The Basics of Design in Framing
by Michele J. Emerson-Roberts 2005



If the thought of designing and framing your own art work or objects of art that you have collected is a scary idea that puts you into a panic, rest assured it is much easier then you think. The design process isn't difficult for anyone to achieve. Whether we are matting and framing a piece of art work, memorabilia or photo, or designing a special card, scrapbook page or the interior of a room, the things to consider are the same.

To make the process less complicated and to help you achieve a clear understanding of what goes into a good design and what needs to be  kept out, I will list common design terms along with a description of what  those terms mean.

The word 'design' has several meanings. In the narrowest sense of  the word, it may refer to the pattern, surface treatment or genre of an object.  For example, a paisley pattern, tapestry woven surface, or Victorian genre.  In framing the word 'design' refers to the organization of materials into  a unified aesthetic form.

There is a distinct difference between art and design. Art is part of an aesthetic experience in which the main purpose is to communicate something  to the viewer and perhaps arouse a response. Visual design in framing also  has an explicit purpose: it must to relate to, not conflict with, the art  it surrounds. For example, you shouldn't put a rustic barn wood frame on  a watercolor of a delicate crystal vase of flowers sitting on a lace table  cloth, or a heavily carved gold leaf frame on a Native American still life.  Neither would relate to the art.

To understand design, we need an understanding of the Elements of  Design, the Principles of Design and the Factors of Design.

The Elements of Design

The seven basic elements of design are considered to be the raw materials  of the design equation that will come together to create a finished presentation.  The elements of design are:

1. Line. Line is the most fundamental element of design. It is the  most powerful basis for our most creative stimulus. Lines may be either  objective, as in measurement and characteristic surface design, or subjective,  as in letterform expression or calligraphy. Line enriches the surface without  necessarily changing the essential flatness of the item. Lines can be narrow or wide, thick or thin, straight or curved, light or dark, erratic or controlled,  and it can proceed in any direction. Line can stimulate a visual response  and/or create movement. A line may be perceived either as a connection between  two points or as the contour of a shape.

2. Shape. When a line is closed, it becomes a shape. There are four  basic categories of shape. Natural shapes make up all of our environmental  surroundings, including plants, animals and humans and other shapes found  in nature. Some natural shapes may also be geometric. Geometric shapes are  triangles, squares, circles, rectangles, ovals, hexagons, etc., and are closely  related to architectural design. Abstract shapes are natural shapes that have been reduced to their essence. For example, Native Americans have converted  earth, animal and religious symbols into distinctive abstractions and patterns  with specific symbolic meanings. These abstract shapes are used in the creation  of their jewelry, weavings, paintings and pottery. Non-objective shapes are  those that do not originate in any recognizable shape or form. The shape  may have been inspired by a natural form; however the new shape no longer  resembles the original upon which it was based.

3. Size. In relation to frame design, size refers to the entire format  or to the amount of space devoted to line or shape.

4. Direction. The diagonal, vertical or horizontal thrust or visual movement of a design is its direction.

5. Color. The attribute of light reflected by objects, colors can change radically, depending on the background and/or color(s) placed next  to them. Color is the most expressive and emotional element of design.

6. Value (Tone), Intensity, Tint and Shade. Value or tone is the lightness  or darkness of a color. Intensity is the brightness or color saturation.  Tint refers to color modified by the addition of white. Shade refers to color  modified by the addition of black.

7. Texture. The element of texture can be actual (tactile) - such as stitch patterns, fibers, embossed, de-bossed or carved areas on a mat  - or visual, the look of a tactile surface - such as a printed background  pattern or marbled paper.

The Principles of Design

The eight principles of design guide the use of the design elements.

1. Harmony exists when all elements are related.
2. Contrast is formed by visual opposites that create tension or diversity.
3. Unity is the coherent organization of visual elements. Contrast must be present, with dominance to resolve it.
4. Dominance refers to features emphasized through strength of repetition,  color, weight, size or value.
5. Balance is the equilibrium between opposing forces and is probably  the strongest underlying principle.
6. Repetition is a recurrence of motif, contour, line, shape or  color.
7. Alternation deals with a sequence of design elements repeated in  turn.
8. Gradation is a slow sequential change from one condition to another  which can be applied to any of the design elements.

The Factors of Design

The thirteen factors of design need to be taken into consideration when framing. Some are an extension of the elements and principles of design.  

1. Form: a flat solid or shape which gives the illusion of being three-dimensional.
2. Emphasis/Focal Point: an area of emphasis. There may be more than  one, but too many cause confusion.
3. Composition: a structure or plan of shapes and directions of lines  of a visual arrangement.
4. Proportion: the comparative relationship between elements which  makes our world ordered and recognizable.
5. Perspective: the illusion of creating deep space by making a two-dimensional surface appear three-dimensional. Aerial perspective is achieved  through value gradation. Linear perspective is created by converging  lines.
6. Rhythm: a flow or meter produced by repetition, alternation or gradation of visual regulated units.
7. Scale: the ratio between the dimensions of a representation and  those of the object itself.
8. Negative Space: blank spaces around and between the image and the  margin.
9. Medium: the material used to produce a work. The plural is Media,  the combination of two or more materials and/or techniques used to produce  a work.

10. Symmetry:
a balance of like compositional units.
11. Asymmetry: balance in which equal forces have dissimilar color,  shape or combinations of weights.
12. Bilateral Symmetry: mirror image, as in the case of a butterfly  or the human body.
13. Radial Symmetry: a circular balance as in a snowflake, daisy or  starfish which occurs in nature.
Review these terms, and think about what they mean, as applied to  framing. In my next column, we will put them into practice by viewing, designing  and framing a piece of art.




2007 Michele J. Emerson-Roberts

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