind each.

      Below are some examples of direction and movement:  Rolling Hills 2 represents horizontal and diagonal direction; triangular and curvilinear movements; New Year’s Eve Ball represents diagonal, triangular and vertical directions as well as curvilinear moments of movement; 77th Dakar Rally exudes cascading movement and a somewhat diagonal sense of direction; DP101 Workshops poster strongly express both vertical and horizontal directions;  Broad to Disney sweeping curves contain a perfectly counterposed diagonal edge;  President’s Message expresses movement through the aid of a fractured perspective; and  Cielito Lindo balances the organic, curvilinear movements within the angelic illustration against the geometric, horizontal direction of the rectangular area.








    • B2 Direction by Alignment Exercise Completed

      Alignment provides one of the simplest and most direct means for conveying direction and creating unity in a composition. Overlapping creates a continuous mass of shape. On the other hand, alignment implies a direct link from one independent object to another independent object. For example, the text on this page runs in a tight sequence of letters and words on an imaginary horizontal path. This text also happens to be aligned on the left edge (“flush left”).

       Night Stream‘s black dots float along as if in a diagonal migratory sort of flight.  All of the 5 Generaciones wine label elements align along a center axis, as do the black elements. Please notice that each system of color has it’s own rhythm. Alignment bonds both rhythms.  What Makes Communities Stick? uses alignment and hierarchy to create a meandering but coherent path.  We’re Back! uses flush left text alignment to connect the body text to the salmon and then to the headline. You’ll notice here as well that each color has its own rhythm and that alignment unifies one color system with another.

      Alignments require a certain degree of tension or closeness from one object to the next and an imaginary path, otherwise the connections tend to weaken. Alignments assert control:








      Descriptions of alignment/control shown above: Stagecoach poster, the floating, quoted text appears tethered to the move title on a left axis which also controls the actors’ images and client’s identity. The “tethered” elements assert a dominantly vertical direction. ■ Magritte’s Grotto, an egg yoke shares a centering axis with the red shape beneath it, acting as a tether and helping to offset the more random elements of the image. The relationship of yoke to red shape asserts a subordinate direction. ■ Dakota is built on a central axis that engages the text, middle ground pattern, and background vignette of the circled star. All content but the larger silhouetted airplane shape are controlled by this visual thread. Although the composition is dominantly horizontal, the central/vertical axis asserts the composition’s only subordinate direction. ■ Marineland of Rolling Hills #1 features a pattern of white triangles (and dolphins) that are aligned on diagonal, horizontal and vertical axes. There are two dominant directions at play here: triangular and horizontal.

    • B3 Direction by Alignment Exercise Completed

      bilateral-master-layout-smallerDirection by Alignment Exercise. Empty out your pockets or your backpack onto a table top. Arrange everything along an imaginary center axis, either vertically or horizontally. Overlap a few items to create some variety. Take a few pics, overhead, including a variety of angles and closeups. Save for later exercises.




      flush-alignNext, rearrange your items along an imaginary line. Take a few pics, overhead, including a variety of angles and closeups. Save for later exercises.

    • B4 Direction by Orientation Exercise Completed

      The examples below each feature one dominant direction based on overall orientation. From left to right: Sagrada Familia staircase’s dominant spiral orientation is complemented by the subordinately radiating pattern of steps;  Tokaido with Poem (Utagawa Hiroshige, 1837; Chicago Institute of Art) horizontal direction with triangular submovements;  Oldsmobile 88 Ad has diagonal movement yet triangular orientation.  The complexity gradually increases in January 59 which has a strongly reinforced radial movement that runs in counterpoint to the vertical format and individual letterforms. The horizontal January text reinforces a subordinately horizontal direction. Continue on to the next module and dive into the exercise.



    • B5 Direction by Orientation Exercise Completed

      Direction by Orientation Exercise. Reformat your pics from the B3 exercise by enlarging and cropping into each image. Crop into, enlarge and rotate the images as desired to change the overall orientation of each image. Create at least three variations for each of the best center alignment image and three for the best common edge alignment image.

      Direction by Orientation, left to right: (1) strongly vertical orientation and direction countered by the horizontal direction of the bottom-edge alignment; (2) centered horizontal alignment created by the coins, countered by the stronger vertical direction of the pen: (3) center-aligned, strongly diagonal orientation of the objects, countered by the same objects creating an opposing diagonal direction.

      When you’re done, post and share: Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram.

    • B6 Direction by Alignment & Orientation Exercise Completed

      It’s your turn! Create your own composition that expresses alignment and orientation through the medium of your choosing: photography, painting, drawing, digital tools, mixed media, etc. Details: Create one piece of art with your eyes closed.  Next, create another piece of artwork with eyes open but in 3 seconds or less.  Next, split one or both of your art pieces in half.  Next, recombine all pieces to create a composition that displays only one dominant direction and at least one subordinate direction.  Lastly, create a frame that’s too small for your combined art. Place the frame on top of your art and see how many different orientations you can create before trimming the excesses at the frame’s edge.

      When you’re done, post and share: Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram.

      Top row:  Rolling Hills (triangular movement with diagonal and horizontal direction; dominantly diagonal orientation);  National Watercolor Society poster (dominantly horizontal orientation with typographic reinforcement; subordinately vertical direction reinforced by the address line at bottom),  Magritte’s Grotto (dominantly horizontal direction established by horizon, subordinately vertical direction due to implied center axis of yolk to red shape).

      Bottom row:  Do the Math (triangular cluster of symbols, counterposed by a horizontal line suggestive of either a horizon or a rotisserie;  For Love (dominantly horizontal direction and orientation, subordinately vertical direction in heart/for love relationship, subordinately diagonal direction middle/left);  Douglas C-47 (dominantly horizontal direction and subordinately vertical orientation);  Queens of Hearts (dominantly horizontal orientation, subordinately diagonal movement, subordinately vertical movement).


    • B7 Movement by Fracturing Exercise Completed

      Fractured space can express Movement or even shape a story. Anytime you watch a movie, a TV show or most any video, something about what you’re watching has likely been edited, spliced, trimmed or reconfigured. This is fracturing at its core and at its most everyday. It’s alternately a product of natural forces or a human contrivance. In terms of the latter, think of fast forwarding with a remote control or the precise instance when a media selection is suddenly changed.

      Examples shown below, top row:  President’s Message suggests a chaotic process of self-examination in which even the most sacred of all symbols would not be exempt; 42nd Dakar Rally suggests the circuitous, rugged nature of an off-road rally; Wayne, Off-the-Grid juxtaposes the artist with his work; They Were Heroes, represents the narrow window of strongest opportunity in the planning of D-Day, WWII. Bottom row:  Consulting Fees, Nationwide Aggregate, 1st Q, 2022 suggests the enormity of the hourly fees charged by a fictitious business consultant; 2003 Paula Annual Report suggests the various farming interests whose insurance needs are represented and the communities thus supported – and metaphorically, what could be chaotic encounters control.







    • B8 Movement by Fracturing Exercise Completed

      Exercise in fracturing and creating movement: Find a simple yet strongly graphic page from a magazine. The least amount of clutter, the better. Subdivide the imagery with scissors or digitally into a pattern of 2 inch squares. Subdivide one or two squares into 1 squares for variety.

      Rearrange your squares in a way that hints at the original layout but creates a more rhythmical and dynamic composition than the original. It’s all about how you arrange the squares continuously and non-continuously. No overlapping; no gaps.

      Image by Aziz Alakar.

      Image by Aziz Alakar.

      When you’re done, share: Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram.

    • B9 Movement by Gesture Exercise Completed

      Movement can be expressed by the wave of a hand, the bounce of a ball, or even suggested as in the sweeping, overlapping lines of a freeway interchange. Motion tends to produce a trail whether actual or imaginary. Point A to point B has an “in between” stage. Motion has a path, whether it’s straight and simple or convoluted and complex; continuous or interrupted.

      On the left,  Westbound abstraction suggests a shifting cluster of cumulus clouds floating somewhere in or about Los Angeles.

      First row down:  Snowbird Marathon logo suggests both a compressive and expansive gesture occurring at the same time;  Surviving the Surveyor narratively suggests an act of espionage;  DADA suggests the tumbling chaos that was encouraged by the early 20th century art movement;  5 Reasons to Drink suggests the haphazard effects from the very activity being described.

      Bottom row:  Arrived Australia suggests the distortions that accompany the uninitiated global traveler’s experience;  Asymmetrically Yours suggests applying a five minute maximum time approach to dressing up;  Branching Ballet is a learning-from-nature narrative in which gesture and movement are suggested by those kindred qualities found in nature.













    • C1 Positive/Negative Space Exercise Completed

      Negative Space: so misunderstood. The empty space that surrounds physical objects is generally ignored. Many of us see empty space as “background”; a harmless void, generally considered not too important unless you enjoy things like deep fried doughnut holes. And there’s the hook. Negative space is generally ignored until it provides some sort of reward or feedback.

      In this demonstration, you’ll see how negative space works as an invisible force, building tension, pattern and rhythm just like positive shapes (aka “objects”) do.



      C1-PosNeg-1Let’s create a square, any size. We’ll add one simple shape like a smallish circle and position the shape in the mathematical center. It will likely appear static, showing no likelihood of moving and giving the background no vitality.




      C1-PosNeg-2Now, move the shape left about half way towards the outside edge. Notice how the static, idle nature of your initial composition has changed.





      C1-PosNeg-3Make a copy of the shape and place it just to the right of the shape you just moved. Notice now that the space between your objects and the outside edge has compressed. The objects are moving towards something, in this case towards an outer edge and towards each other, and by doing so, they have gained tons of momentum. The space surrounding the object(s) has more variety now than it did before.




      C1-PosNeg-4C1-PosNeg-7This latter point is quite important. Negative space, instead of being “just the background”, has shape. And tension. And rhythm. A hole in the ground has a shape. Some varieties of swiss cheese are virtually defined by their holes.



      If variety makes things interesting, shouldn’t that also apply to the shape and proportion of negative space? Why not give the surrounding space a little attention? You’ll soon begin to see that negative space has presence and pattern, factors that you now can begin to control. You’ll begin to see that “empty” space is indeed a powerful asset in coordinating your compositions.




      Click here to again view the definitions for Positive/Negative Space. Click below to view specific examples on Pinterest and YouTube:


    • C2 Positive/Negative Space Exercise Completed

      Positive/Negative space can be an extension of line, shape…and rhythm. A simple composition made out of a series of identical objects like pencils, is arranged on a simple background. These objects are then arranged so that the proportion of spacing between the objects repeats.

      Next, a second composition is created from the same objects but the space between the objects get varied. The pencil’s width becomes the model for space making, making the negative space reflective of the positive matter. A positive shape has been repeated and varied as a negative version of the positive object.

      Repetition and variation are the underpinnings of rhythm. It’s easy to see how negative space can assume rhythm just like any other tangible pattern of elements. Negative space has all of the qualities that can make its presence an asset. And lastly, negative space isn’t always white.








      Ask yourself:
      In which ways are the following examples affected by negative space?
















    • C3 Positive/Negative Space Exercise Completed

      This exercise in Positive/Negative Space deals with the integration of two individual objects and the creation of a larger idea as a result.

      Using very simple silhouettes and positive/negative space, create a fusion between a mammal and its ___________ (fill in the blank as to what the other half of the pairing is: Joy? Food? Habitat? Offspring? Friend? Prey?). One silhouette must be a positive shape and the other a negative shape.

      When you’re done, post and share: Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram.

    • C4 Positive/Negative; Figure/Ground; Notan Exercise Completed










      Figure/ground relationships are similar to positive/negative relationships but allow for more involved variations in which multiple layers of relationships can occur. For example, the above left print, Yoshiwara/Fuji Marsh by Utagawa Hiroshige (1855. Chicago Institute of Art), depicts a landscape in which the clouds that cluster at the base of Mt. Fuji take are roughly the same shape and pattern as are the tufts of marshlands in the foreground water. As a result, a pattern of positive/negative shapes gets distributed amongst both the foreground and the background. As each “figure” leaves behind a “ground”, the reasoning behind the paired terms figure/ground begins to make sense. 

      Figure/ground, positive/negative – and even form/space – have each evolved from the Japanese sensibility of notan. Notan has no literal translation in English but is understood to generally mean dark, light in which harmony and beauty is achievable through the selection and arrangement of dark and light spaces.

      In another example, the January 59 image has three layers of objects – (1) all three gray photos; (2) a white 59; and (3) a black JANUARY – in which each of these three layers create their own dynamic layout of negative shapes. Finally,  Wayne Hunt’s assemblage, Been Dancing, creates multiple arcs of figure and ground throughout the composition.

    • C5 Positive/Negative; Figure/Ground; Notan Exercise Completed







      It’s your turn! This exercise
      deals with how positive/negative, figure/ground or notan relationships can be discovered nearly anywhere.

      Details: Find several images that were unintentionally taken or were just poorly composed to begin with. Crop into (meaning to trim away the excess, typically after enlarging) your photos so as to reveal a balance between positive and negative shapes. This may involve losing your photo’s sharpness, meaning or importance, but not to worry. We’re just dealing with space and shape at this time.

      Rotate the image if need be. Crop even further if necessary. Try to end up with a composition where positive/negative (or figure/ground) forces feel equally balanced.

      To expand on its meaning, Notan amounts to space not being considered a mere accident or byproduct, but something that actually can be part of a greater pattern or system of objects. See if you can discover that way of thinking through this exercise.

      When you’re done, share: Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram.

    • D1 Continuity Exercise Completed

      Continuity is all about visual flow: the means of leading one’s eye through a composition. There are two types of continuity: Visual and Physical. Visual continuity is about alignment. An example of which is on the left: a circular rose aligning with a circular palm tree. The text on this page aligns along a left edge. Physical continuity is about physically connecting. An image of a clothesline – with the line removed – exhibits both types – all garments are unconnected and overlapping. In the end, it’s about how the eye navigates.




      Displayed below are examples of images with both visual and physical continuation. Woman in Blue Reading a Letter contains a map on the back wall whose lower edge/contour disappears and re-emerges from behind the figure, a visual continuity (aka, alignment) is maintained. The right edge of the table appears to physically continue onto the figure’s coat. ■  The year 2008 will forever be associated with the collapse of one of the lengthiest bull markets in history and is physically connected to a market graph in this visual. As the Dow Jones evolved into a fallen bull at the cycle’s end, visual continuity connects the end of the graph with the tail of the fallen animal. ■ Stockyard Scene depicts several lines of cattle and reflects an implicit line of visual continuity with occasional moments of physical continuity for the sake of rhythm. ■ Copeland’s Rodeo reflects a managed tension created by tight proximities within the text (creating a virtual physical continuity at the text level) and also with the line art that contains it. The star’s visual alignment with the vertical line below it reinforces the composition’s vertical direction that is established by the fork standing on the right side. The top of the fork is aligned with the white star at the top and the black line at the fork’s bottom.


      Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, Johannes Vermeer, 1663-64; Rijksmuseum


      Image for Aaron Copeland’s Rodeo; Corral Nocturne 2nd movement.






      When you’re done, post  and share: Facebook, Pinterest, or Instagram.

    • D2 Continuity Exercise Completed

      It’s your turn! Exercise in Visual and Physical Continuity. Details: Find a magazine with lots of color images. Go to a feature spread, cut it up and reassemble it but not back to its original configuration. Instead, attempt to reassemble the layout in a way that features physical as well as visual continuity.  Tip: don’t worry about the story or concept in this exercise. Let’s see what story or concept emerges unintentionally.

      When you’re done, post  and share: Facebook, Pinterest, or Instagram.

    • E1 Repetition, Variation & Rhythm Exercise Completed


      Repetition is perhaps the most ubiquitous form of unity in the visible world. Repeat something and you’ve created that something’s twin. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

      Three hundred identical gray dots could become a bit predictable especially if identically spaced. Change just one of those gray dots to red and you’ve created a dynamic event called variety. Change the spacing of, say 10 of these dots and you’ve created a more dynamic form of rhythm than was previously – though perhaps benignly – there.

      Repetition is logical. Variety can be playful and graceful or wild and unpredictable. Tall grasses swaying with the wind can express both qualities at the same time. The same idea of similarities with differences can sometimes be found when comparing a car’s taillight cluster with its dashboard cluster.










      Been Dancing, 2019; Wayne Hunt





    • E2 Repetition, Variation & Rhythm Exercise Completed

      mask1mask2mask3It’s your turn! Exercise goals: repetition as a means of creating unity, variation as a means to elevate interest, and the combined results expressing a rhythm.

      Details: Create a mask, flat or dimensional, any medium, based on two or three simple shapes that are repeated and varied. The variation between shapes could be expressed through the use of size; proportion; similarity (as in, something being nearly the same but still showing a difference); pattern; texture; color or by any combination.

      When you’re done, share: Facebook, Pinterest, or Instagram.

    • E3 Repetition, Variation & Rhythm Exercise Completed

      leaves4It’s your turn! Exercise goals: Repetition and variation combining to create a  rhythmical statement.

      Details: Find or create an image. Identify some sort of distinguishing structure within or about that image. Whichever distinguishing attribute you select, create an additional layer and occupy that layer with a word phrase – arranging it in a way that mimics your image’s most distinguishing structural feature.

      Repetition and variation can easily become your first line of repair when creativity gets jammed up. “Is there something here that I can repeat and vary?” When you’re done, share: Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram.










    • E4 Repetition, Variation & Rhythm Exercise Completed

      Repetition and Variation are both independent principles that are frequently combined with stunning visual affects, and often towards the development or illumination of a story or narrative.

      Repeating something is one thing, but aside from any need to create unity, what is there about that thing or item that makes it worth repeating? Are we talking about repeating a precise shape or maybe “being influenced” by a shape in general? Is this thing a texture, a movement, a color, a palette of colors, a meandering pattern?

      And aside from making the soup of life interesting, variety can also introduce creative individuals into unexpected and engaging paths. Below are some examples: A cloud covers the base of Mt. Fuji and its unique shape gets repeated and varied into a pattern of marshy grass clusters; ■  A Cy Twombly-inspired drawing is populated by arcs, loops, and straight lines – repeated and varied by widths, textures and tones; ■  Marge, Not the Neighbors Again features a cluster of onlookers whose individual shapes are somewhat similar to exclamation marks – even down to their comparable sizes. ■ But at the end of the day, repetition and variation may serve to engage or even settle the human spirit much like a pair of warm slippers or – here goes – a mixed box of donuts.


      Yoshiwara/Fuji Marsh by Utagawa Hiroshige (1855, Chicago Institute of Art)








    • F1 Dominant/Subordinate Exercise Completed


      Dominant and subordinate  qualities create various levels of interest and emphasis among all visual elements. Think of the term dominant as meaning the same as primary and think of subordinate as meaning the same as secondaryThis sensibility can apply to all of the design elements. How much intense red vs. how much muted red vs. how much white? How much movement vs. how much stability? How much order vs. how much randomness? Does a particular composition have a dominant direction (or movement), as well as a subordinate direction (or movement)?

      From the upper left, few examples to illustrate the point: ■ Hammer Museum detail reveals a dominantly curvilinear direction, balanced by multiple subordinate directions – the curved shadow beneath it, the diagonal and horizontal edges framing the curve, and finally the slender, repeated horizontal shapes at both top and bottom; ■ the beef consumption poster’s composition has a dominantly diagonal direction of cattle and a subordinately horizontal direction reinforced by multiple horizon lines. The composition remains dominantly diagonal in it’s overall direction despite the horizontal nature of the format itself.

      Shown below: ■ Figaro is Alive! is dominantly excited and subordinately benign; dominantly rational and subordinately chaotic; dominantly vertical and subordinately horizontal and subordinately random; dominantly red and subordinately black; ■ Elysian Park Morning has a dominantly red foreground and pinkish sky, subordinately green middle ground; and is dominantly horizontal and subordinately vertical in direction. ■ To Our Shareholders is dominantly vertical and subordinately horizontal in direction (but with a pinwheel’s promise of movement); dominantly black body text vs. subordinately green and other bits of color. ■ Los Descarbonadores has two diagonal axes but it’s most dominant diagonal direction is the one with the more vertical, upright axis. Blue and white dominate the color palette and are contrasted by subordinate accents of black, magenta and yellow.

      Compositions that have multiple dominant directions or movements have a tendency to edge toward chaos or competitiveness. Having multiple subordinate directions or movements are fine as long as you have at least one direction or movement one that is clearly subordinate. Otherwise, competitive counterpoints at the alpha level tend to foster chaos – which is fine if that’s what you’ve intended.

      It’s your turn! Exercise: view the examples on this page and ask yourself how each image exhibits one form of dominant/subordinate relationships; whether it be in terms of compositional directions, color or grayscale balance; order vs chaos; geometric vs organic; soft vs hard; etc. (For example: the beef consumption poster has a dominantly diagonal direction and subordinately horizontal direction. What happens to the compositional balance if the horizontal lines were made considerably heavier?)


    • G1 Active/Passive Exercise Completed


      Johannes Vermeer. The Love Letter, 1669/70. The Rijksmuseum

      Active/Passive relationships are relative. If a composition has a singularly powerful area of visual attention, it is typically considered a focal point. A focal point provides an entry point and a means to help navigate a composition. Active/passive relationships may either begin with a single focal point or with a much broader visual zone and then evolve .

      Active/Passive relationships involve dynamic vs. far less dynamic elements in a composition. Loud vs quiet and perhaps even quieter. A bright red square against a light, neutral background evokes a dynamic contrast of active vs. passive areas. However, the same light, neutral background would instead become highly active if black were to consume 90% of this background.

      Examples on display starting from the upper left: ■ The Love Letter by Vermeer presents a contrast between the two active figures in the background and the passive interior space that frames the space leading up to the figures. ■  5 Reasons is comprised of an active cluster of torn paper and a large, dark numeral. The wine stain behind to numeral as well as the surrounding text, present a secondarily active level of interest, with the wood panel serving as the most passive component. The wine stain and the text also serve as an active/passive go-between (aka, transition) from foreground to background. ■ Figaro is Alive! contrasts a benignly appearing sheet of musical score with arcing, red lines to indicate the emphatic vibrance that explodes a few seconds following Mozart’s seductively quieter opening.

      Examples shown below, ■ Unity & Rhythm in 50 Minutes presents a hierarchy from active to passive starting with the bright green Unity&Rhythm text commanding the most active attention, followed by “50”, the text at the very top, followed by the lighter word “minutes” that have been placed within the larger “0”. ■ 2020 Void has two or three active zones: the strip of blue sky and the traffic patterns before and after the interruption of normal traffic. The yellow sky represents the passive background of everyday, urban acceptance  ■ Window Above the Water contrasts active and intense with passive and relatively quiet.



    • G2 Active/Passive Exercise Completed


      Active-passive study2It’s your turn! Exercise in Active/Passive activity. Details: ■ Recreate the grayscale study shown here. This design depicts a single, active dot surrounded by a cluster of larger, passive circles. Next, ■ create a second study using the same design but now reverse the active/passive roles where the smaller dot becomes passive and the larger dots become the active component. ■ Finally, create a third study using the same design but this time around, the negative space becomes the active component, the large circles serve as the passive component and the small dot as an in-between component.

      When you’re done, post and share: Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram.



    • H1 Advancing/Receding Exercise Completed

      Monet sunset

      Advancing/Receding qualities add depth and feed the illusion of three-dimension.

      Advancing/Receding qualities add depth and feed the illusion of three-dimension. There exists a variety of modes for expressing this quality, include color temperature and saturation; atmospheric perspective; fore-, middle- and background delineation; size and location; physical perspective; overlapping; 3D vs. flat; and transparency.

      Beginning in the first image, top row, ■ Claude Monet’s rapidly visualized sunset reinforces the notion that warm and brighter colors advance while cooler and muted colors recede (Sunset on the Seine at Lavacourt, in Winter, 1880, CC0 Paris Musées/Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Petit Palais). ■ PAULA 2007 Annual Report’s spread featured advancing and receding typography through color variations. ■ Decarbonize L.A. poster uses a faded burst behind the key figure adding an inference of mystical powers. The caped luchero dominates the layout while the clouds in their diminishing widths lead the viewer towards the distant horizon. ■ DP101 Workshop’s poster expresses advancement by overlapping white text partially over a white background, which then introduces a figure/ground reversal whereby the white type acts as both foreground and background. ■ In Donuts, Aisle 5 the juxtaposition of a flat object against a three dimensional box is managed in a way to give the appearance of a sudden “dropping off”. ■ Learning From Twombly depicts smears, shapes and lines which tend to blur, leaving the harder-edged content more precise and as a result, more prominent.

      Now it’s your turn! Create an applied example of advancing and receding through the vehicle of your choosing: photography, painting, drawing, digital tools, mixed media, etc. It could be something you’ve already created, just newly realized!

      When you’re done, post to the Exercise Blog and share: Facebook, Pinterest, Flickr, or Instagram.

      Click here to again view the definitions for Advancing/Receding. Click below to view specific examples on Pinterest and YouTube:

  • I_ Transition
    • I1 Transition Exercise Completed







      “Transitions and transformations allow the flow from one idea to another in an interesting but natural fashion” according to designer Leo Monahan. Transitions appear in a variety of modes and forms: linking; incremental change; overlapping; fragmentation; transparency; in-between stages, just to name few. It might help to think of transition as an in-between stage. Gray is the transition from white to black; medium is the transition between small and large; a continuing edge may link disparate images and so on.

      From left to right, top to bottom, these transitions are taking place:  cattle descending/ascending in size; a crowd of people emerging from out of the woods; a half-circle adjacent to other circle/arc shapes creating an overall pattern of partial circles; ■ the mesas of southwestern US replace the notches that normally populate the top edge of a revolver in a transition of narrative; ■ chili peppers transitioning in terms of color; ■ the seated portrait contains an abrupt juxtaposition and a transition occurring through a horizontal physical continuance on both the top and bottom; ■ tight adjacencies and overlapping of the numeral 7, repeated, create a visual pathway from top to bottom. 

      Exercise #1: Create a transition among these three components in any medium or program:

      A bar code | a fabric pattern | a large (in physical size) number.

      The fabric pattern should appear quite different from the bar code pattern. The number’s font se

      lection is up to you and will likely be influenced by both patterns. Arrange in these three elements in a pleasing way that creates a transition from the bar code to the necktie pattern by way of the numeral. The number will serve as the agent of transition. You may enlarge, reduce or repeat any item, bleed over the edge (but trim), rotate, modify, make transparent (traditional media people think: tracing paper), color or value modifications, etc.

      Exercise #2: Create a transition
      where the subject matter and medium are up to you: photography, painting, drawing, digital tools, mixed media, etc. Use any of the following transitional/transformational techniques: linking; incremental change; in-between stages; fragmentation; overlapping or transparency.


  • J_ UNITY
    • J1 Unity Exercise Completed









      Been Dancing, 2019; Wayne Hunt



      Unity is an essential sensibility for any artist or designer. Unity helps to create order. Typical modes of unity include: proximity; grouping; alignment; repetition; alignment; closure, containment; overlapping and grids.

      From the upper left, ■ DP101 Workshops poster features the workshops.com text as an overlapping link between two letterforms. Closure appears when the white text “disappears” into the white background but with enough of it remaining easily readable against the brown letterforms. Angel’s Hearts is comprised of a pattern of heart shapes in close proximity with one another which also align both vertically and horizontally. ■ Queen of Spades is an example of containment, alignment and overlapping. ■ DADADADA poster’s irregular pattern of repeating words calls attention to a tumbling arrangement while in detail, the words exhibit containment and alignment. ■ The visual elements in Oldsmobile 88 are in proximity with one another enough to appear contained at an off-center focal point. Their unity is further expressed by the repetition and variation of elongated shapes – specifically the Oldsmobile 88 letterforms and the similarly proportioned rocket. The bulbous mass of the yellow vehicle is repeated by the mass of the similarly proportioned body text in close proximity underneath it. ■ The document 5% Hierarchy utilizes a grid which controls type placement through underlying intervals of columns and rows. ■ Wayne Hunt’s Been Dancing utilizes a grid as a means for guiding placements as well as for enabling a well-paced and vibrant rhythm. A thick frame acts as both a virtual stage and a means for containment.

      On the bottom left, ■ In Cielito Lindo, the color bands overlap the Frida Kahlo image and the black text overlaps the color bands, connecting the trumpeting angel to upper region by alignment from bottom of text to the top of the angel. This same black text also aligns flush right with the white text directly above it. The angel on the right is repeated and overlapped with its muted clone. ■ In Growing an Industry, the general shape of the figure above is repeated and varied by the apple image below it. ■ In Rose Parade 2023, the circular rose and palm tree elements repeat and vary from one to the other. They also align diagonally. They are also contained by the pattern of green vignettes. The cluster of three green circles are grouped. ■ Lastly, a comprehensive diagram depicting nine modes of unity is downloadable for quick reference.









    • J2 Unity Exercise Completed

      speckled-ostrich-egg-tighter2Unity can be created any number of ways. In this culminating exercise, experiment with the various means for creating unity in a composition.

      Exercise: Create a composition from the following visual items:

      a bird | an egg | hurricane fencing or chicken wire | a drawn line | a number or a word | a texture

      Your theme is: Good morning! Working either digitally or traditionally (or both), create a composition (any size) in which you repeat any of these objects. However when you repeat an object, vary something about it such as changing its size, its texture, opacity, the amount of it , its location. its integrity, etc.

      Composition can be representational or highly abstract or somewhere in between. Use any discussed form of unity or a combination of several modes: proximity; grouping; alignment; repetition; alignment; closure, containment; overlapping and grids.

      When you’re done, post and share: Facebook, Pinterest or Instagram.