Graphic Design Fundamentals: Form & Image


Lesson Info

Representation & Manipulation

So as you've been seeing, images and forms can show us things that we would not dispute are actually part of reality. And sometimes they show us things that we could dispute are part of reality. Or, sometimes they show us things that are so not of reality at all that there is really no question that they are not real. So there is this issue that designers have to address, which is the representation of the subject matter, of meaning by virtue of form choice, and of medium, and, therefore, also how much you're interfering with the image and its form. That is whether or not you are allowing the form to communicate on a literal or denotative level if its pictorial, even if it's abstract, or if you are non-pictorial rather, or if you are manipulating the meaning by virtue of what you're doing to the form. So when designers or artists choose a subject and then choose a medium with which to reproduce that subject or to represent that subject, depict it, and they also choose a kind of an appr...

oach using that medium to depict that subject, what they are doing is called mediating, which means that they're interfering with reality. So the photographers interferes with reality the least. And the photograph is likely, unless it has been heavily manipulated and purposely configured in the way that it's being shot in terms of it's lighting, in terms of how close up, of how abstract or non-pictorial it starts to appear, in terms of what kinds of image elements or subject matters are contained within it, whether it's a kind of a posed situation or something that's happening kind of spontaneously, a kind of slice of life, the caught in the frame in a flick of an eye. Unless those kinds of things are happening, a photograph is likely to be the least mediated kind of an image that you can encourter. That is that there's little to no interference on the part of the image maker getting in the way of you understanding what the subject is and feeling anything about it. Again, the less mediated, the less manipulated the image is, therefore, the more naturalistic it is, the more literal it is, and the less it will communicate anything in particular devoid of any context. As soon as the image comes into some situation where there are other things to think about, that image will take on new meaning, but in a vacuum, hypothetically speaking, a photograph of an object by itself or a figure, is only about that object or figure. Now as soon as the artist, or the image maker, or the designer involves a medium or an approach in which the naturalism might still be there, but the presence of that medium becomes especially pronounced, or that there's some editing and detail, editing in their information, or a change in the actual kind of light-dark relationship that occur, or some change as can be seen in the photograph, or where information is purposefully left out for compositional reason, for purely rhythmic and light and dark tonality reasons to create certain kinds of movement, to create density and focus, as soon as that happens, we say that the image has become highly mediated. It may still be perfectly naturalistic. And it could be infinitely more naturalistic than this one is. But we can still essentially recognize the truth of the female body, the propositions of limbs, how the limbs are joined to the torso, the position of the figure, what parts of the figure are in the foreground, and what part of the figure are in the background. We can understand the figure is reclining or is lying down. And we can also understand how all those parts fit into each other. And we also understand a kind of a truth about the body is that it's curvilinear. It's a soft, organic form, all the things that we attribute to humans in general. So we're moving away from the unmediated. But we're still kind of in a naturalistic sort of world. There is no real kind of excessive stylization. Some degree of stylization is occurring, but not so much. The last image on the other hand is very, very highly mediated. In this case, the designer has decided to maintain kind of the color language from the source image in order to generate a sense of foreground, background between image elements within the figure as well as between the figure as a whole and sort of the field in which it exists. The designer has also decided to remove the curves and to chop the plainer forms up using these very, very flat angular shapes that do not exhibit the naturalistic or empirical truth of a figure in space as is even visible here. So this decision... Along the spectrum, there's so many decisions to make. First of all, what kind of form is it? And then is it pictorial or not pictorial? And then what is the medium that I'm gonna use? And then how much am I using the medium? And then how much am I stylizing it? (breaths out) But these are all decisions that the designer or an illustrator who's working for a designer has to make in order to get the image to do what is needed to be done so that it communicates in the best way, in the clearest way, in the most appropriate way possible for that particular kind of project. So whenever you're merging media together, the less pictorial the material is, the more neutral it is, the more it's about the visual experience, which might in part a certain kind of energy or allude to certain kinds of feeling or ideas. And as soon as any of those image elements become pictorial or they begin to become more literally pictorial, then content appears. That a greater and more specific degree of meaning or level of meaning begins to become inserted. So here on the left is just a range, a transition from an absolutely non-pictorial composition of lines, and scribbles, and cut out shapes. So we might interpret art making. It also kind of helps because we see things like a brush stroke. And we see a little blop of something that could be paint. And we see a ripped piece of paper. And then there's a scribble, which is clearly made by a person scribbling, and other kinds of textural forms. And, of course, it doesn't hurt that the line forms that we see actually make an A. So a person coming to this might say, "Okay, this is about art." Okay, it's not about any particular kind of art. It's not about art from a particular period. It's just about art in general. Woo! Okay, then that might be perfectly useful. Then as we move to the middle image, we introduce now a new kind of situation where some of the image elements have been replaced by pictorial forms. In this case, both photographic elements. And what happens here is that the identity of those subjects now influences our understanding of the entire composition. That is because we see a compass and because we see a sculptural relief, we are either looking at something that has to do with sculpture or potentially architecture, or architectural detailing, stone masonry, carving. So even though many of the forms that surround those two are quite painterly, the fact of their specific subjects in combination now becomes of greater importance to the viewer. Typically, viewers will focus on and obsess over any pictorial element that is recognizable compared to any non-pictorial element. Because the pictorial element tells us things. We understand that. So essentially it renders the other material essentially decorative, there for compositional purposes, for vivacity, for energy, for fun. And then they provide a general context. You have art which is a subject, a very broad general subject. And then within that subject you have sculpture or architecture, which is a part of art. And then here we get even more specific. That is some of the tonal planes in the background have been replaced by images of architectural drawings and maps from a particular location, from a particular time period that's generally recognizable to most people. Still the compass exists or the calipers, and the architectural carving. And now we have a brush. So we may be talking about Leonardo da Vinci here. It might not just be about architecture anymore because now there's also a paint brush. It might be about art in general, but specifically painting and architecture. And at the same time, there's diagrammatic map that comes to us from Italy and is rendered as an engraving that's very recognizable as having been produced during the Renaissance. And so, suddenly, all these little details are informing each other in different ways. So we've gone from art to sculpture and architecture, which is part of art to Renaissance architecture and art or Renaissance art. And potentially because of (cough) our culture familiarity, with the ultimate Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci, whenever anybody says Renaissance and then you're talking art, people go, "Oh!" He's very top of mind. So as a subject matter, Mr. Da vVnci is highly iconic. He presents a thing other than himself. You may lead the viewer directly to that connection just by virtue of those particular elements and how they're combined. So going back to stylization, so we return the fish again. And there's more than one way to cook a fish. (laughing) If I had a rabbit, it would be in a different metaphor or cliche. So here when you get to the reductive or stylized level, the options are endless. I mean the possibilities are without limitation. And you have to be really careful about sort of what kind of representation or what kind of stylization of the image you are bringing to it. So, again, these are all recognizable as the subject fish. It's not any particular kind of fish. It's about the notion of fish. And then each one of these stylizations may call out a particular aspect of that idea, fish. In this case, this one is drawn with a very, very rough element. So this might be fresh fish or organic fish, or it's kind of calligraphic, so it might be sushi. It might be a Japanese fish. Here, we have this sort of pattern of sharp, angular elements that appear to be overlapping and are a kind of a representation of scales, not in a naturalistic way, highly reduced. And we can also see that the drawing of the fish, its contour is also incredibly sharp and angular. So this could be a dangerous fish or it could be an armored fish. I don't know what a digital fish might be, or this could be a prehistoric fish. Yes? Spamming, fishing (laughs). What? The digital fish, Spamming. Fishing. Oh. See there you go. That's exactly (laughing) how your brain should be working. And that's exactly how an audience's brain works. When you have this disconnect is that you recognize the form, but it's shown in an unexpected way with an unexpected medium is that you ask questions. And your brain says, "What is that about?" And then you project some meaning on it based on your prior experience with those kinds of forms and then in the context of this subject matter. That's exactly it. Okay, so the presentation's done. I'm done. (class laughs) I'm kidding. (laughing) Oh, I was getting ready to go. No, I'm just kidding (laughs). Yeah, yeah, quick. So (laughs) we'll move on then. So stylization can enhance intrinsic meaning that's already there. So these are both stylizations of a photograph of a bird. They've been filtered digitally and then drawn into a little bit to different degrees. And we know that birds fly in general, typically unless there's something like a chicken, which is flightless. This is not a flightless chicken. This is a seagull. We know that seagulls fly. We know that birds fly. And we know that this one is flying because it's not standing, walking on the ground. We see that it's wings are up, it's tail's back, and it's not attached to anything. Plus, it's been situated in a field of blue, which means it's clearly in the sky. It's flying. It's not rocket science. So (laughs) the stylization of the drawing here is creating more of a decorative effect. The medium, it is interfering a little bit with sort of the truth of the animal's depiction. But, yeah, it's not really getting away. But because it's a little bit more vital, it's a little bit less static than the straight photograph would be, the naturalistic texture caught mid frame. it kind of gives a little bit of the energy of that flight to us, but not a whole lot. Then as the stylization becomes extreme, almost verging on abstraction, and, of course, it may be a little bit more abstract than I would have wanted, but we really kind of get the sense of this whooshing quality even potentially the flap of the wings because we become conscious of the surface of these painted marks as each other as flat non-pictorial abstract forms. And so our eyes go back and forth between, okay, it's a bird. It's a blob of marks. It's a bird. It's a blob of marks. It's a bird. It's a blob of marks. As our minds do that, the image begins to actually move. I mean it doesn't literally. It happens up here because the mind is a strange thing. Stylization can be really, really profound. These are just arranged, again, from very naturalistic to incredibly abstract with very different kinds of form language, very geometric, very organic, very iconic, still naturalistic, but kind of flat and plainer. Again, at a slight sort of degradation or a graphical quality, some working into the image just, again, to show the range. And still all recognizable as the same subject. So what I'm trying to get at here is that you don't have to just go to a picture of a tree and let it be. No offense to photographers. (laughs) I love photography. My father was a photographer. So it's in my blood too. And I love it, but I like to make things. I just can't let it go 'cause I'm a little too OCD that way. So, again, manipulations are kind of interesting things. And, again, it changes the meaning. So here's an image of a book. The image of the book has been burned. And so we may read certain things into that, burning books. And then here a portion of the image has been pixillated and so we may understand this to mean a digital book, or an e-book, or it could be editorial web work, and so on. And, again, this is an image that we also looked at yesterday, which is the clock. And here the manipulation because of the overlapping repetition of the form, it's still the same form, and because of its super color saturation, and the misorientation of those repeated instances, cause us to interpret this not just as any clock, but as alarm clock. And now we can also hear this image. Images can be quite cenesthetic. That is that they can create the impression of sound or the impression of tactility by virtue of their stylization. When we're talking about how we perceived these things, we have to talk a little bit about a weird branch of science called semiology or semiotics, which is the study of how we look at stuff and do things with it to interpret it. And so when we look at things, we kind of map it out. We map it and compare it to things that we've seen before. And when we do that, sometimes the thing that we're shown out of any context is perfectly identifiable. It shares a structural resemblance to the thing that it represents. That is the signifier or the form of it represents the signified, the subject matter, in a one to one relationship. They're both the same thing. The form of the bee means the bee. The form of the key means the key. I wish I had a third one that would also rhyme (laughs), but I don't. And then so here we can say... so we refer to this as an icon is that in terms of the way that our brains are processing this image is that the thing, the form represents only itself or only its subject matter without any additional overlay. So that's what we would refer to as an iconic image or an icon. This one on the other hand gives us a little bit more to play with. Because we can recognize some iconic qualties to it. And out of any context, we'll recognize that, okay, these are eggs, and they are in the nest. There are two things here that are working together. But the image you're really seeing right now is the bird. You saw the eggs in the nest. And you said, "Oh, there's a bird." Then you thought about the bird flying. So what your brain just did is called indexing, which is a really an association. Is that from the iconic form you have been lead to call up a memory, a recognized, a sort of a catalog item that your brain is storing away. Because, again, you want to know things. And there's enough to go on even with this little amount of context to create that indexing function. The last kind of image that we can look at or sign that we can look at is what's called the symbol. And the symbol typically does not, it might, but it does not necessarily have to share a structural similarity to the thing that it represents or signifies. So in this case, and the symbol gains its power from mutual agreement. We agree as a society that this kind of shape or this sort of image, the form of a sign means this certain other thing. So here we have a symbol of a star. We know for a fact that stars are not actually shaped this way. We've all agreed over many generations that this sort of five-pointed object stands in for the idea of a star. It symbolizes the star. We like it because it's got this kind of focal point in the center and then this feeling of radial quality. So it kind of suggests the energy or light that comes out of a star. But it doesn't really happen this way in the galaxies. So there's the symbol. So there's also this whole other narrative that exists. The symbol carries a lot more information in it than an index, which is usually a pretty quick and single association or an icon, which has no association other than the thing that it's showing you. So the symbol, it's a very, very powerful little tool 'cause you got a whole lot of information to bring to the table. And you have whole lot of information to choose from in terms of which information in that symbol you're gonna bring to the table and show it to your viewer. And the symbol will change meaning in different contexts. So when you place the symbol with a surrounding field of film and film reel is that this is about celebrity or Hollywood. It's that kind of star, not the sun. When you place the symbol within the context crescent and some Arabic tile work, it becomes the star of Islam, not the celebrity. When you place the star in the context of some children and a teacher, who are interacting in a happy way, we know they've gotten a gold star. They've done okay. Any particular form, any particular sign can represent the same idea. That is one idea, one signified can be represented by many signifiers. Usually, depending on how non-pictorial it gets or how immediately unrecognizable, or unfamiliar it is, that signifier might need context, but it can happen. When I say the words New York City, any of these images, any of these signifiers can represent that idea, that notion. So you have options. And you always want to look for options. How far can you stray away from a direct relationship, a denotative relationship between the image and its meaning or the intended meaning and still get the meaning across? Because the further away you get from that, the more specific you can be about which particular aspect of the meaning of that subject that you want to talk about and you can be so much more original. It opens up so many possibilities. If there was a picture of the New York City skyline here, you'd be like, "Okay, there's New York. It says New York (snores). Okay, fine. It's clear as direct or even a drawing of New York, or really like an engraving of the skyline, naturalistic. So why be stuck with that when there are so many interesting possibilities? So just some more manipulations. And our brains work very, very fast. So initially even we confront something that is not immediately recognizable, our brains are going back into our memory banks and shifting through the index cards, and going, "Okay, I recognize numbers. "I recognize zeroes, and ones, and monetary symbols. "And those mean cash and money." And then I see them forming the shape of the hemispheres of the brain. And actually it's the type element that reads first and the overall eye conform, which is the brain, that reads second. So it means that in this context, the way that the two elements form each other or the way that one element forms the other one actually causes there to be a hierarchy. The notion of money and digital ideas about money or the digital flow of money becomes primary. The identity of the brain becomes second. So this means that internet money security is on your mind. I don't know what this means. But it's just a configuration (laughs) of photographic elements that are quite surreal. And here's the thing, but I'm sure that some of you, hopefully, and some of you out there in the world are looking at this image and going, "Yeah, I can believe that. "Sure." Yeah, there's a guy with a clock for a head coming out of a door in the ground, and there's a giant butterfly with clouds. Basically because all the elements are photographic. And, again, photography does wonders for convincing us that even things that are not possibly true could actually be true. We can talk a little bit about a non-pictorial matter just to show, again, how non-pictorial forms even at their simplest level can communicate. So when we see something as simple as a circle, I'm gonna ask you in your minds, what does the circle mean? What goes it mean? Could mean any hundreds of things. It could refer to continuity. It could refer to cycles. It could refer to the seasons. It could refer to the cycle of life, birth, death, rebirth. It could refer to unity. It could refer to the sun, or the earth, or the moon, or a drop of water, or a cell. The circle is about the organic. There's nothing else here. I just want to remind you that there is nothing else here except for a circle, but hundreds of pages of information are available in this form. Now think about that, and think about the square. What does the square mean? How is the square different than the circle? It will give you the answers. So they're both closed forms. So there's that. So whereas the circle has no beginning and no end, the square has finite points and ends. Whereas the circles dimension is not really measurable because there is no starting and stopping point, we can actually measure the sides of these. We know that the sides are parallel to each other, that the distance from left to right is the same as the distance from top to bottom. We know that the vertical sides meet the horizontal sides at a 90 degree angle. We know that 90 degree angles do not occur in nature ever. So the square is artificial. It's about the rational, the scientific, the mathematical, the studied, and, therefore, it is about the manmade. So whenever you're bringing images together, you want to be also looking at kind of the syntax, if you will, that is the formal qualities or formal identities of the parts that make it up, its overall shape, its general structure, whether it's dot like or radial in its structure, or if it's very linear. And then you also want to look at the syntax or the gestural quality of how forms are relating, or how the parts within a particular image or form are relating to each other. Because there's meaning to get there. So we can look at these two pictorial forms. And because they are being shown at the same relative size and because we recognize that they're both circular forms or dot like in nature, and because there's a focal point in each, and because there's a radial structure outward in each, this parity or equivalence in their formal or visual qualities may lead us to believe that there is some relationship of meaning between the two. And, in fact, there is. One is an organic form. And one is an artificial form. And this has to do with a contrast. And because then that this is an automobile wheel and this is a flower, this is about the environment and the effect of automotive transportation on it. It's just two images. And if you look through this kind of set of groupings, when you group elements together, and then you do something to one of them, you separate it out in some way, you create the potential for other meaning. So, for example, here one of the elements in this grid of forms, one of these dots, has been pulled out. So it has become isolated. So we say that we have altered the syntax by changing a distance relationship and created a sense of isolation. Here we have another kind of an alteration to the syntax in this form grouping. That is three of the elements in the groping have been slightly rotated off of their horizontal axis. So compared to the others, they create a sense of movement or energy. And it goes on. So you want to always sort of consider not just what the shapes, the overall shapes of elements are and what kind of form identities are making those, but also how the forms are relating to each other. Are they grouped or separate? How is each one separated from the other? We're going to talk about that again more when we're looking at layout in the afternoon. So, again, here, again, those sort of syntax elements again, but a greater number of them for you to look at, where I've actually labeled the intended meaning for each of them. And this one is just a fun one that I threw in. This is wind and water moving through trees. This is completely non-pictorial as are all of these. Sometimes they refer to the physical world, physical experience in a close way. The short hand is not as extreme. Sometimes they are very, very abstract. Some of the ideas themselves are abstract as others are quite tangible.

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. 



  • 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!
  • Initially, I was excited to begin the instructional video series, only to be bored. This review is not in spite of a remorseful purchase, but more so a constructive critique. The material was common sense to the most inexperienced student interested in arts of any sort. It would be a great /free/ demo course for people looking to purchase a set of true educational courses.
  • Very good. Note the graphic elements of the instructor's shirt. I have a BIG art background. Good stuff. CHEAP.