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Understanding Design & Layout: The 3 Levels of Visual Syntax, Gestalt Theory & Visual Techniques

by Diana Stutz

Visual syntax are the guidelines for constructing compositions. Basic elements of visual syntax and their manipulative techniques can be learned and understood by anyone interested in visual media to create clear visual messages.

There are three levels of visual syntax or data. Learned like a language, the first is SYMBOL which identifies actions, organizations, moods, and directions. The second is REPRESENTATIONAL which is visual matter recognized in the environment and replicated in artistic form. Representational visual data is governed by experience and deals with things we can not experience directly through visual media. The third is ABSTRACT which is everything we see, natural or composed for intended effects.

Visual symbols and knowing how they function and how they are understood contributes to the understanding of their application to communication.

In visual communication vs. language there is no decoding to delay comprehension. Seeing a process is sometimes enough to understand it. We trust our eyes and successful learning is achieved quickly through object observation.

Abstract or understructure is elemental in composition and communicates pure visual message. Everything we see and design is composed of these basic visual elements.

A key theory of visual syntax is the Gestalt Theory.
Gestalt Theory is best described in two parts. The first is that the parts of a visual image may be considered, analyzed, and evaluated as distinct components. The second is the understanding that the whole of the visual image is different from and greater than the sum of its parts.

Gestalt Theory is comprised of five principals.

  1. Figure Ground: Allows us to "read" imagery
  2. Closure: Closed shapes are more stable than unclosed shapes. We have a natural tendency to close gaps and complete an unfinished form.
  3. Continuation: Organization in perception leads the eye to continue along and beyond a straight line or curve
  4. Proximity: Perceptual grouping is favored according to the nearness of parts. Closer parts form groups by visually uniting.
  5. Similarity: Identical visual units will be seen together in groups. Similar objects are defined by shape, size, color, and direction

With Gestalt Theory in mind, design is the process of making wholes out of parts or grouping images to make one design to be recognized as a whole. I like to think of this as one note vs. the full composition and beauty of a full melody. Composition is defined as a whole composed of parts. These parts in design are color, tone, texture, dimension, proportion, and compositional relationships. Art and design yields an aesthetic experience which gives deep satisfaction and what most of us have in the presence of beauty.

The basic elements or toolbox of all visual communication include:

  1. Dot: pointer, marker of space, minimal unit
  2. Line: the fluid, articulation of form
  3. Shape: planar and dimensional, basic shapes are circles, squares, triangles and include endless variations and combinations
  4. Tone: presence or absence of light
  5. Color: coordinate of tone with added component of chroma, the most emotional and expressive visual element
  6. Texture: optical or tactile, surface character of visual materials
  7. Scale or Proportion: relative size and measurement
  8. Dimension & Motion: both as frequently implied as expressed

Bringing everything together takes experience, diligence, and skill. There are visual techniques that help create successful compositions. It is through the energy of these techniques that the character of a visual solution takes form.

Visual Techniques:

  • Contrast: most dynamic technique, opposite to the technique of Harmony
  • Instability --> Balance
  • Asymmetry --> Symmetry
  • Complexity --> Simplicity
  • Fragmentation --> Unity
  • Intricacy --> Economy
  • Exaggeration --> Understatement
  • Spontaneity --> Predictability
  • Activeness --> Stasis
  • Boldness --> Subltey
  • Accent --> Neutrality
  • Transparency --> Opacity
  • Variation --> Consistency
  • Distortion --> Accuracy
  • Depth --> Flatness
  • Juxtaposition --> Singularity
  • Randomness --> Sequentiality
  • Sharpness --> Diffusion
  • Episodcity --> Repition

Finally, all of these elements, theories, principals, and techniques can be brought together to create unique and creative visual solutions which should be governed by intended meaning and posture through style, persona, and culture.

I found the best way to gain a firm grasp of these ideas is to start sketching and observe various relationships first hand by creating simple layouts using the elements of composition and playing with their relationships. Try to create powerful compositions using the visual techniques with simple shapes and lines. I've done thousands of these and learned so much by trying to achieve an emotional responsive compositions.

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