Skip to main content

art & design

Graphic Design Fundamentals: Form & Image

Lesson 1 of 5

Form & Image Toolbox

Timothy Samara

Graphic Design Fundamentals: Form & Image

Timothy Samara

buy this class


Sale Ends Soon!

starting under


Unlock this classplus 2000+ more >

Lesson Info

1. Form & Image Toolbox

Lesson Info

Form & Image Toolbox

We're beginning with form and image which is the kind of the underpinning of visual communication, that is, using signs of different kinds whether they're pictorial or non-pictorial, very, very illustrative, reductive, very abstract, to give a kind of distilled visualization for complex ideas. So the first thing that we want to be able to do is to be aware of the basic identity of different kinds of form and to appreciate all those different possibilities for their potential, in any kind of a given context. After that we want to be able to understand the effects of the medium that's used to actually make those forms whether it's painting or drawing, photography, printmaking, collage, and so on. And then we also want to be able to understand how stylizing an image moves it from being a kind of a neutral descriptive piece of information to become something that expresses higher level concepts that alters its meaning and the perception of its understanding. After that we're going to see h...

ow to alter interpretation through juxtaposition of images together, sequencing them, and then we'll be able to look at how that works to build narrative, tell stories, and to create visual metaphor. So the first thing we're gonna do is we're gonna open up the toolbox and check out what's inside. And first we have to understand what the basic identities of forms are. When I use the word form what I'm talking about is any kind of visual material which can include things like photography, illustrative drawing elements, painting, but any kind of abstract element, like a dot or a line, some kind of wacky squiggle, as well as even type forms all constitute form, that is, it's the stuff. And so, we have to talk a little bit about how each of those kinds of forms is generated and sort of what their special attributes are. You can really divide every kind of image element into a kind of a category. It's either made up of, or has the quality of, or may literally be either a dot, a line, or a plane. A dot is a focal point, it produces actually no sense of movement, it draws attention to itself. It marks position. Sometimes a dot can be used to kind of anchor other elements by being in alignment with them. But it has really no mass to speak of. A dot is an element that is relatively small, doesn't really have a particular kind of shape within the space of a format that's really perceptible. A line, on the other hand, is all about movement, it has a beginning and an ending point and our eyes track that line from end to end over and over again, so the line produces this kind of rhythmic sensation within the format, unlike the dot, it leads our eyes from one place to another and the line can also serve to function as either a separator that is dividing spaces from each other or other elements from each other and the line can also function as something that connects things, that brings disparate elements together that joins them across spaces. The plane is all about mass and its shape is its fundamental identity. If a dot is... Or, if a shape is small enough within a large format relative to the size of that format where its shape is kind of imperceptible it's still a dot. But as soon as that shape grows in size to the point where you can really kind of appreciate the fact that it is a particular kind of shape, it has certain kinds of contours, or angles, at that point it registers in our perception as a plane. The square is a very, very simple kind of a plane, four-sided, and its proportions are even. The proportions of the sides of planes, or whether those contours are even, regular or irregular, or geometric, or organic, all give greater specificity to the quality or the nature of that plane. So, dots can do things. They can create lines by being positioned next to each other. Any two dots within a composition no matter how far apart they are will create an invisible optical line between them. And they can also begin to create more clustered or dense kinds of shapes, as the dots aggregate, they actually take on a kind of a solidity or unity where you can appreciate the individual sort of focal moments of the dot as well as the overall shape that they kind of appear to enclose. Lines, as I noted before, are really about movement and rhythm and that rhythm can happen in a couple of different ways. In terms of, sort of rhythm from left to right, or along a string of parallel lines, rhythm has to do with the interval that occurs between each one. As the lines get closer, they create more of a solid tone, and also the perception that one is moving very rapidly between them as the distance between lines increases, time slows down. So that kind of slowing and speeding up, this compressing and opening, is very much a part of the intrinsic quality of composition that lines bring into any kind of a space. You also see here that these lines are of different weight whereas a dot really kind of only increases in size to create contrast, the line can not only change its shape, as you can see, but it can also change its density, that is, how thick is the line relative to its width... Or, to its length, rather. So here you see that some of these lines are much thinner or lighter in weight and two of them are bolder or heavier in weight. And those two elements which are bolder or heavier also appear to come forward in space. We perceive them as advancing whereas the lighter line elements, in contrast, appear to be receding in space, or moving away from us. Lines can change direction and they can change direction very, very rapidly, or in a kind of a slower progression as the line comes to each corner, the wider the angle is of kind of the attack around that joint, the kind of the slower our perception of movement is as the angle of a joint becomes more acute, or, if this were a curved line is that the radius of those curves as they became more acute and tighter we would feel a kind of a speeding up, as the curve becomes more generous, we feel a kind of a slowing down. Lines can also move in a very, very strict kind of order to grid-based way, and those kinds of different qualities of movement in the line are all very, very useful, and how you would make choices about those really depends on what you're trying to accomplish in terms of the feeling of a composition, where those lines are appearing. So here is a kind of an example the comparison of the dot to mass relationship or the dot to plane relationship. On the left you see a very, very small shape situated within a vast amount of negative space. And even though these are both the same shapes because the element is so small even though you can really tell that it's a triangle and the quality of that triangularity, its identity as a triangle, is really almost unimportant given that its size is so small so what's really happening here is that it's about how small this thing is, how it draws the eye to it relative to this tremendous amount of space in the format in which it exists. Now when that same shape enlarges to the point where we can actually tell that it's a... That it's a triangle, that's at the point where it becomes a plane and we're now conscious not only of its overall height to width proportion, we're conscious of the fact of its three angles. We're also conscious of the fact that the sides are different lengths. And we become able to recognize and perceive that the interval between its outer edges and the format in this case are actually different from each other. So there are a variety of different kinds of plane forms. You're probably all familiar with these simple things like the square, the triangle, the hexagon, the circle, the semi-circle, and the ellipse. Planes, on the other hand, can take on different qualities. Now they can be very, very simple kind of like the ones we just looked at and they can become rather complicated. As the contour increases in complexity and as the contour also moves from an outward or joined sort of external appearance, or a movement, or a tracking, and begins to kind of cut back into the mass you get some interesting kind of situations where this triangular form of the space actually now appears to be a solid object on top of the surrounding black form and that's a kind of an optical illusion that's called figure ground reversal. We're gonna talk about figure ground reversal and the relationship between positive form and negative space in much greater depth when we get to layout later in the afternoon. Now these two plainer forms are very, very different from each other. The one on the left is entirely geometric in character. That is, it is made entirely of square or angle-based configurations of plainer material. And even if we were looking at a form in comparison to the one on the right, such as a circle, the circle being, or the dot, the dot being absolutely perfect in terms of the relationship of the distance of its contour away from its central locus or focal point would also cause this to be interpreted as geometric. In contrast, the form on the right, we would refer to as organic, an organic plane, or an organic shape or form. And organicism generally has to do with irregularity, sometimes with curvilinearity, and with a great deal of difference occurring between the sort of the masses of its areas within its contours as well as changes in the kind of the simplicity or complexity of its contour and these are kinds of qualities that we find in objects that come from a natural source. Irregularity, disorder, and complexity are all intrinsically related to the natural world whereas geometry tends to be very, very regular, ordered, precise, and repetitive in its characteristics which speaks about something that's artificial or made by humans. There is yet another kind of a form element that is a sort of a not anything in particular at all and that is surface activity. That is within a plane or behind a plane, within an image, or behind an image, there can be a kind of a disturbance to the surface in which a number of very, very small elements, too small to really appreciate for their individual sort of shape characteristics are aggregated together or dispersed through the space in a kind of a field relationship. And so the simpler way of talking about that is that its texture. The word is texture, but, we have to be really specific when we're talking about texture because there are kind of two kinds. In these top three examples we would refer to these as textural simply because they appear to be somewhat... The form elements that make those fields appear to us to be relatively random, irregular, or organically dispersed, as though they've kind of occurred in nature or just sort of happened to be, there's no regular sort of rhyme or reason to their pattern the intervals between the actual form elements that create the texture are irregular themselves and where the textural elements kind of mass and separate from each other are also kind of happening in a more or less random way. In contrast, the bottom, we have a different kind of a service activity that we would characterize more particularly as pattern. And that means simply that the graphical elements that are creating the surface activity are arranged in regular and repeating intervals as though on purpose or by design. Very often those form elements also share a similar kind of shape characteristic that the form element itself doesn't happen to vary in its size or its weight and that it is arranged in a recognizably repetitive pattern. That can happen in both cases with either actual graphical elements. In these cases... In the case up at the top, these are really dots, and sometimes kind of linear elements or strings of dots together as this is also a pattern of lines, of graphical lines, but it can also happen photographically that that kind of fundamental activity on the surface of plainer objects in space on top of volumes is something that we can find in photographic material as well. So regardless of whether or not a photographic image consists of a subject matter that happens to be a building, or an automobile, or a sweater, in addition to its overall identity being built out of some kind of plainer forms it'll very often exhibit some kind of surface activity there's something that's also kind of filling that plainer shape area. So those are the kind of the basic building blocks. Every form element, every kind of image, no matter how complex or how realistic a depiction it happens to be of something that you can actually recognize from the real world is made up of those kinds of form elements. Sometimes in a very, very simple way and sometimes in a very, very complex way. And so we can move along to a discussion of different kinds of image content and to talk about depiction in general. So, images exist on a kind of a spectrum. At one end of that spectrum they are kind of journalistic, or descriptive, or literal in their depiction of objects, and scenes, and figures, that we see in the environment, that we encounter, as part of the natural world. And at the other end of the spectrum images are completely abstract or non-pictorial that is that they consist of form elements in some combination that does not refer to any kind of object, or scene, or figure, that we can identify. It doesn't necessarily mean that a non-pictorial or abstract image doesn't communicate something or represent something. So we never try to characterize abstraction or non-pictorial imagery as non-representational. And so we're gonna look at the distinction between those two. We're gonna start off with pictorial images because people are more familiar with those, we're comfortable looking at images that show us things that we can recognize in the world and other kinds of things are sometimes scary. So here we have a pictorial image of a fish, or actually four, and you'll see that these images vary greatly in their degree of naturalism, that is, how closely they replicate our perception of those objects in the real world. That is, for example, here, the photographic fish is about as literal a description of that fish as there can possibly be. It has an incredible amount of detail that detail is completely naturalistic and derived from direct observation or direct replication, reproduction of that image through light. And it is basically devoid of any kind of overlay, it's a very conceptual overlay, it is very neutral as an image, it only communicates what its subject is and nothing more and because it is so specific in its form because it is so naturalistic it's also talking very particularly about this particular species of fish having these particular proportions between head, mid-body, and tail. These particular organizations of fins. And a certain kind of luminous quality in the shading or tonality of its scales as affected by light. When we move to the image below it this is still a naturalistic depiction but we recognize that some of the detail has disappeared and that is not photographic it is actually an engraving or a drawing of a fish. In this case the drawing is an invention. It's a kind of... It is made from direct observation and its purpose is to describe that subject matter as clearly, hopefully, as does the photograph. But because it is an invented artistic expression it also deviates from probably true and sort of ultimate perfection in a literal kind of a depiction. We can see that there is a kind of rigidity to the kind of the contouring, that is that, the artist has simplified some of the detail along the outer edges. The artist has chosen to minimize certain kinds of complexity in the kind of the joint of the tail, to the body, as well as between the head area and the mid-section that follows it, after the neck. We don't see all of these kinds of intricate sort of wrinkles, these extra flaps for the gills, we see it as more or less a kind of a basic shape with a little bit of detail that is introduced to provide still some naturalistic volumetric quality to the depiction. So in terms of where these images fall on the spectrum between the literal or naturalistic and the abstract is that they're pretty much over here, the photograph is far against that edge of the spectrum as you can possibly get. The drawing is a little bit further this way, beginning to become abstract, it is a kind of a translation of the reality of the fish in a literal way, but it's not quite abstract yet. We turn our attention to the image of the fish at the upper right, we'll see that we recognize all of the same kinds of details or components of information that allow us to identify what this thing is but this thing is radically different than either of these two. This is what we would refer to as a highly-reductive or minimalized or edited kind of an image or drawing, it is an invention that translates fundamental details that are necessary for identification and then edits away all other extraneous matter. And the goal here in this kind of reductive image is to be able to transmit essentially the complexity of information that we require in order to identify the subject matter but in a much quicker, much bolder, and much more imprintable way on the viewer's mind. So, even so, this particular form, which we could refer to as a graphic translation, and this is a little bit, still, further down the spectrum, beginning to sort of exhibit some abstract qualities that is, that, these forms that define the contour have been kind of cleaned up a little bit, they've been kind of super simplified, they've been altered purposely by the designer in order to create a kind of an internal dialogue of visual relationships, of contrasts, of rhythmic movement, that is sometimes a little bit shorter, and quicker, and sometimes a little bit more long and drawn out for the purpose of giving it its own kind of invented visual life. It doesn't distract from our understanding of the fact of fishiness. And it doesn't introduce, again, any kind of overlay, any kind of additional meaning beyond somebody telling us, "I am a fish." But it is a kind of a... It's an abstraction, as all images really are, as this one begins to show us. So here we have an image that has kind of moved even further past a kind of a recognizable level of naturalism and has really edited down the information to the barest minimum of forms, in this case, a dot and two lines. It's only the joint of those two lines and the way those two lines cross with these particular proportions, the elliptical form that they create and the position of that dot towards the front end of the elliptical form that allows us to be able to interpret that image and very easily as the same subject matter as these others. So one of the things... One of the potentials of form that a designer always has is a decision to work with something that is highly-naturalistic, complex, and readily recognizable as real versus options that are highly reductive in nature that really create a kind of an icon of that form whereas this particular image describes only this particular species of fish in every single tiny minute detail that is a part of the truth of that particular species body. This is about all fish or the notion of fish in general. So we can then move to kind of the other end of the spectrum which is a complete abstraction or non-pictorial imagery. I'm going to, from now on, say non-pictorial because abstract throws a kind of a sense of meaning into the description of what I'm talking about that's not quite accurate because non-pictorial images can be quite non-abstract in the way that they represent things. But here are some examples of images that are made of forms which are not really reproducing in a descriptive... Not really a descriptive, but a literal kind of interpretation of three dimensional space and objects in it that we could recognize in the world. However we can potentially project meaning onto these. And of course that meaning might be supported by the context of some language or some other kind of image in order to help clarify and give the viewer some access into it. Abstract forms initially seem as though they're kind of inaccessible because their non-pictorial qualities are so sort of fundamental and initially unrecognizable as relating to some kind of experience, that, sometimes people are a little bit wary either about using them or they become uncomfortable in the presence of non-pictorial images usually under the kind of the assumption or sort of misconception that they're not gonna be able to get it or that there's some kind of magical mystery involved that is somehow above them, and they feel inadequate in some way. So these forms are made entirely of geometric forms, lines, plainer elements, dots that are organized in linear chains. Lines that create enclosed shapes that intersect each other and then a kind of a rhythm of line elements that appear to cross over and through each other creating kind of a sense of foreground and background. Now the potential of abstract imagery is really almost sort of astounding because I'm going to say a couple of things and then when I say them, you're gonna go, "Oh, yeah." And the things I'm going to say are meanings that I'm going to attribute to these images. Let's look at this image here. This is architecture. This is effervescence as the bubbles in champagne. This is maybe a little bit less tangible, this is precision, or mathematics. This is traffic. So, given that, now with some context, these images can take on a very recognizable sort of reference or association to real-world experience you may begin to kind of sense precisely how much potential there is in using images that are not made up of pictorial forms that you can simply recognize. It opens the door to all kinds of new and very unique communication and very unique and fulfilling sort of personalization of graphic language that you can bring to your projects. Because these languages or language that you might create out of non-pictorial forms will be completely invented and as a result, it gives a kind of a greater expression, or has the possibility of providing a greater expression of your sensibilities and your personality as a designer and it is also likely to be far different than any other communication out there which is an excellent way of differentiating your particular client's communication from those of other competing organizations. That is, that, in, especially in the context of branding, as we were looking at yesterday, abstract or non-pictorial visual form can be a powerful tool for separating out your client from the herd of its competitors and really sort of creating a very, very ownable and proprietary brand voice. Non-pictorial forms can also be organic as these are. And these forms generally exhibit the same kinds of qualities that we looked at in the organic plainer form that we saw a little while ago. And that is kind of irregularity that there's no real kind of studied or purposeful distribution of elements that the elements all constantly kind of change in direction or how long the segments are. The intervals between each of these forms these intervals of negative space in almost every case as they separate these sort of wavy sort of wobbling masses of black are almost entirely different from all the other ones that there is really no repetition of any particular curve radius within this particular composition which provides an incredibly fluid almost biological and kind of sensuous experience. We recognize, of course, the presence of medium here, that is, even though this form is not really referring to anything particular in the world we recognize the presence of water based on the fact that this is an ink wash and that ink wash, because ink dilutes in water, or may bleed in particular ways, or pool in certain areas that are... In ways that are not controllable, that sort of randomness, that sort of visceral sort of spontaneity which is so much a quality of nature is also kind of compounded by the fact that we recognize a natural element in the way that it's been made. Here we have some very, very rough and also irregulars... Irregularly sort of cut and ripped sort of planes. In this kind of arrangement, they take on, because of their horizontal orientation within the format and because we recognize these kind of contours that are irregular and then a kind of a chop and then another contour that's simple is that there's almost a landscape-like quality here. So this particular image is almost on the verge of becoming pictorial and with the simple addition of an icon like a deer, or a small bunny, (squeaks) it would suddenly become absolutely pictorial, is that the crossover can sometimes... Between pictorial and non-pictorial can be so close that the shorthand, if you will, that the abstract or non-pictorial forms are using to refer to, or allude to, or suggest a kind of a natural experience or a real world experience sometimes that shorthand is so close to the actual truth of the pictorial reference that there's almost no difference.

Class Description

You only need basic understanding of line and form to appreciate art and design, but you need a lot more than that to create it. Deepen your understanding of these fundamentals in Graphic Design: Form & Image with Timothy Samara.

In this class, Timothy will teach you about the primary form categories and how they apply across mediums. You’ll learn about:

  • Geometric vs organic forms
  • Pictorial vs non-pictorial images
  • Form relationships and meaning
  • Juxtaposition and sequence

You’ll learn how the medium you are working in affects how the viewer interprets your work and get tips for getting the results you are after.

Graphic Design: Form & Image will help you confidently create images that are visually balanced and sophisticated. 

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

Related Classes


Santosh Sharma

I am a big fan of Tim since I started reading his books long back. Its good to see himself teaching, though its a video. This course made things more clearer about concepts and image making. Thank.

Indumathi Manohar

Tim is just SO much fun!!! I love his lectures. He just packs information in, but the material just flows intuitively from one subject to the next. He clearly knows his stuff!