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Design: the parts and the whole — chapter 17 – content



Line, space, value, shape, mass, texture, and color are the elements of design. Unity, variety, balance, emphasis, rhythm, proportion and scale are the principles of design. When an individual has gained an understanding of these elements and principles he/she is ready to design – to create art. The question is what is to be created? What content are the elements and principles going to convey? The answer to this will vary greatly depending on what field of design or art the person decides to pursue. Will it be in a field in which content is often prescribed by client or supervisor as it is in many areas of commercial art?  Or will the individual choose the fine arts where content is more often the choice of the artist? This is a difficult decision for many people, involving weighing many factors outside as well as inside the world of art and design. Whichever the choice, the question of content is of great importance. Even if the content of the work is assigned, it is still your skill and talent either alone or in collaboration that will make the content communicate to others.


Visual art is a form of communication. It is an exchange of information, a message, a conveyance of something. At its most insular level this communication can be the artist with only him or herself, an interior dialogue. But in most cases the artist is communicating with an audience, be it only friends or family or 100 million people on network television. The content of a work of art is the communication – the message, the substance, the information being passed. The act of receiving this information can be broken down into three categories; seeing, feeling, and thinking. These experiences can also be described as visual (seeing), emotional (feeling), and intellectual (thinking) (Canaday 59). In the act of visual communication many times all three of these experiences take place, but sometimes one of three is dominant to varying degrees.


This obvious experience takes place when an individual looks at a work of art. As mentioned earlier in this book, our minds try to identify what we see by matching the perceived image with information in our memory. In the case of realistic artwork this is readily accomplished and the mind can relax; we understand what we see. This natural desire to identify goes a long way in explaining the layman’s preference for realism and the equation of “good art” with how well illusions are created. This kind of seeing is primarily a recognizing that satisfies the viewer’s preconceptions and experiences. This approach to art is nothing unique to modern times. In the 11th Century Chinese literati painter Su Shih wrote “If anyone discusses painting in terms of formal likeness, his understanding is nearly that of a child.” Su Shih was one of scholar/painters who had taken painting to more intellectual and emotional levels rather than focusing on the surface visual qualities of painting.


A second experience that can result from the communication of a work of art is an emotional response. This is usually tied to an accompanying visual experience of recognition. The emotional response to visual art is very commonly pursued by artists. To reach another person’s emotions and elicit a response is a relatively easy task, thanks to the power of visual stimulus – what we called isomorphic correspondence in our Gestalt study. A skilled designer knows how to use color, value, line, shape, symbols and the rest of the tools of the trade to manipulate emotions. It is emotional responses that are the goals of much advertising. Love, lust (yes, there is a big difference), happiness, thrills, safety, friendship, even fear and hate are used to capture the consumer’s attention. Emotional approaches are effective not just because they capture attention but also because they are more likely to be remembered, sometimes on a subconscious emotional level. The breakthrough AT&T “Reach Out And Touch Someone” campaign took the advertising world by storm. These television and follow-up print ads were based on warm family interaction that portrayed deep emotional family relationships. They truly triggered responses to the point of tears among some viewers. This appeal to deep feeling, especially involving family relationships, to sell products and services has been used over and over to promote everything from stockbrokers to breakfast cereals to hamburgers.

Appeal to the emotions in the fine arts started on the cave walls and hasn’t stopped since. In the early 20th century a style called Expressionism arose in Germany after World War I. Artists like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner created frightening, rough, crude images of the desolate life in post-war Europe. In the 1980’s Germany gave rise to Neo-Expressionism, in which the same bold raw expressive qualities were dominant. The style spread across Europe and the United States creating battalions of Neo-Expressionists, some with interesting approaches to the style and others with questionable mastery of design, technique, and content.


The third experience a work of art can stimulate is intellectual; it can make you think. This thinking experience is many times tied to a visual and emotional reaction as well. The intellectual activity may be quite simple, such as the contemplation of the beauty of nature; or it may be an extremely difficult problem, such as the meaning of life. When viewing a Thomas Cole landscape from the 19th century we can admire the panoramic vista and possibly think about the changes in the American landscape over the past several centuries. We can intellectualize about nature and ecology using the Cole as a stimulus. On the other hand, an installation by the German artist Joseph Beuys is considerably more intellectually demanding. Imagine a large gallery space totally surrounded by huge, thick rolls of felt reaching to the ceiling. In the center of the insulated space sits a grand piano; on the piano lays a small-unused blackboard and a clinical thermometer. Beuys has created an environment for thought. A space for the viewer to form associations from the situation and objects. The piano, a symbol of some of our greatest cultural achievements, sits in a silenced space. The blank blackboard gives no information. The thermometer waits to measure the extent of the illness. Beuys has arranged these objects and structured their relationships so the viewer becomes the creative thinker; the viewer actually becomes the artist. Beuys and artists like him are often labeled conceptual artists because the art is about concepts, ideas, and thinking, not about objects or products.

Beuys work is also a good example of a problem with intellectual art – it is not easy on the viewer. Art that requires thought, intellectual process, risks being rejected. Many average viewers confronted by a Beuys installation, are going to be perplexed, bored, or even offended.  As a society, people have not been taught to look at art and think. They have learned to look at art and see and feel but not think. To a large extent this is a problem of education. Some people would argue that art-for-art-sake is an intellectual experience, one that requires more thinking than simply seeing. I believe that people who enjoy modern, minimal art have simply been educated to see differently. Education is a primary vehicle for opening people to a broader understanding and enjoyment of art on all three levels of experiencing art – seeing, feeling, and thinking.

Most works of art blend the visual, emotional, and intellectual to suit the needs of the content, communication, and audience. The audience is a primary consideration in many cases. Who are you communicating to? Why are you communicating? What kind of mixture of ideas, emotions, and visual recognition will best suit the artist’s needs? These are concerns in content.


The responsibilities of designers and artists are rarely discussed in the artworld. No one wants to sound preachy, stuffy, or old-fashioned. But responsibility is part of being a human being, and artists fit that description. We have responsibilities to ourselves and to others. Responsibility falls squarely into the world of art and design because it is a realm of communication; it is involved in other people’s lives.

A few examples might help to illustrate the problems involved in this complex area. In the subjective area of art, responsibility is even more subjective. As you consider my examples, remember that they reflect my personal opinions.

First, an example in the commercial art world, political advertising. Half-truths are also half-lies and political advertising is increasingly full of them. Negative advertising has become the power tool of political campaigns. Issues, debates, and factual information are ignored and rejected in favor of thirty-second jabs on television that leave an emotional imprint on the viewer. The result is that we choose our leaders on the basis of emotion and misinformation – the winner often being the one who has the most money to spread this mental smoke and pollution. A classic example was in the 1988 presidential campaign. The Bush (George the First) organization launched an attack against Dukakis with a series of ads claiming that, in essence, Dukakis would release violent prisoners who would rape and kill you – the famous Willy Horton ads. The information was based on half-truths, and much of the same things could have been said about Bush, but in the cold quick world of politics, it didn’t matter. The message of fear was clearly communicated in very well designed effective ads. Some analysts saw these ads as the turning point of the campaign. Did these distorted ads change the course of history? What, for better or worse, would the United Stated be like today if Dukakis had been elected? Are the designers to blame? Yes. Certainly they were taking orders from the idea people, but it was the designers that made it work. It can be said if they hadn’t done it someone else would have. That is the same logic used by Nazi guards at World War II concentration camps. It is a matter of responsibility, a matter of ethics and personal standards that affect the entire society.

The 1990’s saw many politicians attempt to not use negative ads but the result was that many gave up and used negative ads when the campaign became difficult or they themselves were attacked. A new and common approach is to not have the candidate run the ads but organizations that are in support of the candidate run negative ads against their opponent and the candidate claims innocence.

A very interesting development in this problem happened in the 2002 Governor’s Republican primary race in South Dakota. The two leading contenders got into a slamming negative ad campaign and spent millions trying to defame one another. When it came time for the election the Republican voters of the state rejected both of them and selected a third candidate who had been running a quiet issue-oriented campaign. It was a sign that the voting public had had enough.

In the fine art world, the controversy over the work of Robert Mapplethorpe has layers of questions about responsibility and rights. Mapplethorpe was a well-known American photographer who died in 1988 from AIDS. A traveling retrospective of his work, partially funded by the National Endowment of the Arts, became one of the most controversial exhibitions in the history of this country. The retrospective contained a small group of homoerotic photographs. These images created a national debate on censorship and public funding of art that raged for years.  The debate was ferocious in the U.S. Congress where legislation was passed that required artists to sign a pledge if they received public money. The following year counter-legislation was passed that did away with the pledge. Questions of responsibility begin with Mapplethorpe himself. Should the artist have produced and displayed these images that many considered offensive (to be honest, I’m no prude, and I found them disturbing). The answer is, yes. The artist had the right as a citizen of this country to produce whatever art he wished as long as he inflicted no harm on anyone.  The fact that I or anyone else found them disturbing or offensive has no relation to the artist’s basic rights.  Should have the curator of the exhibition included the controversial works. Yes, these pieces were an part of the artist’s work and were necessary for a retrospective presentation of the artist. Should have taxpayer money been used to partially fund the exhibition? Yes, Mapplethorpe’s overall work achieved an importance and quality deserving support. Should anyone be able to view Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic images? No, children and those individuals who would find the work offensive should be protected from seeing the work. This was accomplished at all showings by posting announcements of content. Most exhibitors also displayed the controversial pieces in cases or rooms that the viewer needed to make a special effort to see. In my opinion Mapplethorpe had the right to produce the work, the exhibitors had the right to show the work, and people who might be offended had the right to not see the work.

While I do not believe in censorship, I do strongly believe that designers and artists need to be more responsible for what they are producing or helping to produce. The content is their responsibility. How their work impacts the public is their responsibility. In most cases they will not be held accountable to laws or even standards. The only accountability is to their own sense of personal and social standards and ethics.  They – we – you – me – need to decide what our ethical (good and bad, moral obligations) standards should be. The artist and designer plays an essential role in our society and will continue to do so throughout the 21st century. The power of visual communication has the potential to be a positive force or a negative force in this new century, as it always has in the past. It will depend on those who control and produce the content.

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