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

Visual syntax are the guidelines for building compositions. Anyone interested in visual media can learn and understand the basics of visual syntax and its manipulation techniques to create clear visual messages.

There are three levels of visual syntax or data. Learned like a language, the first is SYMBOL that identifies actions, organizations, moods and directions. the second is FIGURATIVE which is visual material recognized in the environment and replicated in artistic form. Representational visual data is driven by experience and deals with things that we cannot directly experience through visual media. the third is RESUME which is everything we see, natural or compounded for intended purposes.

Visual symbols and knowing how they work 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 quickly achieved through the observation of objects.

Abstract or understructure is elementary in the composition and communicates a pure visual message. Everything we see and design is made up of these basic visual elements.

A key theory of visual syntax is Gestalt theory.

Gestalt theory is best described in two parts. The first is that the parts of a visual image can 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 made up of five principles.

1. Earth figure

It allows us to “read” images

2. Close

Closed forms are more stable than unclosed forms. We have a natural tendency to close spaces and complete an unfinished form.

3. Continuation

Organization in perception leads the eye to continue along and beyond a straight line or a curve.

4. Proximity

Perceptual grouping according to the proximity of the parts is favored. The closest parts form groups visually joining.

5. Similarity

Identical visual units will be seen together in groups. Similar objects are defined by their shape, size, color, and direction.

With Gestalt Theory in mind, design is the process of making a whole from parts or putting images together to make a design that is recognizable as a whole. I like to think of this as a note vs. the complete composition and the beauty of a complete melody. Composition is defined as a whole made up of parts. These parts in design are color, tone, texture, dimension, proportion, and compositional relationships. Art and design produce an aesthetic experience that brings deep satisfaction and what most of us have in the presence of beauty.

The basic elements or toolbox of all visual communication include:

1 point: pointer, space marker, minimum unit

2. Line: the fluid, form joint

3. Shape: flat and dimensional, the basic shapes are circles, squares, triangles and include endless variations and combinations

4. Tone: presence or absence of light

5.Colour: tone coordinate with added chroma component, the most emotional and expressive visual element

6. Texture: optical or tactile character of the surface of visual materials

7. Scale or proportion: relative size and measure

8. Dimension and movement: both implied and expressed

Putting it all 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 shape.

Visual Techniques:

Contrast: more dynamic technique, opposite to the Harmony technique

Instability –> Balance

Asymmetry –> Symmetry

Complexity –> Simplicity

Fragmentation –> Unity

Complexity –> Economy

Exaggeration –> Understatement

Spontaneity –> Predictability

Activity –> Stasis

Boldness –> Subtlety

Accent –> Neutrality

Transparency –> Opacity

Variation –> Consistency

Distortion –> Accuracy

Depth –> Flatness

Juxtaposition –> Singularity

Randomness –> Sequentiality

Sharpness –> Diffusion

Episode –> Repetition

Ultimately, all of these elements, theories, principles, and techniques can be brought together to create unique and creative visual solutions that must be governed by intended meaning and posture through style, personality, and culture.

I’ve found that the best way to gain a firm understanding of these ideas is to begin drawing and observing various relationships firsthand by creating simple designs using the elements of the composition and playing with their relationships. Try to create powerful compositions using visual techniques with simple shapes and lines. I’ve done thousands of these and have learned a lot trying to achieve emotionally responsive compositions.

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