Rules and Context
March 20, 2007
Among the more counterintuitive characteristics of art and design is the fact that these endeavors are governed by rules. The rules of artistry (and therefore design) are inviolate and unchanging. If you don’t obey the rules, your results will be boring, uninspiring, uncommunicative, and less than compelling. In short: poor art or poor design.
Don’t believe me? You’re in good company. Many people, artists and designers among them (professionals even), don’t understand these rules and don’t believe that there could be unchanging, all-powerful rules in design, much less in art. In fact, many who first took up art or design as their avocation and perhaps later as their vocation did so in search of a sense of freedom, based on the idea that “rules don’t apply.” There would seem to be no place for rigid rules in such creative and inspiration–fueled endeavors. But what seems often differs from what is.
The rules describe what you must do and must not do in order to connect with your audience. In other words, rules define the characteristics of effective communication. Now, it might seem that there are far too many different ways to communicate with people than would be accounted for by a bunch of rigid rules. So it is clear that something in all of this is not so rigid; something is quite flexible. But it is not the rules. The rules don’t change because they’re based on fundamental human behaviors, habits, and perceptions.
If not for context, design would be an incredibly simple (and boring and worthless) endeavor. Anyone could be a designer, as they’d only need to learn a few dozen concrete rules.
On a very fundamental level, there are things that human beings perceive as being beautiful, engaging, disturbing, interesting, easy to understand, threatening, happy, feminine, strong, melancholy, complicated, weak, etc… Within certain constants (a culture, for instance), these perceptions are consistent and provide the foundation for the rules of communication. The fundamentals of artistry (and by extension, design) are beholden to the various characteristics of line, form, color, tempo, and texture that express these values graphically, aurally, kinetically, and poetically. Yes, the rules are identical for graphic design, acting, poetry, music, dance …or for any art form.
For instance, one communicative fundamental is that angular lines and forms are indicative of strength, masculinity, and/or speed. Conversely, rounded lines and forms are indicative of femininity, softness, and a more languid tempo. Those are the rules; they’re fixed and unchanging. However, this does not mean that rounded lines and forms may not be utilized in a design effort that is concerned largely with a masculine theme.
“Wait!” you might protest, “What do you mean? What about the rules!?” Yes, something has to change in order for fundamentally feminine elements to be advisable in a masculine theme. It’s not the rules that change, but rather context.
If not for context, design would be an incredibly simple (and boring and worthless) endeavor. Anyone could be a designer, as they’d only need to learn a few dozen concrete rules. But context gums up the works. Context is a highly disruptive element in communication and the primary reason why creativity and concept have such value in design. Context would seem to change the rules on us from project to project, but as I mentioned before the rules do not change. Rather, context defines which rules are relevant and which are not.
For instance, let’s look at a couple of instances where not all of the rules impact any given attempt at communication.
On a monitor, white text on a black background is more difficult to read and makes for a less comfortable experience than dark text on a light background.
There is only a small amount of copy.
When the context is such that one only needs to read small snippets of copy, the degree of contrast involved becomes less important (or not important). For instance:
So while it would generally be a bad idea to present an article online with white text on a black background, using that combination for a short sequence of bulleted statements, a short blurb, a small paragraph, etc… is generally fine and could be quite effective in the overall communication.
Images are more visually compelling than text.
Images saturate a composition.
A humans’ visual attention is most efficiently captured with an image, as we see here. The image is far more compelling than the text copy:
However, in the next example, the context is such that images saturate the area to the point of monotony, so by contrast the text is more compelling:
So I hope that these simple examples help to illustrate (no pun intended) that while communication is beholden to the rules of human perception, those rules are beholden to context. I suggest you look for other examples of communication fundamentals seemingly contradicted, yet still effective. When you find them, work to understand the relevant context and how it manipulates the rules. Work to understand how the designer arrived at the specific design choice(s).
It’s not enough to understand the rules (fundamentals) of artistry. You’ve got to have a clear understanding of the relevant context(s) in order to be able to make design choices.
Art and Design
As an aside, you may note that I’ve used artistry and design interchangeably throughout this essay. And while there’s good reason for that, I want to clarify the difference between the two, as there are many who confuse these two endeavors. While design uses the very same fundamentals as artistry, these are two separate endeavors. The difference between them would seem to be slight or negligible, but again, what seems is not often what is.
In art, the artist has the freedom to define the message, the content, and the context. The artist may not choose to exert influence over all of these elements, but the choice is there nonetheless.
In design, one or more of these elements (message, content, and context) is defined for us. These are known as constraints. Artistry in the context of constraint is design, plain and simple. I hope this helps to clear up any misapprehensions on this front.