The Elements of Design
If you look up the term “Elements of Design” you are likely to find several different descriptions, but the essentials come down to this: Line, Shape, Value, Texture, Size, Space and Color. Of those elements, color is the only one that is not necessary, which is why we have line drawings and black and white photography. All of the other elements are essential in every artistic work, though they are not always featured.
We will talk about these elements in more detail in future posts, but I need to answer a question you may be asking yourself first: Why should I care? I mean, will knowing the ‘elements of design’ make me a better photographer. And the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”
Let me explain. As I have already stated, all of these elements except color are required for a good composition. However, they are not all equally on display in every composition. Very often we can improve our compositions by emphasizing one or more of the elements.
Alexander Calder understood the importance of shapes. As a matter of fact, he was so drawn to them that he spent his entire artistic career building mobiles where he could show them off. His work was original and powerful enough to garner his work a place in many of the world’s most prestigious museums. Here is an example:
With a few simple lines, and some unique shapes, Calder has created a powerful composition. Do the other elements, like texture and space still play a role? Certainly, but they take a back seat to shapes in his work. (I should add that the fact that this is a mobile means he has been able to add movement as another element we would not normally associate with our compositions unless we were shooting video.)
Let’s look at another example from a different artist. In this case the artist is Jasper Johns and this is an iconic image he created back in 1955.
OK, you say, I’ve seen things like this before. So why is this hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it’s just a flag. That’s true, but I would ask you to look a bit closer to see something you may have missed, the thing that excited the curator when he first saw it.
Johns used tissue paper and paste to building up layers of texture that contribute very subtly to the effect of this piece. It is hard to see from just a photograph (though the detail shot certainly helps) but standing in front of the image, the layers of texture are very apparent and the effect is powerful. With a very simple design that everyone knows, the American flag, Johns has communicated that the flag is more than a two dimensional decoration; it is a symbol with layer upon layer of meaning, much as his composition is layered with texture. In other words, a surprisingly simple design turns out to possess a for more powerful meaning through the masterful use of just one design element: texture.
Very often we are wise to ask ourselves if our compositions will improve if we emphasize one element or another. There will be times when it is not wise to feature one element over others, but then there are times, as in Philip Halsman’s portrait of Salvador Dali, that emphasizing an element, like line, can add tremendously to the power of the composition.
And isn’t that what we are looking for? Honestly, all of our photographs are compositions, some more successful than others. What we are looking for are compositions with meaning and power and the elements of design are among the best tools in our toolbox to make that happen.
Spend some time with each of the design elements. Choose just one element, like texture, and spend some time making sure you emphasize that one element in all your images. Spending time with each of these elements will add to your photographic arsenal without costing you a dime. In time you will be able to take several images of the same subject, each emphasizing a different element of the design. That is the beginning of mastery.