Thoughts on Design [ A Short Introduction ]


“Too often professional insecurities are masked in impenetrable language and professional reputations are buttressed with unnecessary complication, and confusion.” David Savage

In 1965 I enrolled in college and started a program of study in architecture. As one of the requirements of the architecture program I took a sketching class, the purpose was to learn to draw the trees around the buildings I would design. I also took my first design class that first semester. One thing led to another and before I knew what happened I was an art major. After three semesters I took a short vacation in south east Asia, when I returned I went back to school and continued to study art and design. I eventually finished college and got a job teaching art and design. First let me tell you that I’m not writing this to brag about my college experience, what I’m trying to say is that I graduated from a respected University with an MFA in art and design and didn’t have a clue about how to teach or explain design to anybody, I knew all the vocabulary, I had read all the books I could talk design with the best of them, but I knew something was missing, it didn’t all make sense, it didn’t all fit together, I was still confused.

Studying design is one of the most confusing and frustrating things one can ever attempt to do. All you have to do is read the Wikipedia page on design and try to use what you read to design a piece of furniture, or any thing else. One of the problems is that all the words used to discuss design have multiple meanings and the word design itself has multiple meanings. The on line dictionary lists seventeen definitions for the word, both noun and verb. Design can be a process or it can be the results of the process. Sorting out and making sense of all the written material on design can be a daunting task to say the least. Much of the material is not only confusing it is down right contradictory. Much that is written on design is based on philosophy and if you don’t share that philosophy it’s not helpful. For example the statement “Form follows Function“, this is a statement of a philosophy of design and if you don’t embrace it, it won’t help you design anything, however that statement is one of the founding principles of 20th century design.


Well I got lucky, one Friday after work, while sitting in a tavern drinking beer with a bunch of art teachers I mentioned that I was about to teach a beginning design class and had no idea what to do. I asked did any body have a Design I syllabus? There was an old gentleman sitting there that had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago in the forties. In a couple of hours in that saloon he taught me a structure, a way of thinking about design that tied it all together. A way to simplify design.

All the confusion was not necessary, There is a simple explanation and process that allows us to understand good design. There is a set of elements and principles that explain good design from all periods and within all philosophies and cultures. In design at least I think there is a theory of every thing. The theory is not a formula or cook book for creating good designs but a way to analyze and study a good design. If we can understand what makes one design more successful than another, it may help us improve our own designs.


In the previous paragraph I repeatedly used the term “good design”, I’m not sure good design really exists. I think there are more successful designs and less successful designs. Albert Sack said Good, Better, Best.


Design is not period specific. The elements and principles of visual design are based on how we see and how our brain interprets what we see, not when we see. The elements and principles apply to all periods. These elements and principles can be used to discuss and analyze any piece from any period. In furniture design there are archetypes that do not change. If you are going to sit on a chair your legs need to fit under the table during any period, if you are going to sit on the floor the table needs to be lower. What does change is culture, engineering and style. An example of change in engineering is drawer construction, during the William and Mary period drawers were often nailed together, during the Chippendale period dovetails were used. The high versus low table is a cultural change. While culture modifies how we interpret what we see the elements and principles still apply.

What is Design?

Design is the organization and manipulation of the elements of design through the principles of design to achieve an out come. That’s it, it’s that simple, you have elements, principles and outcomes.

The Elements of Visual Design: There are three primary elements and one secondary element of visual design. The primary elements are line, value and color. The secondary element is texture. These are the elements of visual design because these are the basic building blocks of what and how we see. Not only are these the basic building blocks of what we see they are the basic building blocks of what we design.

The Principles of Design: There are four principles of visual design. They are repetition, variation, opposition, and transition. These principles are what happens to or what can be done to the elements. Any visual element can be repeated, it can be varied, it can be opposed or it can be in transition.

Outcomes: When we design we use the principles to manipulate the elements to create a result or outcome. This is what visual design is at it’s basic level. Form, balance, proportion, motif, shape and all the other similar concepts related to design are all results or outcomes of the design process.

Texture: Texture is a special case. Texture can be the result of the repetition of an element so in that respect it is an outcome, but at the same time it can be manipulated by the principles as an element.

 Time: Time is another special case, time is neither an element or a principle but it needs to be considered in the design process. It can be used as an element, Alexander Calder used time as an element when he built his mobiles. The mobiles moved so they had to work at any moment in time both visually and in their engineering. When we walk around a piece of furniture it’s engineering does not change but it changes visually from moment to moment as we move so time effects the visual design.

Repetition with Variation: Repetition and variation are the two most important principles. It is repetition that unifies a design and ties it together, it is repetition with variation that adds interest. The human mind is always subconsciously trying to make sense of and create order in our environment. Our minds are always searching for likeness, looking for the same color, looking for the same shape. We are constantly subconsciously putting thing in groups, it’s one of the ways to make what we see simpler.


When ever we build a piece of furniture or anything for that matter, unless we are copying someone else’s design we are designing. If you create an object it is designed. The question is not is it a good design or bad design. The question is does this piece achieve our intended outcome, if yes, why? if no, why not? There is no formula that leads to “good design”, but there is a way to analyze a design after the fact. In future posts I plan to use these ideas to discuss different pieces and hopefully make more sense of this post.

About millcrek

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3 Responses to Thoughts on Design [ A Short Introduction ]

  1. Pingback: Nelson’s Universal Design Method | DAEDWoRKs blog

  2. Pingback: Elements of Design « Lucent Design

  3. Pingback: Nelson’s Universal Design Method

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