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Design: the parts and the whole — chapter 11 – unity and variety



This study of design up to this point has focused on the elements of design: the components that make up our visual experience. We shall now turn our attention to the principles of design: how these elements are organized in a composition. The study of the elements is the study of the parts; the study of the principles is the study of the whole. Most of the visual principles we have already touched on in our projects focused on the elements. The objective now will be to direct our attention to the principles.

The basic principles of design are unity, variety, balance, emphasis, rhythm, proportion, and scale. These principles are not simply art and design concepts but dominant ideas in many aspects of life. They are such underlying organizational components that we usually simply take them for granted. Medical doctors work with the balances that make our bodies function; the rhythms of our respiration, our blood circulation, our life cycle; they study the unity of good health and the abnormal variety of illness. Farmers decide on the proportion of crops they will plant; they work with the rhythms of nature in the planting, care, and harvesting of their crops; they carefully and sometimes vainly try to balance the cost of their production with the price of the products they produce. Taxi drivers work within the rhythms of traffic at various times of the day; they cope with the variety of passengers they pick up; they understand and work with or around the unity and variety of traffic laws.  Examples can be applied to all walks of life. These principles are ways of describing our experience. That the same principles are the basis for organizing visual art and design is only natural. After all, art and design is also a way of describing our experience; art is a reflection of, expression of, and a window on life.

Unity and variety are the two dominant principles of design. The other principles can be seen as sub-categories of these two primary forces. Unity and variety are inseparable principles. They are like light and dark, you cannot discern what is light unless you have something darker to contrast it to; or like good and bad, how can the individual know what is good unless there is bad to compare? Unity and variety exist in all visual experience and do so in an infinite number of mixtures of the two concepts. Unity is order, regularity, oneness, wholeness, synthesis, merger, joining.  Variety is contrast, diversity, difference , dissimilarity, nonconformity. They are opposites – polarities, but polarities that are joined like the two sides of the same coin.  The designer’s decision is how to wed the two ideas in a composition.  Both principles are necessary to make the design visually functional. Unity provides the order and structure necessary to make the composition acceptable to look at. But if the composition is overly unified, ordered, structured, or regular, it can be boring. Variety provides contrast and diversity, the irregularity needed to capture the viewer’s interest. But if the composition is a mass of variety, it can be a chaos incapable of communicating information.  The artist must take these two powerful principles and balance them to suit her/his needs. Sometimes a composition might be intentionally chaotic to make a point; at other times the design might be extremely unified to create a certain mood.  Most of the time the balance is somewhere between the extremes.


Unity can be perceived as a dominant force in human activities as poetically expressed by Abraham Joshua Heschel:

The vision of the unbroken ray above the water, the craving for unity and coherence, is the predominant feature of a mature mind.  All science, all philosophy, all art are a  search after it.  But unity is a task, and  not a condition. The world lies in strife, in  discord, in divergence. Unity is beyond, not within reality. We all crave it. We are all  animated by a passionate will to endure; and  to endure means to be one. (102-3)

Many of the world’s religions have at their core a deep sense of unity and none more so than Buddhism. The contemporary Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, gives the following interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching on the interrelationship between all things:

Take, for example, this leaf in my hand. Earth, water, heat, seed, tree, clouds, sun, time, space – all these elements  have enabled this leaf to come to existence. If just one of  these elements was missing, the leaf could not exist. All  beings, organic and inorganic, rely on the law of dependent  co-arising.  The source of one thing is all things. Please consider this carefully. Don’t you see that this leaf I am now holding in my hand is only here thanks to the interpenetration of all the phenomena in the universe, including your own awareness? (169)

The depth of meaning that a spiritual understanding of unity can have to an individual comes from Tagore:

When a man’s life rescued from distractions finds its unity in the soul, then the consciousness of the infinite becomes at once direct and natural to it as the light is to the flame. All the conflicts and contradictions of life are reconciled; knowledge, love, and action harmonized; pleasure and pain become one in beauty, enjoyment and renunciation equal in goodness; the breach between the finite and the infinite fills with love …. While yet we have not attained the internal harmony and wholeness of our being, our life remains a life of habits, The world still appears to us as a machine, to be mastered where it is useful, to be guarded against where it is dangerous, and never to be known in its full fellowship with us, alike in its physical nature and its spiritual life and beauty. (Tagore, S, 43-44)

In creating unity within a composition the designer has a powerful ally in our basic perceptual tendencies. The mind wants to understand what it sees. It naturally tries to take the parts seen and make a whole that is comprehensible.  This tendency was studied in the shape chapter when looking at the Gestalt concepts of proximity, similarity, continuity, closure, equilibrium, assimilation, and irradiation. These are ways that the brain tries to create unity in a visual experience. Designers can use these concepts to their advantage.

A major unifying device in many works of art is repetition. One of the most basic ways to unify a composition is to repeat a shape, color, texture, or line. This repetition can be extreme, forming patterns; or very subtle, with the repetition being difficult to see without careful analysis. Unifying repetition is often expressed in the way the artist creates balance and/or rhythm in the composition. These two principles will be discussed in more detail in later chapters.

Harmony is a term often used in connection with unity, but harmony differs somewhat in that it usually means a pleasing relation of the elements. A unified relation of the elements doesn’t necessarily have to be pleasing.


The substance of variety is contrast – light to dark, bright to dull, warm to cool, rough to smooth, large to small, straight to curved, etc. Through variety the artist breaks the monotony that unity can create. Variety can be a quiet variation on a theme – the small change in shape, a step up or down the value scale, an analogous change in color. Or variety can be dramatic, a clashing break with unity – a complementary color, an alien shape, a total change in value.


The designer must make the decision of where the balance between unity and variety will take place. This decision will be based on what the desired communication or expression is to be.

In the world of advertising design unity plays an important role. The designer needs to communicate the sales message clearly and quickly. The organization of the visual elements must be structured so the consumer easily understands and hopefully remembers the message. A demanding composition with a great deal of variety is usually not the way to do this – clutter is the enemy of the advertising designer.

In the fine arts the artist can take more liberties. If the artist wishes she/he can challenge the viewer with variety and complexity. The box assemblies of Joseph Cornell are wonderful examples of this. With marbles, glasses, pipes, magazine and book clippings and many other found objects, Cornell created compositions with a perplexing variety of shapes, materials and textures. But he organized these diverse elements with almost magical placement, value and color manipulation to assemble them into unquestionable wholes. Other fine artists strive for compositions that rely heavily on unity. Piet Mondrian sought to create order and stability in his grids of black and white with primary color accents. The purity, clarity and unity of his compositions he hoped would help to create the same qualities in European society after World War I.

Artists sometimes change the way they balance unity and variety. This is hard to see in the usually isolated examples of artist’s work seen in reproductions and museum collections. A dramatic example of change can be seen in the work of Frank Stella. In the 1960’s Stella was on the forefront of the minimalist-color field movement, creating large canvases of simple geometric shape with a near absolute unity in composition. In the 1970’s Stella made an about-face in terms of unity and variety. He maintained his non-objective subject but introduced a tremendous variety in shape , texture, and line. Huge arabesque shapes projected out from the wall with glitter and expressive patterns and lines covering their surfaces, creating jumbled reliefs.

The designer or artist can set a mood, a tension, a peacefulness, a chaos, depending on how unity and variety are balanced in a composition. It is important to remember that when average viewers look at a work, they automatically want to see a whole; they want enough unity that their minds can put the parts together to form an understandable unit.  Some artists might want to challenge this, others might want to work with it.


In many ways unity and variety are the big picture. Science, business, medicine, agriculture, religion, philosophy, politics, economics, literature, music, all have unity and variety as primary organizational principles.

In a novel the unity is woven into the plot through characters and themes, but the novel can become boring unless there are subplots, surprises, new characters or other devices to give variety to the story. Kurt Vonnegut is a master novelist when it comes to variety. He laces a multitude of subplots and fascinating information into the major plot of his story.  Sometimes you feel you have been lost in a subplot when he ingeniously brings you back to the main theme. Garrison Keillor, a great radio storyteller, has the same skill in his wonderfully rambling tales of Minnesota small town life.

In music the rhythm, melody and beat keep a sense of unity running through the composition. But in that unity is the need for variety, for contrast, variation, even dissonance. Modernism pushed both ends of unity and variety in music as it has in visual art.  Philip Glass is a modern composer that has been classified as a minimalist.  As with minimalist painters, minimalist composers use a small number of elements in tremendously unified compositions. Glass used very spare note combinations and repeated them to the point of nearly hypnotizing the listener. When he created even a small variation in the notes it became a major change to the listener as she/he had been so sensitized to the sound. At the other end of the modern spectrum of unity and variety in music is John Cage. Cage’s work was based on variety and many times chance variety. He prepared pianos by inserting a variety of materials in the piano strings; he composed works using chance systems; he produced a work of silence where the sound produced by the audience in the music hall was the music as they waited for something to happen.

If one accepts the “Big Bang” theory, the universe was created from chaos. There is now a new science developing called the science of chaos. This new area of study claims that chaos still plays a major role in the structure of the universe. Through much of the evolution of modern science it has been assumed that scientists would continue to uncover and understand the underlying unity and structure of the universe and all it contains. Most intellectuals believed that eventually all would be understood and explained in scientific data and formula; the ultimate unity of the system would be made clear. It was a process of reductionism, of studying the parts to finally understand the whole. The new science of chaos suggests that this might not be possible – that all phenomenon might not fit into categories of unity to be understood by examining parts. Chaos theorists view randomness, complexity, and variety in nature as demanding the study of the whole in order to gain an understanding of the universe. They seem to be suggesting that our life doesn’t consist of order or chaos, unity or variety. It consists of order and chaos, unity and variety.

The principles of unity and variety can also be helpful  in understanding the sometimes confusing and even absurd world of politics and economics. The 20th century was a dramatic duel of unity-order and variety-freedom in the economic arena. Theoretical communism claimed that an ordered society could be created in which all members would be equal. This would be accomplished through communal ownership of the means of production. The society would distribute the production to the people according to their needs and the people would contribute to the society according to their abilities. It would be a unified utopia. In Russia, China, Eastern Europe and other nations, the chaos of various wars and the repression of the majority of the population led to a variety of attempts at these ideals. Unfortunately, in all cases the structure of this order was imposed by an authoritarian elite rather than a democratic process. An order was imposed on the economy that controlled the production, cost, and distribution of goods; it controlled where people worked, where they lived, how much they earned, and even tried to control what they thought so they would fit better within the established order. The order failed first on the economic level, because the variables, the variety, within an economy are too complex and unpredictable for a central control. They also failed on a social level in that the people could not productively function with the lack of variety that the system imposed. Now nearly all these authoritarian socialist nations have collapsed. Some are plunged directly into capitalism, others tried easing their economies into a market system while expanding democratic freedoms to their citizens.

In the United States the dominant economic principle has not been unity but variety – freedom. Business has been free (for the  most part) to control the production, cost and distribution of goods.  The society has been structured on consumption and is dependent on a non-stop flow of supply and demand. This system has evolved to give some of us a huge variety of material goods and services. But the system is a basically an impersonal one. It doesn’t regard human factors other than a flow consumption for its own self-preservation. This leaves a considerable number of people out of the benefits living at poverty level or near poverty level, trying to crawl up the consumer ladder while being constantly prodded on by the steady stream of advertising stimulus. Some nations have tried different balances of order and freedom. Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Finland and New Zealand are nations that have tried blends of unity and variety that offer more equality (unity/control) while still maintaining a democratic structure (variety/freedom).

Unity and variety are such dominant principles in our world that the artist and designer can learn a great deal by using the concepts to observe the big picture and then bringing that understanding back to be used in visual art.

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