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Design: the parts and the whole — chapter 8 – shape



In every project described previously in this book shape has played a major role. Shape can be defined as a visually perceived area created by lines or values that define the outer edges (Lauer 128).  The arranging of shapes is a primary function of design: how many shapes, where are they placed, how are they balanced, how are they unified, which are to be emphasized? These are some of the considerations of shape relevant to most composition making.

Our earlier discussion of positive and negative space could also have been termed positive and negative shapes. It is simply a matter of whether the designer wishes to call the areas spaces or shapes. In fact they are both. Our eyes search compositions and situations for shape. This is crucial for identification and understanding. One of the major ways of understanding what we see is by separating figure and ground, positive and negative shapes. This search for understanding is not a leisure activity; it grew from survival necessities. If you couldn’t separate the tiger from the grass, you might become a dinner entree (Myers 27).


Gestalt is a German term which translated roughly means “wholeness.” Gestalt psychology stresses that behavior needs to be studied as an organized whole and cannot be understood by simply analyzing the parts. Furthermore, the parts themselves cannot be understood unless an understanding is gained of how they relate to the whole. This is the premise for the title of this book. A mechanical analogy for understanding the parts and whole could be a fuel pump. You might understand the structure and components of the fuel pump in detail but unless you understand how it works with the entire combustion system and engine as a whole, you don’t understand an engine or a fuel pump. In human behavior it might be uncomplicated to analyze the drug abuse symptoms of an individual but unless that abuse is understood in relation to the individual’s personality, family and community situation, the drug abuse behavior cannot be understood.

Gestalt psychologists use the theory that patterns or groupings are the way in which we see and understand our surroundings. Our brains organize the parts we see into figures and grounds to form wholes. The originators of these ideas formulated a list of principles that indicate how the brain does this organizing. Critical to understanding these principles is to not let the unfamiliar vocabulary blind you to the simplicity of the concepts. Some of their concepts are valuable to visual artists:

1. Proximity – What is closest unites.  Shapes that are near to one another visually join together to form a grouping or pattern.

2. Similarity – Elements (shapes, lines, colors, etc.) that resemble one another unite to form groups.

3. Continuity – Visual organization tends to move in one direction; therefore our eyes follow the movement of a  single line or edge even in a maze of overlapping lines  and edges.

4. Closure – We tend to perceive multiple elements as a group, closing gaps to make wholeness, creating more stable visual perceptions. Our brain will join broken edges and lines or gaps in shapes to form the whole; in  doing so the brain does not simply use what it sees but  combines what it sees with stored information from  similar situations to fill in the missing parts.

5. Equilibrium (balance and orientation) – Visual    perception strives for a feeling of balance and equity  in opposing visual forces – a sense of completeness.  Out-of-balance visual stimuli can be uncomfortable and  even disturbing. Nature’s functional shapes, often very  regular, are in balance with their function and  environment. Our minds try to conform with this natural  balance and strive to correct any visual stimulus that  is out of balance.

6. Assimilation – The shapes and patterns we perceive are always related to the vast storehouse of information that the mind has accumulated, resulting in an  Isomorphic correspondence between the visual appearance  and a response in human behavior. When we see a skull, we think death. When we see barbed wire, we think  confinement. When we see a rose we think beauty. Hence, feelings and reactions can be evoked in a viewer by calculated visual stimuli.  Related to assimilation is empathy, a strong  identification with another person’s feelings,  situations or motives. This is frequently evoked by  novelists, playwrights, and film makers to deeply  involve viewers with characters to make us care about  them.

7. Irradiation – Edges of shapes are located by comparing lightness and darkness (values). The brain makes edges  appear lighter or darker than they actually are in  order to comprehend the information (Myers 22-26).

A common phrase related to Gestalt concepts is that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. This has been put in a far more poetic way by Rabindranath Tagore:

… like the beauty in the lotus which is ineffably more than all the constituents of the flower. It is not the magnitude of extension but an intense quality of harmony which evokes in us the positive sense of the infinite in our joy, in our love.


The square, triangle, rectangle, and circle are primary geometric shapes. These shapes are prevalent in our human-constructed environment.  Their regularity and functional properties make them the preferred shapes of architecture: the upright vertical and horizontal beams of post-and-lintel construction, the curve of the arch, the triangle of the pitch of a roof, the circle of the dome. These same functional qualities make geometric shapes abound in small-scale human-made objects. A quick glance around you will expose a multitude of examples: a book, a cup, a can, a table, a pencil, and on and on.

Geometric shapes are easily reproduced in production systems, are easily stored, and use space conservatively. Geometric shapes are often considered to be primarily human creations but this is far from the truth. In nature’s bewildering variety of shapes geometry is often at the very core. The basic building shapes of nature are the polygon, the circle, the spiral, the helix, the branch, and the meander. While some of these are not strict geometric shapes, they have base in geometry. These building shapes can be as tiny as the microscopic structure of polygon cellular formation or as immense as the meander of the Amazon River system or the spiral of our Milky Way Galaxy.  The triangular branching systems of trees might seem irregular but are wonderfully complex geometric formations to distribute the enormous weight of the tree’s systems through the consistent triangular three-point branching.  Sometimes the geometry in nature is more precise, such as the spirals formed in some sea shells or the polygon chamber of a beehive. Examples of structured and unstructured geometry in nature seen endless and are an unending source of inspiration for the designer.

Geometric shapes have been an important source of image and decoration from the earliest images to the present. A variety of geometric configurations have been found on cave walls. Historians have hypothesized that some of the geometric markings might be clan symbols. Small-scale societies throughout history have used geometric shapes as a primary vehicle for decoration, expression and communication. In large-scale societies, without exception, geometric shapes have evolved through the centuries performing a multitude of functions. In 20th century Western culture geometric shapes became the vehicle for artists to express purity and simplicity, the geometric shape became the ultimate essence.


Naturalism attempts to create a natural shape, a shape and appearance that is as close to reality as possible. This includes flaws, imperfections and problems.

Idealism, while usually appearing “realistic,” attempts to show the world not as it really is but as the artist or client thinks it should be. Many times this involves leaving out imperfections and flaws and adding qualities that enhance a subjective vision of perfection (Lauer 134). The paintings of nude human figures by contemporary American artist Philip Pearlstein are clear examples of naturalism.  Pearlstein makes no attempt to flatter his models. He coldly records the image in front of him, not missing a sag in the skin or stark reflection of light.  16th century Italian artist Titian provides a classic example of idealism and a strong counterpoint to Pearlstein. Titian created perfectly shaped, colored and expressed human bodies. No sags or blemishes detracted from the ideal of beauty that Titian desired.  The depiction of the naked female form throughout Western history provides an interesting study of idealism. Most of the time the depiction was an image of how males wanted females to look at a certain time and in a specific culture. This tradition is being carried today by the retouched photos of our lucrative soft-porn industry.

Much of the art in Western tradition that is commonly regarded as “realistic” is in fact very idealized. A good early example would be the sculpture of Classical Greece. Their idea of beauty was highly idealized and expressed what they believed should be rather than what was. This tradition has never died and was shown in its most glaring form in the social realism of the Soviet Union during the Cold War years. This art was far from “realism,” but it certainly was social. It was supposed to guide the public toward the goals of the government. As with the Greeks the Soviet artist produced what the ruling elite considered beautiful and inspiring for the populace. Certainly the Soviet artists didn’t reach what most critics would describe as the high aesthetic level of the Greeks; but it would be very interesting to know what critics will be saying of the Soviet social realism that survived the collapse of the Soviet Union in one or two hundred years .

In our own country idealism doesn’t dominate the fine art world but it has a firm grip on many areas of the commercial arts. In the advertising realm idealism has always been a powerful selling tool. The client and designer doesn’t represent the “real” world to the consumer but a custom-created idealized one. The imperfections are stripped away: the woman is flawless (in just the right way for the researched audience being targeted), the weather is beautiful, the car is spotless – not a naturalist image.


The term abstract is one that has been used in so many ways within the artworld that almost any definition can be countered by a different one.  For our purposes in the study of design I prefer to define abstract shape as one that has been simplified or altered from its natural state. Many artists use abstraction to bring out what they consider to be the essence of a subject. This can follow a course of simplification of elements, eliminating what the artist considers unnecessary. Other times the abstraction can focus on distorting or exaggerating some of these elements to make them dominate and take on more importance. The early 20th century style of Cubism was such an abstract movement.  The originating artists, Picasso and Braque, eliminated detail and curvilinear qualities and enhanced and exaggerated angular geometry while simplifying value and color.

A common misconception is that abstract art is a product of modern times. On the contrary, most of the art produced throughout history has been abstract. In most societies artists have chosen to produce work that would fit in the realm of abstraction in one way or another. Sometimes Western culture has looked upon this abundance of abstract art with the arrogant attitude that tribal societies produced “primitive” art because they didn’t have the “skill” (read intelligence) to produce realistic art. This misconception is a telling comment on the “mental tunnel vision” of some people.  Artists of  tribal societies produced abstract art because it served their needs and traditions. The work they produced was aesthetically and functionally very effective. The thought of producing realistic imagery was literally very foreign to these people. Why reproduce reality when reality is already there? For many of them, art was about tradition and expression; it was a reaction to reality, not a recreation of it. This was a realization some Western artists also arrived at in the late 19th and 20th centuries. In the culture of China this realization was being actively developed in the 10th century with the paintings of the Chinese literati. These were gentlemen-scholars who painted not for professional reasons but for personal expression and  cultural pursuits. Most were active in poetry and calligraphy as well as painting. Many of the literati abandoned representation as a goal of their painting and instead strove to create an essence of their subjects or personal expressions that used the subject as a vehicle for their aesthetic pursuits.

Abstraction can sometimes be the most efficient means of communication.  The increasingly wide-spread use of pictographic signs are a clear example of this. An abstracted simplified image of falling rocks is much clearer than a full-color photographic image of the same subject (Bevlin 57). The mind can very quickly grasp a simple black and white shapes of falling rocks while in a elaborate image of the same subject color, texture, detail, and more ambiguous figure-ground relations can get in the way of speedy understanding. The same is true if you compare the pictograph symbol to a written warning FALLING ROCKS. In the written message there are twelve arbitrary alphabet symbols that must be combined to receive the communication; the message in the pictograph is communicated with one figure-ground arrangement. A secondary but very important benefit of pictographic signage is that it can cross language barriers.


The terms abstract and non-objective are commonly confused. For the sake of clarity we will restrict our use of the term abstract to identify shapes that have their origins in natural shape and have been altered by the artist. Non-objective shape refers to a shape that does not describe any recognizable object (non-objective).  It is a shape without subject matter. Geometric shapes that are not tied to any recognizable subject may also be considered non-objective.

As with abstract shapes, non-objective shapes were not invented by modern artists; they have always been with us. Non-objective shapes have been the standard for decorative design. Pots, fabrics, and utilitarian objects of all kinds have been embellished with non-objective shapes in nearly every culture.

In the 20th century a new attitude was taken by some artists toward these shapes. They believed that non-objective shapes should not only be used as decoration but also as the subject of fine art. In the very early 20th century the Russian artist Kandinsky produced some startling compositions of non-objective shape, line, and color. Without any recognizable subject the elements of design themselves became the subject. The paintings were about shape, line, and color arranged on a canvas. This was and still is quite a difficult concept for some people to accept. Non-objective painting requires the viewer to appreciate the work for was it is rather than for what it looks like. A problem is created by our perceptual skills that have evolved to identify by association for survival purposes. Most people have been taught that a work of art is supposed to look like something else. If they look at a work of art and don’t see something else (an illusion of some kind), they are frustrated and sometimes even upset. The problem lies in their assumption that art is supposed to imitate something – that the work of art cannot be what it truly is: paint on canvas, pencil on paper, light on a video screen, stone, bronze, etc. If the individual viewer can reject the premise that art has to look like something else, non-objective imagery can be enjoyed for what it is.

The modern idea of non-objective imagery grew and evolved throughout the 20th century in many directions. One direction reached its pinnacle in the 1960’s with ultra- simple geometric imagery of a style called Minimalism. A very different approach was explored in the 1950’s in a movement called Abstract Expressionism. These artists used color, shape, line and texture in a multitude of personal free-form styles ranging from the wild splash-drip techniques of Jackson Pollack to the powerful shapes of Adolf Gotlieb.


The central position shape plays in visual perception in general makes shape an important component in any area of the big picture. We understand and react to our visual environment depending upon how our brain interprets and understands the separate shapes and the organized whole they make. Shape can also be understood in its verb form: create, ordain, decree, devise, or plan. These constructive words give shape, as an action, the capability to create shape, the noun.


materials: Tag board 14″ X 20″, black construction paper, exacto knife, scissors, rubber cement, black  marker, practice paper.

objective: Create one composition that showcases all seven Gestalt concepts.


1. Put a 1″ border on the tag board.

2. On practice paper do numerous small examples of each of the Gestalt principles described. Try to keep the drawing on a simple symbolic level using shape to convey the idea. No interior detail or value.

3. After numerous examples of each concept, plan how the best of your ideas can be combined into one composition of cut black paper. You may design your examples around a general theme.

4. You need to use some recognizable subject matter to have a successful example of isomorphic correspondence. Work for a strong overall figure ground composition.

5. Plan carefully, then cut all your shapes out of black construction paper and neatly glue to the tag board using rubber cement.

6. Label on the bottom front Gestalt Concepts and your name.

*7. On a separate sheet of 8 1/2″ X 11″ paper type or neatly write a list of the Gestalt concepts and by each concept  describe how and where it is used in your composition.


materials: pencils 2H-HB-2B, illustration board 15″ X 20,” ruler, eraser, black marker.

objective: To create five separate drawing all using the same subject. The shapes in the drawings are to  be in the following styles: 1. naturalistic 2.  idealistic 3. semi-abstract 4. very-abstract 5.  non-objective.


1. Place a one-inch border around the outside of the board. With ruler measure out spacing for three 5″ X 6″ boxes across the bottom of the board. Then space out two 5″ X 6″ boxes across  the top space.

2. In the top left-hand box draw your subject as naturalistically as you can. Use all your  power of observation to capture all the details and  imperfections. Use your value to define all subtle  light and texture changes.

3. In the top right-hand box draw the same composition in an idealistic manner. Eliminate imperfections, change proportions to improve composition, dramatize or alter light and dark to make more pleasing, alter texture to suit your sense of aesthetics.

4. In the bottom left-hand box draw the same composition; this time semi-abstract the shapes. Choose a direction  of abstraction (simplification, geometric qualities,  curvilinear qualities, etc.) and abstract the shapes so  the subject is still clearly recognizable but so is the  abstract direction you are pursuing.

5. In the bottom middle box draw the same composition following the same direction of abstraction as the last  box but this time go further. The subject matter should still be a bit recognizable but the abstract quality should  dominate.

6. In the bottom right-hand box use the same compositional structure and abstraction direction as  in the previous two, but eliminate all recognizable  subject matter so the shapes are non-objective.

  1. 7.    In the lower front border label Types of Shape and your name.


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