top of page

Design: the parts and the whole — chapter 5 – line



The study of visual design may be approached in many different ways, as the rows of books on the library shelves will testify. I prefer the approach of studying the parts of design and then applying that knowledge to an understanding of the whole. There is an inherent danger in this approach. The danger is that the student, and the teacher, can become so engrossed in the parts that the whole is either forgotten or superficially approached. This danger permeates not only the study of design but also the study of many areas of human knowledge. The old saying of “not being able to see the forest for the trees” rings true in many areas of modern study. Trying to remain conscious of this danger may help us avoid falling victim to forgetting the big picture as our studies proceed.

The study of visual design can be divided into visual elements and visual principles.  The visual elements are the raw materials of what we see: line, space, value, shape, mass, texture, and color. The visual principles are how these elements are arranged to form wholes or designs: unity, variety, balance, emphasis, rhythm, proportion, and scale.


Line has always been at the core of human expression. Early humans used line to express themselves on cave walls with tremendous dexterity and skill, showing a sophistication that suggests a long held tradition rather than a crude beginning. From incised line in stone to bold painted outlines, early people used line as a creative vehicle in possibly a very literal sense. It is speculated that by creating these images of animals in deep hidden caves they may have been ritually performing the act of producing the animals in the womb of the earth to stimulate and perpetuate the herds on the surface that the people’s sustenance depended upon.

The long “lineage” of line making seems to extend to all of us. There are few people who don’t instinctively make lines. A major manifestation of this behavior is doodling. Whether listening to a lecture or talking on the phone, many people almost subconsciously make lines. The lines are many times without subject or meaning; they are examples of line for the sake of line – quite a remarkable behavior when you stop to think about it. Children use lines to create games. In urban and even rural areas groups of youths use line in graffiti to mark territory and proclaim identity. The lines in a businessman’s tie might proclaim club or school affiliation. On many levels line is tied to human expression.

Line does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. A line usually begins with a dot or a point, which is then extended to form a line. That line must exist in the space that it is placed. In most cases the line creates a shape within the space. The line is visible because of its value contrast to its environment, light on dark or dark on light. Therefore in producing a line, automatically space, shape, and value come into being.  Three more visual elements are present, interacting, creating a whole of sorts – the parts creating a whole.  This seems a rather easy beginning for design. Make a line on a piece of paper and you have four visual elements creating a design. The difficult aspects arise when questions are asked. What is your objective in making that line? Have you achieved that objective? Is the success of undertaking to be evaluated by anyone beside you? These questions seem to be cruel distractions from what can many times be the enjoyable and even joyous experience of making a line and sometimes the questions can be ignored for the pure joy of the experience; but many times these questions are a necessary part of the design process.


As with all inspiration, the greatest reservoir of linear inspiration lies all around us in nature. From the linear spiral of the galaxy that we live in to the linear tracings of the movement of sub-atomic particles, and everywhere in between, line abounds and many times dominates our visual environments. Dew and sunlight dancing off an intricate spider web, tremendously varied line and color in an autumn leaf, cracked and shattered linear patterns in a sheet of ice created by shifting pressures and temperatures – these are a few of the images that are etched on my mind and are a tiny fragment that abound for our enjoyment and inspiration. What can be learned from the observation of these lines is far greater than anything that can be taught in class. What it takes to gain this knowledge is a re-education of the eyes; learning to look and think and feel.

Our man-made environments are also a storehouse of linear knowledge. The geometry of lines that dominate these spaces are the straight lines and right angles that find their way into so much design due to their high degree of functional and economical qualities.


One of the most common uses of line in design is using line to describe.  The primary approach for this description is using line to show contours.  The contour line is one that attempts to show the edges of the object being drawn. This type of drawing many times extends beyond the outside edges of the subject and also draws the inside edges of shapes and even shadows. Contour line can create an image of an object that in reality has little or even no actual lines. It does this by producing lines where the edges of shapes exist.  It would seem that such a system would produce flat, lifeless images; but in the hands of a skilled and sensitive artist, contour line images can be full of energy and expression from the variety of lines used and the personal style and approach of the individual.


A line is not simply a line. It is a thick line or a thin line, a straight line or a crooked line, a swirling line or a jagged line, a light line or a dark line, a happy line or a sad line, an energetic line or a tired line, and on and on. Lines can express deep human qualities when tied to a subject or even with no subject matter attached. Lines themselves can evoke emotional responses from fear to calm, from puzzlement to understanding. Only when one understands the variety of line can one fully use the quality of line, whatever the problem being worked on. The variety of line is many times dependent on materials available or required for the job at hand. The varieties of lines that can be created with charcoal vary greatly from the variety that can be made with brush and ink. The type of brush used will change the variety of lines possible. The type of paper and ink will also change the line qualities at your service. A welded steel sculpture offers vastly different possibilities for line quality than computer-generated imagery where line is tied to hardware and software capabilities. The common ground is that line quality and its expressive potential is waiting to be used in all media.


An important area of linear design that is sometimes ignored in Western culture is that of line that creates symbols.  The letters of our alphabet, the numbers and symbols of mathematics, and musical notation are all linear systems of storing and recording information. While we generally think of these linear marks as functional elements of communication, we rarely think of them as vehicles of expression or beauty.

The importance and potential of our alphabet has not escaped the advertising world, which depends greatly on it to communicate messages in print and electronic media. What advertising designers call typography is the refined art of thousands of variations on the alphabet. Nuances are created so subtle that the causal observer never sees them. The type style selected for promotion of a Wall Street stockbroker is going to be very different from that selected to headline an ad for a pizza parlor. The line of our alphabet symbols can express meaning beyond their phonic qualities; they can express responsibility, dignity, lightheartedness, fun and a thousand other quiet or loud messages.

Expressive linear symbols reached their zenith long before Madison Avenue advertising agencies were around. The Chinese have a cultural tradition reaching back five thousand years. In China calligraphy was not considered a hobby or craft. It was considered one of the highest forms of artistic expression. The accomplished calligrapher spent not years but decades learning the art and was considered a mature artist in his sixties or seventies. This attitude held true about mature artists in general in China and Japan as shown in this quote by one of Japan’s greatest artists of the early 19th century, Hokusai:

From the age of six, I had a mania for drawing the form of things. By the time I was fifty, I had published an infinity of designs, but all that I have produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-three I have learned a little about real structure of nature, of animals, of plants, birds, fishes, and insects. In consequence, when I am eighty, I shall have made more progress; at ninety, I shall penetrate the mystery of things, at a hundred, I shall have reached a marvelous stage, and when I am a hundred and ten, everything I do, be it a dot or a line, will be alive.

Written at the age of seventy-five by me, once Hokusai, today Owakio Rojin, old man mad about drawing.

While Hokusai talks of drawing (brush and ink) the same life-long learning was equally applicable to calligraphy.  The entire process of painting the symbols was brought to a near ritual state; the ink, the mind, the brush, and the body must all be in harmony to create the finest calligraphy. This tradition grew and flourished in Japan and China .

Another culture in which the writing of words became the highest of art forms is in the Islamic world. I clearly remember being dazzled by the huge banners of beautiful swirling lines and dots that covered America’s TV screens at the end of the 1970’s. It was a contradiction to find out that translated these beautiful symbols meant “Kill the American Pigs” during the American hostage crisis in Iran. The Islamic faith prohibits the making of any religious images, taking very seriously the Old Testament edict of making no graven images. This prohibition, along with the great importance of the word of God as written in the Koran, made writing these words a religious and artistic exercise of the most holy form. It was a way to express the beauty and truth that believers found in those words.

The letters of our alphabet can be called arbitrary symbols; they are assigned to particular sounds in spoken language, so they have only a phonic meaning. The symbols of Chinese writing are ideographic symbols, meaning that many symbols are abstracted images of what they represent. For example the symbol for “tree” is based on a linear image of a tree. After thousands of years of evolution and revisions they are very abstracted (Bevlin 36). While this makes for a visually delightful written language, it requires the literate of the language to know thousands of symbols compared to the twenty-six of our alphabet.

Many children seem to have no problem in creating ideographic symbols to depict and symbolize their worlds. While the meanings of their symbols might not be immediately obvious to the viewer, children can often explain in amazing detail their complex symbols. Unfortunately this wonderful creativity is often extinguished by foolish teachers or cruel classmates forcing the child to make things look “right” (realistic).



When lines are repeated in a design the result can be a pattern of lines. If those lines also result in a physical texture or the suggestion of a physical texture the line has also created texture as well as pattern. If the texture is one that has a three-dimensional quality that can be felt, it is called a tactile texture. If it doesn’t have a three-dimensional presence but still looks as if it does, it is called an illusionary texture. A scan of the environment you are now in, even if it is as drab as a dorm room, will reveal a multitude of patterns and textures produced by line.

Sometimes the materials a designer uses automatically produce linear patterns. The grain in wood is a complex example of this. Created by the growth pattern of the tree and then by the way wood is cut at the mill, it offers the artist many of ways to manipulate its patterns to fit his/her needs and expressive ends. The more experience the artist has with material, the more skilled he/she will be in creatively exploiting the possibilities inherent in the beauty of the natural linear patterns.

The process of production can also create linear patterns and textures.  The mortar used in brick, block, or stonework, the grout used in tile work, and the lead used in stained glass – all create a linear pattern from their functional qualities. When a potter throws a vessel on a potter’s wheel, the circular movement of the wheel and the upward pull of the potter’s fingers naturally form a linear movement of concentric circles around the vessel. The potter can control the amount of this pattern, from deep ridges to complete elimination by sponging and other techniques.


Line plays an important role in nearly all areas of art and design, but line is much more than visual. “You’re giving me a line”…”a line drive”…”train lines”…”drop me a line”…”the party line”…”hereditary line”…”fishing line”…”lined up” ..and on and on.  Lines are everywhere.


materials: drawing paper supplied, 2H pencil, ruler, fine tip black marker

objective: To describe, research, write about, and study very, very closely the intricate linear qualities in a small piece of nature.


  1. On your drawing paper with your 2H pencil draw out a series of four shapes (about 7” X 5” rectangles – or 6” squares or a combination of both) you may draw the shapes freehand or with a ruler

  1. In one area of the borders of the paper write the most comprehensive description of your subject matter as possible.  Every detail should be described with the closest observation. Describe all sensory information you can gain – sight, smell, touch, taste (only after you research to find if the plant is poisonous). Let the description roam around the drawn shapes as needed, do the writing with your 2H pencil. Label this area as “Description.”

  1. In another area of the borders write a complete a research report as possible on you subject. Your subject comes from either a tree or a bush. Find out what kind it is and write all the technical information you can find on your subject. Use library sources and/or the Internet. Use your 2H pencil and label this area “Research.”

  1. In another area of the borders do a creative writing piece inspired by your subject – a poem, a short story, a haiku, an obituary— other? Use your 2H pencil and label this area the title of your work.

  1. Now, with all this as your background, draw your objects. With your pencil carefully draw all the inside and outside edges of shapes that you can see. Go slowly.  Look at your subject.  Draw what you see. Keep your lines continuous; pick up the pencil only when you come to the end of a line. Be very detailed. Draw large and allow shapes to appear to runoff the edges of your rectangles or squares. Draw different angles, perspectives, and distances in your four drawings.

  1. After the pencil drawings are complete, ink the drawings with the fine tip black marker. Lighter and darker, thicker and thinner lines may be used to suggest the variety of lines your subject has. Use no shading of any kind. Also ink the borderlines of the four drawings.

  1. Erase all pencil lines still showing in the drawings.  Sign your name legibly in the lower left hand corner of the paper. The composition may be vertical or horizontal. Clean the work thoroughly.  (“Cleanliness is next  to Godliness.”)


materials: 4-5 sheets of newsprint, drawing paper supplied, brushes (any and all that you have),  waterproof black India ink

objective: using one word that you find interesting (but not obscene or profane) write that word with brush and ink with as many different line qualities as possible


1. With brush and ink on newsprint, experiment with simply making lines – thick, thin, wet, dry, fast, slow,  jagged, straight, etc., etc. Fill an entire page with  experimentation. Try all the brushes you have.

2. Think of words that have expressive potential.  Try writing them with lines that express what they mean. When you find one that you really connect with practice it with every line quality that you can think of and your brushes can make (all on newsprint).

3.  When you a confident that you have really explored the word, write the word on the drawing paper – covering the surface with the same word written with every conceivable line quality you can produce.

  1. Sign your name legibly in the lower left hand corner of the paper. The composition may be vertical or horizontal. Clean the work thoroughly.  (yes, “Cleanliness is next  to Godliness.”)


materials: 2-3 Black Sanford Rub-a-Dub Laundry Marking Pen, short sleeve, solid white all-cotton T-shirt (your  size), a piece of smooth cardboard or poster board cut to fit into the T-shirt, ruler, practice  paper, one clothes hanger.

objective: To create a minimum of four highly varied non-objective linear patterns that merge over the entire surface of  a white T-shirt.


1.  On practice paper doodle, doodle, doodle. Create a  large variety of linear patterns with no recognizable  subject matter.

2. Choose four to six of your most interesting and diverse linear doodles and decide how you can merge them together to cover the entire surface of the T-shirt, front, back, sides, collar, pocket, everywhere. Think of how you can  use the patterns with the form of the body that will be in the T-shirt.

3. Cut a piece of smooth cardboard or poster board to put inside the T-shirt to stretch it to a tight but not distorted shape to draw on. Do not try to pencil the designs on first, begin directly with the textile  marker – if you make an error improvise it into the  composition.  The entire shirt is to be covered with the  patterns.

4. Somewhere on the surface of the shirt place a small legible signature (not too large). You will model your shirt or present the shirt to the class on a clothes hanger for discussion of the project. All shirts will be handed in on a hanger.

3 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page