Friday, July 24, 2009

A definition of design

Fredrick Leighton, Flaming June
image from

When I set out to write this blog, my intent was to write down everything I knew about painting. As it progressed I found I was writing a lot about design.

What design means is human intent. Without deliberate intent there is no design. While nature may be arranged in a matter you find attractive,that is not design. Design is an action taken by a human. If you are yourself manipulating the appearance of that before you, you are designing, if you are not, you are transcribing.

I am not arguing that nature isn't beautiful or inspiring. There is a word that is often thought to be synonymous with design and that is composition. But it is not the same thing. It is important not to conflate the two. You may find your composition in nature. You must create a design yourself. That difference is why you have never heard me use the word composition. I always refer to design. Composition refers to the arrangement of something, which it may come by naturally, design refers to a selection and arrangement process by an artist making choices.

I think it is important here to define our terms. Words have meanings. Someone recently argued against using the dictionary definition of design in favor of their own. Were we all to do that we would no longer have a common language with which to communicate. Moreover it would be impossible for me to speak on those occasions when I couldn't reach that person to define my words for me. As the dictionary is constantly accessible and its use is widely accepted in literate circles I hereby establish it as the final arbiter of the exact meaning of words on this blog. When I use the word design, I mean the following:

here follows the definition of design from If you will read through that, I will meet you at the bottom.
–verb (used with object) 1. to prepare the preliminary sketch or the plans for (a work to be executed), esp. to plan the form and structure of: to design a new bridge. 2. to plan and fashion artistically or skillfully. 3. to intend for a definite purpose: a scholarship designed for foreign students. 4. to form or conceive in the mind; contrive; plan: The prisoner designed an intricate escape. 5. to assign in thought or intention; purpose: He designed to be a doctor. 6. Obsolete. to mark out, as by a sign; indicate. –verb (used without object) 7. to make drawings, preliminary sketches, or plans. 8. to plan and fashion the form and structure of an object, work of art, decorative scheme, etc. –noun 9. an outline, sketch, or plan, as of the form and structure of a work of art, an edifice, or a machine to be executed or constructed. 10. organization or structure of formal elements in a work of art; composition. 11. the combination of details or features of a picture, building, etc.; the pattern or motif of artistic work: the design on a bracelet. 12. the art of designing: a school of design. 13. a plan or project: a design for a new process. 14. a plot or intrigue, esp. an underhand, deceitful, or treacherous one: His political rivals formulated a design to unseat him. 15. designs, a hostile or aggressive project or scheme having evil or selfish motives: He had designs on his partner's stock. 16. intention; purpose; end. 17. adaptation of means to a preconceived end. Origin: 1350–1400; ME designen <> 1. To conceive or fashion in the mind; invent: design a good excuse for not attending the conference. 2. To formulate a plan for; devise: designed a marketing strategy for the new product. 2. To plan out in systematic, usually graphic form: design a building; design a computer program. 3. To create or contrive for a particular purpose or effect: a game designed to appeal to all ages. 4. To have as a goal or purpose; intend. 5. To create or execute in an artistic or highly skilled manner. 1. To make or execute plans. 2. To have a goal or purpose in mind. 3. To create designs. 1. A drawing or sketch. 2. A graphic representation, especially a detailed plan for construction or manufacture. 3. A reasoned purpose; an intent: It was her design to set up practice on her own as soon as she was qualified. 4. Deliberate intention: He became a photographer more by accident than by design. 2. The purposeful or inventive arrangement of parts or details: the aerodynamic design of an automobile; furniture of simple but elegant design. 3. The art or practice of designing or making designs. 4. Something designed, especially a decorative or an artistic work. 5. An ornamental pattern. See Synonyms at figure. 6. A basic scheme or pattern that affects and controls function or development: the overall design of an epic poem. 7. A plan; a project. 1. A reasoned purpose; an intent: It was her design to set up practice on her own as soon as she was qualified. 2. Deliberate intention: He became a photographer more by accident than by design. 9. A secretive plot or scheme. Often used in tHe has designs on my job.
Here I am again:
I am guessing you didn't read all of that, but the first few entries make the point. I ran it all not to be a wise guy, but because if I were to truncate it, someone could say that I presented only the definitions that served my purpose, so you got it in it entirety.
What all of these have in common is they are deliberate acts taken by a thinking mind. There is nothing in these definitions that gives any idea that design may preexist your selective action.Therefore design is a human act and not a quality of nature, I am going to stand by that statement.

It is entirely possible to make a picture with very little design, It might even be possible to make a picture with no design. To make a picture with very little design you may project a photograph onto your canvas and copy it as exactly as is possible. Since you cropped the photograph and framed the picture in your lens there is some design, but not much.

You can also make a camera of yourself, A MEAT CAMERA. You can stand in front of nature and paint it as exactly as you can, you will of course crop the scene, but that may be all the designing you do. Design implies choice and selection. If you do no selection and make no choices you are not designing

Oddly enough. there was a school of thought in the 1960's and early 70's that sought to do exactly that. They tried to remove their conscious choices from the artmaking process by making all of their decisions via randomizing methods. They would throw dice or draw slips of paper from a hat to decide each step in the making of their art, Complicated systems were invented to do this, Many fine teaching jobs were acquired in the process.

Marian said;
Try looking at it this way: Nature (the toy chest) has every shape and size of "building" blocks. The blocks we choose, the blocks we don't choose are all in response to what is observable and what we want people to see.Those building blocks become our structure all from nature. After structure there is design (refinement of structure) and decoration. It is good that we as artists have limits. That is what makes a painting our personal vision that we choose share with the viewer.

I like that, and have thought similar things myself. The materials from which to build our painting are laid out before us in nature, but we must pick them up and build with them.The choices we make about how to do that, are design. Just as nature provides us the materials to build a house, we must select through them, choosing that which is useful to us, modifying them to suit our purposes and then decide how to assemble them into a house. Incidentally, Emerson defined nature as "not me".

Gregory said:
I know when I experience something that I would like to share with someone else, it's usually a deeper emotion. If I am trying to incorporate too much in terms of design than the initial reason for painting, I fear, will cause that emotion to slip away from me and that's the part I wanted to share in the first place. My emotions choose my subject. There is already a design in my emotions that points toward beauty. If I try to overwrite that I lose interest. So, how do you design while keeping the original emotional intent? I honestly don't know. I do, however, sense a danger that I am unable to articulate.

Gregory. Design is a tool to make it easier to get that emotion from you to the viewer. What you are feeling matters not at all in art, only what you express. By making decisions about how your painting will look you are exercising more expression that if you allow it to be dictated to you by slavishly copying nature or a photograph without adding your own "spin". Incidentally I have been to your web site and seen your art. It is clearly designed and expressive, I can't imagine you not making your own arrangements. Your work seems to me, to be about their arrangement. Apologies if I am wrong, I am aware I am out on a limb when I try to speak for another artists intentions rather than their results.

Jeremy asked;
How do you see design effecting figure drawing? A big part of design is simplification, but you also mention actually moving things about into a more pleasing arrangement. You can't do this with a nose or eye. How do they same principles apply

Good question, good figurative work is characterized by good design. I have illustrated this entire post with figurative paintings chosen to show strongly evident design, either in the handling of the stylization of the figures or in the case of this Leighton, the manner in which the figures are arranged across the picture plane. Assembling a work of this sort calls for an enormous amount of design skill. Making a painting like this is probably beyond the abilities of anyone alive today.

Fredrick Leighton, Captive Andromache

Malcolm Liepke is having a show at Arcadia gallery this month, his paintings are a good example of how a fine designer handles the figure. Generally you may refrain from moving the nose around or adding extra eyes, but there are lots of decisions to be made about arrangement. We have all seen the result of undesigned figure work, the tired, matter of fact rendition of some bored model from a figure class, rendered accurately but not endearingly. In fact unless you design some rhythm and flow into a figure drawing it will be stiff and inhuman. Mindlessly copying the figure without concern for its form or anatomy gives a stiff and uninteresting, unconvincing figure. I call that look;


Seeing as I have been a little confrontive this evening, and have even told some of you that I feel you are wrong, I will end things on a lighter note. Every day after I write the blog I go to Facebook and enter a sort of notice that I have written another post. I do this in order to build a little more traffic. I began claiming to include outrageous or ridiculous content in order to capture peoples attention. Here are a few examples of those that I have posted recently.

Some things you won't see in nature, and ancient yogurt amphorae salvaged for the contemporary treacle industry

Post on steelyard compositions. Also a rare map of reflexology temples in 12th century Missouri.

New post on diagonal compositions. Also dental office rodent color preferences.

New post on underpainting. Also cosmetics for farm animals and fish.

New post about design, and an amazing story of a Guinea pig that can do long division on an abacus.

New post, its a demo , Also I learned the unsettling truth about geoducks.

Artists and attitude. Also crafty bivalves dug from solid rock.

New post on being the artist at the opening. Also discreet personal advice for the easily led.

Promoting a show Also hundreds of rabid lemurs frantically paddling leaking gutta percha liferafts through 50 foot waves.

I have a new post on doing shows and paintstripper haircuts you can do at home.

Gee, I was going to be nice today too.... tomorrow I will post a picture of some baby animals, or maybe some wax fruit


kev ferrara said...

That was a great (and hilarious) post.

I've also run into the problem of definitions. It seems almost every book on art worth its salt defines some terms in a unique way. And that particular definitional shade is often illuminating... but a cul de sac when taken in the grand scheme of art book teaching.

So, on design vs. compose...

So, in your estimation, is to "compose" to merely select those elements which are to be used in the design? I don't think this would coincide with the use of the word compose in music or writing. Would it?

I would guess that the Webster's definition of Composition would generally overlap with the definition of Design.

I was never one for putting Dictionaries on pedestals. If Dictionaries follow popular usage, and popular usage generally erodes meaning over time, by the law of "garbage in garbage out", Dictionaries are inevitably compromised.

Thank you for the wonderful blog...


Richard J. Luschek II said...

Great post.
It is all about design! I think that is what is missing in today's realist art. Lots of great, technical painting being done, not much design. Lovely figures paintings, but there is more to design than making sure you get the pretty girl's butt roughly in the middle of the canvas. Also, half of the realists paintings being done look as if their competition is a camera. I have always joked that photorealists were painters too stupid to know when to quit.
I agree with your post completely. Though I will say, as Kev has said, I often have described composition in art to students by using the music example. 'you are composing a symphony. Just because you know all the notes, does not mean you have to play them all, and you can arrange them in a pleasing was. You can even leave most of them out.'
So, if you think musically, or as if you are writing a letter, does not composition have a meaning similar to design?

Funny, I remember the wasted years in college studying art. The term semantics came up all the time in crits of the terrible work on the wall. People would fight over words and someone would always whip out the ole', 'that is just semantics!'
Interestingly some art students started a gallery in town called Semantics. It shows pretty typical, awful, art school garbage, but some people may have issue with me using those terms. It is mere semantics really.

Back to art being done today, I have had issue with how people are composing, of course I am often baffled as to whether I have any idea how do design myself, but I think design is the last thing you get in your training and in your career. You can learn to draw, learn color, but not be good at design. I think that there are two problems, the new realist movement is itself young, so it will get better- I hope. Second, we have developed a lot of bad habits- bad taste, by looking at tons of bad photos. We are bombarded by terrible design- or lack of any design. Especially in America.
If you visit old European cities, they are filled with great designs. Here, not so much. Your typical teenager is not immersed in good design or art when they go to the strip mall.

I am going to get back to reading my dictionary now.

Jo-Ann Sanborn said...

Hee, hee, hee, You enlighten me and make my day. Thanks!

Philip Koch said...

Your list of your Facebook entries is a hoot!

Bob Carter said...

I think you make a very good point in distinguishing design from composition, but there is overlap. My unabridged Webster’s dictionary gives the following 5th definition of compose as used in art: to organize the parts or elements of (a picture or the like). I think you would agree that this is part of design, but not the whole of it. What seems to be missing is the selection that makes design. To me, that selection processes, if done well, can result in an effective composition (design). I used to be a serious photographer, who took great care to try to find good composition in a scene. But I became frustrated and decided to be a painter mainly because I could not select the elements of my design as completely as I wanted. As you point out, cropping is the principal means of selection in photography (aside from selective focus), and you can only take that so far. Note how many art photographs that work are close ups that render objects as abstract patterns, precisely because that is one surefire way to get a good composition. Of course with Photoshop there are more options, but even with that there are serious limits. Now I only use photography to capture the elements of a scene and some of the rudiments of the composition (old habits die hard), but when I translate that into a painting, nothing is sacred. Objects are deleted or added, played up or down, moved about, shaded or lit, changed in color, etc., etc. But if the end result looks like a photograph, I feel I have failed. (I am totally in agreement with Richard’s comments about photorealistic painting!)
The 6th definition of compose in my dictionary pertains to music: to create (a literary, musical, or choreographical work). I am also a classically trained (amateur) composer, principally of liturgical choral music. Nothing could be more about design than musical composition. In tonal writing there are certain rules one needs to recognizing (e.g., not moving adjacent voices in parallel fifths, not doubling the third of a major chord, not separating the treble voices beyond an octave, ...), but virtually everything about the piece is subject to the choices of the composer, even to violating the usual harmonic rules. There is no pre-existing reference, like the scene one is painting in a landscape. It is a very abstract of intellectual activity, yet carried out within generally accepted boundaries.
The 7th definition of compose in my dictionary is this: to end or settle (a quarrel, dispute, etc.). On that note, I think I should end.
-Bob said...

Goodness.I am glad that I know what composition is, in a painting. I am glad that I know what design is, in a painting. And I thank Stapleton that I know the difference. Rubber meets the road.

DennyHollandStudio said...

Good post! As a designer, it's all about editing and making choices and in my painting I do the same, no matter what the subject matter may be. Keep up the good work, I'm really enjoying your posts (and your art).

Deb said...

yeah, bummer about those geoducks.

"ulsemahe" ehameslu backwards... or is that just semantics?

Stapleton Kearns said...

i have some sort of a keyboard problem tonight on my NEW computer. I have a bout 4 keys all clustered together that will not work.The one that is irking me the most is I cant tye a p. so I am pasting them in.This is drivinfg me NUTS. I will take the unit in and have it fixed, but for tonight it is hard to write effectively. I did buy the warrantee. So I guess I am covered.
Now about your question.
The imortant thing about the word design id that it is deliberate and not had by observation. Composition is an overlaping word form sure but its definition seems to include the naturally occurring besides the planned. The word refers to the combination of two or more elements. Thats why you might describe the composition of a metal or a group of people.
I am not sure about the use of the word in music or writing.I cant am not a musician or a writer so I cant speak about those. But the difference in art as I see it is one of intent.You must decide how the thing is to look, you cannot find an arrangement already existing in nature that will make a successful painting.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The longer I paint, the more it is about design,when I see a panting at a distance I judge it by its design and when I come close to it, no amount of detail can improve a bad design.
photorealism is not art. Art is human, photorealim is the work of a machine. Even if a human hand does that machines bidding.
I bet when we get workable androids they will make and collect photorealism!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you so much.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks. Phillip is having a major show at the Cape Cod Museum of Art and six other museums. here is a a link to that!
Congrats .............Stape

willek said...

Okay, so, we have design and composition. What about other qualities that paintings can have. What about other functions they can perform. What about pictures that make connections to the viewer (and which viewers), that are relevent to someone's moment, that are involved with narration, or that evoke some emotion or other like nostalgia, excitement,eroticism or those that touch a nerve or that shock or that are repulsive, etc, etc. There are connections between design and composition and the above mentioned qualities. It seems to me that to seperate ourselves from the pack, we must be able to instill those qualities in our work. Working realistically is probably not the only way to do it, but it is probably the best way. The Malcolm Leipke paintings you put us onto today got me thinking about this. You would have to be a statue to not be moved in one way or another by those pictures. Maybe you can touch on some of these connections sometime. Charlie Dunn's book "Conversations in Paint" touches on a lot of this in a simple but entertaining way, but your slant as a landscapist would be helpful, and I'm sure Ives must have had something to say on the matter.

grotione= Italian for a large Tione (Pron: tee-OH-nay). which is a super sweet Italian pastry.


Stapleton Kearns said...

The point I am out to make is that there must be intent, There is, I guess no danger of the composer of liturgical music copying unimaginatively from nature.I am afraid I may be moving adjacent voices in parellel fifths.I guess In would known it if I was, right.Is there a patch for that.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thankyou, there seems to be a lot of dissent out there. My oint remains though. You must decide on what the painting will look like and not mindlessly transcribe it from nature.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thank you. I bet all of this talk about design is a review for you. It is something you deal with every day, I guess.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Have you seen one of those Geoducks. I looked em up.Disgusting.
ulsemahe Hawaiian pig Latin for mulse

Stapleton Kearns said...

I will have to think about that. I am the last guy to ask about narrative, I know a lot of folks are real interested in that. I am not. I am way too hung up on what the painting actually looks like. there are other ways to connect with the viewer to be sure,Color of course, and nostalgia as you mentioned.I think Inness proved that you can connect to a viewer using only design and color without much narrative content.

Simone said...

Stapleton, I got behind a couple of days reading your blogs. That's why I am commenting on an old post. I don't know much about Blogger sites but I wonder if there is a or hellotxt plug-in you could use that would notify social networks, such as facebook and twitter, when you make a new post?