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Design: the parts & the whole — chapter 1 – the big picture


The Parts and the Whole

An Artist’s Perspective


Mark W. McGinnis

Northern State University

Aberdeen, SD



Tom Hansen

copyright  © 1991

revised 1993, 1997, 2002


My incentive for writing this book was not the lack of good design books available. On the contrary, a stimulus was the availability of so many good sources. My intent in the following pages is to bring together the thoughts of many people with my own. It is my hope that I have arranged the basics of design with some clarity and made them accessible to the beginning design student. It has also been my purpose throughout the text to relate the design fundamentals not only to the process of producing art but also to many areas of knowledge outside the visual arts, which are the source of inspiration for the artist and designer. I have written this text in a more personal, first person, manner than is traditional for an textbook approach. This reflects my belief that art and design is a subjective field of human endeavor, even in its basics. I have attempted to write more as an artist than an academic.The lack of illustrations in this book is the result of local publication and the attempt to keep costs down. This lack of printed visual support will be compensated for by the extensive use of color slides in the daily introductory lectures.

I would like to thank my friend, colleague, and editor Tom Hansen, who for years has been making me sound more literate than I really am. I would also like to thank Northern State University for the sabbatical leave that allowed the time to put these thoughts together.

Mark W. McGinnis



My reasons for producing a second edition are twofold.  First, after four semesters of use in my design class there were many areas of copy and project structures in the text that needed fine-tuning.  Second, the design curriculum at NSU was revised to create two sequential semesters of basic design. This positive development has given me the opportunity expand this text to cover two semesters rather than the rushed single semester it was originally written for. Color has been expanded to cover more complex areas and an entirely new area has been added focusing on three-dimensional design.  The first semester will cover the first three parts of the text: the Introduction, the Elements, and the Principles.  The second semester will cover the last three parts of the text: Color Concepts, Mass and Three-dimensional Design, and the Conclusion.

Mark W. McGinnis



This edition has undergone a major revision in the project structure of the text. I have eliminated, revised, and added projects. The major visual support for the text is a series of seventeen video lectures that uses color slides to illustrate the concepts of the text. These were produced in the summer of 1997 to support this new edition.

Mark W. McGinnis



This revision focused on updating and fine-tuning both text and project structures. A few new areas were added and quotes from newly found authors were added. I also reformatted the entire book, giving the book a more streamlined and compact structure.




Design is a relatively small word with an enormous range to its meaning.  It has been defined as the organization of parts into a coherent whole (Bevlin 3). There is very little in our existence that doesn’t fit into this broad definition; from the universe to atomic structure, parts make a whole with predictable coherence. One place this definition does begin to break down is in the strange world of subatomic particles. In this minute world electrons and quarks do not always act in what one might consider a “coherent” way. In this tiny domain there is a realm of uncertainty and a possibility that the mere observation of the particle activity may change or actually creates the activity observed. This 20th century discovery has had a major impact on how scientists and intellectuals view our world and its design. From the 16th century science has been confidently dissecting the great design of nature, finding and recording the wondrous ways that parts make wholes.  The breakdown of this predictable system at the subatomic level is disturbing to some observers.  In many ways I see this exception as a welcome component to nature’s overall design. The concept of uncertainty on the subatomic level leads to the concept of tolerance; if one cannot have absolute certainty about actions and structures that constitute our world, one must keep an open mind to new and different ways of seeing and thinking – all is not predictable. The great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore has reflected on this condition in a different way, “The detail of reality must be studied in their differences by science, but it can never know the character of the grand unity of relationship pervading it, which can only be realized immediately by the human spirit.” (Tagore, RM, 102)

But much of nature’s great design (or God’s great design, depending on your personal beliefs) is stunning in its organization of parts into a coherent whole.  Examples abound everywhere in the natural world.  Consider the structure of a leaf; then consider the relation of leaf to branch, of branch to trunk, of trunk to roots, and then of all these parts to the whole.  Finally consider all the species of trees found in nature; the diversity of one basic design is mind-boggling. Human beings are incredibly complex designs; the neurological, muscular, circulatory, digestive, and reproductive systems need to work in harmony for us to function (Bevlin 4).  When you think of all that is going on inside you at this moment, it is a wondrous working of parts creating a whole that is you.

It should come as no surprise that humans strive to create order.  Not only does nature’s order surround us, but we are ourselves a part of that order.  Humans create myths and religions that nearly all arise from the desire to create order out of chaos or nothingness.  The quest for design and order is evident in all human undertakings. Religion attempts to create a structure of understanding/ethics/morals/goals by which people can live. Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and countless tribal religions have all attempted to create bodies of instruction, organizing and designing individual and collective lives (Bevlin 4).  There are critics in contemporary society who see the decline of people adhering to religious designs as a major problem. Religious order gave, and gives, people a reason for existence beyond themselves.  The same sense of meaning and belonging is difficult for many people to find in science or through other secular orders. Critics observe that with no “higher” design to follow people fall into patterns of self-gratification, putting themselves at the center of the big picture and expecting all to revolve around them. It has been expressed by the great 20th century Jewish sage, Abraham Joshua Heschel as follows:

Absorbed in the struggle for the emancipation of the individual, we have concentrated our attention upon the idea of human rights and overlooked the importance of human obligations.  More and more the sense of commitment, which is so essential a component of human existence, was lost in the melting pot of conceit and sophistication.  Oblivious to the fact of his receiving infinitely more than he is able to return, man began to consider his self as the only end. Caring only for his needs rather than his being needed, he is hardly able to realize that rights are anything more than legalized interests.

Needs are looked upon today as if they were holy, as if they contained the totality of existence. Needs are our gods, and we toil and spare no effort to gratify them. (129)

Religion is one of many organizing designs of humans.  Another is government.  Through the ages a myriad of forms have been attempted, from small tribal organizations to nation-states to global organizations such as the UN.

Human designing extends into all areas of human activity, religion and government to your sock drawer. Humans have become so successful at designing and redesigning that in some cases they have forgotten that they themselves are part of nature’s overall design.  In forgetting this we have put ourselves in the position of being superior to the overall design and therefore having the right to exploit whatever components we wish for our own short-term gain.  The results of this arrogance are now plaguing us in the environmental damage seen around the globe.  The impact of massive consumption of finite resources such as oil and minerals, the pollution of our air and water, and the mindless disregard to other species of life on earth has become startlingly evident. A long overdue realization seems to be developing: if you destroy the environment, you destroy yourself. It remains to be seen if this realization can spread far and deep enough to stop and reverse the damage before major breakdown in the systems create global disasters.


For the purposes of the artist and designer the definition of design must be narrowed while still keeping in mind the “big picture” is where inspiration abides. Visual design can be defined as the organization of elements and materials to achieve a purpose.

The first part of our definition is organizing which could also be termed planning or ordering.  Artists and designers take many approaches to this process.  Some develop strict guidelines and procedures, moving through a plan step by step. A painter might start with extensive research of his subject, then execute thumbnail sketches, then larger rough sketches, then refined drawings, then color studies or preliminary paintings before beginning the final work. Another painter might begin by directly applying paint to the final work, consciously eliminating all planning, hoping for maximum spontaneity.  Other artists might take approaches anywhere between or even more extreme in either direction. Artists find the planning method that best suits their nature and their needs.

The second part of the definition deals with elements that are to be organized.  These elements are the visual elements: line, space, shape, mass, value, color, and texture. These are the components that make up our visual experience. They are what must be organized by the designer to create a visual experience. They are the content of the design.

The materials of our definition are the physical substances that manifest the elements. The line, shape, colors, etc. are manifest in paint on canvas, graphite on paper, light on a video screen, clay, stone, or hundreds more materials that the artist can use as a vehicle for the visual elements.  The materials the artist uses can be chosen by himself or a client or dictated by the needs of a project. If an artist works a great deal with a chosen material, a kind of bonding can occur between material and artist.  A famous example is Michelangelo claiming that his works were already existing inside each block of marble and that it was his job to release them. To a lesser or in some cases maybe a greater, degree this kind of relationship develops with many artists and their materials.  The smell of cut wood, the texture of the clay, the touch of the yarn, the favorite brush or tool; all can become part of the addicting nature of making art. To become the true master of a material is to know the material so well that conscious thought is no longer given to it; it is second nature. It is more than mastery; it is the materials becoming part of the artist.

Our final part of the definition of visual design is that the organization of the elements and materials are supposed to achieve a purpose. At first this might seem a rather confining aspect of the definition. To achieve a purpose sounds very functional and utilitarian, and many times design is just that.  Machines, utensils, furnishings, clothing, shelters, vehicles must all conform their designs to their functions to a greater or lesser extent.  The range of these functional designs is endless in their possible variations.  Think of the various designs of drinking vessels you are aware of; then imagine how many you must be unaware of. The design of a drinking vessel is confined by the need to produce something that will contain a liquid which can be transported to a human mouth, but confining limitations give way to the unending variety of creative design. The achievement of a purpose does not always need to be so explicit or functional at all. Purposes can also be very subjective.  An artist’s goal might be to create an illusion or a decoration. It might also be to evoke a feeling or to stimulate thought. The purpose might be to pass the time of the artist or to act as personal therapy.  All are legitimate purposes in designing.  Some purposes may be accessible to many people; others might be limited to very few.  The purpose of a work of art shouldn’t be limited to one interpretation. One of the great attributes of visual art is its open-ended nature; many people can bring their own experiences to a work of art and come away with something new and personal.

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