Defining the Building Blocks of Design


In a previous article, we discussed the creation of photographic compositions using the Building Blocks of Design:  Line, Shape, Form, Texture, Pattern and Color.  At the time, I didn’t dwell on what specifically each building block really is, as it wasn’t essential to understanding their use.  My goal was to get an idea in your head and then dissect each building block.  Sometimes, I feel it’s best to scratch the surface and then get into the details.  It looks like it’s time for the details.  So in short order, I’m going to explain each Building Block and explain why each is important:

Line – Line is nearly a building block of its own.  You cannot isolate any of the other elements without accounting for lines.  Every other element is defined in some way by lines.  Even color will require an edge in order to be communicated to the viewer.  Line is what leads our eyes around a photograph, but it can also lead us off the page.  Whether or not the lines are part of your photograph, you need to be aware of them all times.  Lines have the power to shape an image, but it also has the power to break a photograph.

dtn_-_Light_TowerShape – Shape is any space or surface that is enclosed by lines.  Shapes do not have to be simple, nor do they have to be recognizable.  Just remember that there are shapes on both sides of a line.  In other words, shapes also make up the negative space – the areas that aren’t a part of your subject.  Sometimes the shapes created by the negative space are more important than the subject itself.

Form – Form is a tangible element in a three-dimensional space.  It is comprised of shapes and lines.  Generally, I like to think that if it can be identified and if it has definition, it is a form.  Sometimes you may wish to deconstruct a form into shapes and lines by repositioning your camera or getting closer to the subject.

All Between Us And The SkyTexture – Texture is the quality of a surface.  It can be soft, jagged, rough, bumpy and so on.  In photography, texture is communicated through its interaction with light.  In photography, texture is dynamic:  it can be extrapolated from side lighting, or it can be dampened with direct lighting.  It is also capable of changing the viewer’s emotional connection to an image as we all have preconceived notions about texture:  Soft is welcoming, Rough is not.

Pattern – Pattern is a repetition of any other building block.  Symmetrical patterns are, of course, easy to identify.  But pattern can be chaotic as well, like candy spread out on a table.

Bridge TravelsColor – Color is the hues and shades reflected off of a surface.  It is the most emotional of the building blocks as color affects us all at deeply.  In fact, we describe many emotions in terms of color:  Green with envy, red hot with rage, blue and depressed.  We conceptualize blues as cold and uninviting and reds and yellows as warm and welcoming.  Color is incredibly powerful, so powerful that if we remove all the colors and revert to shades of grey, the entire emotion of the shot has changed.  Color can both highlight and obscure all other building blocks.  Changing the color of a shot can even prevent us from identifying the subject.  As a photographer, we look for colors that are unexpected:  Green and red Skies, vibrant colored buildings, pale eyed individuals.  It is for this reason that many photographers focus on color before any other element.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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