I’ve decided I’m going to make a more conscious effort to apply the elements of design to every aspect of my life, not just my artwork. The elements of design have a lot in common with zen philosophy, I think, and moving into a new apartment has presented me with an opportunity to make a number of positive changes in my life. So here goes:
The first thing we have to do is remember exactly what the elements of design are. In art school we are told we must learn them so we can forget them. (Talk about zen, huh?) With a little memory jog from Google, the elements of design are as follows….ok, well seeing how there are often multiple words for the same principle, and internet sources don’t always agree here is what I have come up with:
Principles of Design
First of all, economy was the principle that made me no longer have the school books that have economy’s definition in them. I gave/threw them away because they took up too much room on my shelves and I hardly ever used them. That’s economy. Both in art and in life, if you don’t need it, get rid of it. It’s hard sometimes; take it from a recovering hoarder. The excuses of “Oh I’ll need it one day,” “I spent money and resources on that!” or “I worked really hard on that one little piece of that project but it doesn’t match now!” often prove too persuasive. But just let it go. Your life, your space, your work will thank you.
Rhythm and repetition are often used interchangeably in the design world, but I think there are subtle, even opposing nuances to their definitions. To me rhythm in a piece of art gives it energy. Like the visual translation of a piece of music, it makes your eyes want to samba across the artwork and enjoy looking at it and how it makes you feel. Repetition on the other hand, seems like it creates stability. Your eye doesn’t panic or get jerked around because there is more of the same shape or color coming up, letting your eyes just glide around and hang out. It’s more restful, I feel. Both use a pattern of colors or shapes, but to slightly different ends. Your life needs degrees of both rhythm and repetition. In today’s world where so many people are unhappy with jobs where they do the same thing day after day might think this sounds horrible. The same thing every day might be a good example of too much repetition. But I have found that have something to look forward to every week or a small moment every day gives us a sense of stability in our fast-paced lives, something we can trust and rely on as an anchor in our week. Going to church, having a meal with friends, stopping at a local pub for a beer on Fridays, or taking 15 minutes to unclutter your desk on Monday morning lets your brain relax and create order. In addition, sometimes doing boring mundane like filing or stocking shelves gives your brain a chance to let your body do the work and take a moment to look at a view or a problem it had never noticed before.
Movement seems to be a term not consistently classified as a principle, but I’m including it because it’s useful. In artwork, having shapes that direct your eye to or away from the main subject lets you have a visual journey. It lets you discover details of the surroundings and other shapes, lines and textures rather than slamming you to one bright red spot in the middle and being done with it. Movement and journeys are what make life interesting, not to mention healthy. SO MOVE! Having just hauled all my possessions into a new apartment I can say, yes it can be rather stressful, and I won’t do it on that scale for quite some time, but I can still summon the energy to go for a walk! Also having one less car has me and my husband doing a great deal more walking, and even though we’ve moved back to the area I grew up in, I confess I’m seeing it in a whole new way! New buildings, new spaces, things you don’t notice when wizzing by at 60 mph. Not only do new environments stimulate your brain, but so do the chemicals and endorphins from moving your body in a brisk and calorie-burning fashion. Ok, you got me, I need to do more of that. But whether it’s hiking the Appalachian trail, or taking that pilates class that your sister was so stoked about dragging you to, getting off the couch is the first step.
Gradation is kind of an odd one to apply to life. In art gradation of color or value makes objects appear to have volume and weight. It can also be used in adjusting the size of objects to create a sense of space. Big to little, light to dark, etc. Philosophically, I’m going to take it to mean that you don’t have to do or have everything all at once. Have patience with yourself. When making changes or starting something new, take baby steps, it’s ok. Steps added together equals progress.
Scale is something I think America has a rather warped perspective on. We are such a vast country, over half of our landmass is open space, it’s a perfect breeding ground for the philosophy of “bigger is better!” But in our new smaller apartment, I’ve had to confront the notion of downsizing, and have come to see it not as a punishment of privation, but a simplifying of the space I use daily. In a small space, clutter happens easily, and I have to actively combat my tendency to just let junk lay around wherever I put it. Smaller cabinets, smaller refrigerator make me realize just how much food I realistically eat in a week, I don’t need to stock up to feed an army. I appreciate the intimacy of a smaller space and can appreciate it for how it shapes the life of me and my husband. I guess the lesson is, space is something that we are in this country blessed with a lot of, and spaces come in all sizes and shapes. Find one that is just right for you.
Contrast is fun in design because it creates surprises. Contrasting colors or values are what give objects in art that “pop”, thrusting things into prominence and making us confront either the objects themselves or the relationship between the objects. My favorite use of contrast is often used in character design and story telling: the young cowboy in the white hat going up against the big ugly black-hatted outlaw and his dastardly dark band of banditos! Or for even more interest and perhaps even humor, the big bad outlaw turns out to have the personality of a push-over cry-baby, characteristics in direct contrast to his outer appearance. You are surprised, or find yourself engaged and rooting for someone; you become invested because you find you have something in common with the objects or characters you’re looking at. So for more contrast in your life, do something outside your comfort zone. You may discover you like Thai food, or at least learn to laugh at yourself as your first attempts at throwing pottery look like they would be more comfortable in a nuclear hellscape. Even saying hello to a stranger in the grocery line might be the beginning of a fascinating and fulfilling relationship.
I’m going to tackle dominance and balance together because they seem at odds in real life. Dominance is pretty self-explanatory. It is the thing that defines. The piece, the picture, your work, your life. It’s the thing that you focus on. It’s rather hard, because often the thing that dominates our lives isn’t the thing that we wish it was. Work, neuroses, a bad relationship, addiction, a new baby, anything really. We feel that these things define us and they can be very difficult to change because often we don’t have as much control over them as we think we do. That’s where balance comes in to mitigate the power of dominance. By asking for help, letting go of some things, re-prioritizing the things that a truly important to us, we can introduce new elements into our lives that bring balance. Nobody can “have it all”. And really, it’s a pretty silly thing to wish for when you think about it. I think if I had everything, each thing would get approximately 20 minutes of focus, and what real enjoyment can that bring? Our culture is ADD enough as it is, not to mention sleep deprived. But I think there is a certain peace, a balance, that comes with letting go of everything and settling for what is important. Chances are we’ll all have to work for a living, maybe not at a job we love. We may wish we had more money, less taxes, more time, more vacation, shorter commutes, more hair, less weight, more shoes, blah blah blah. Focus on the picture in front of you, the life in front of you, and arrange the pieces as they come, and let them go as they depart. This is balance.