Graphic Design Fundamentals: Form & Image


Lesson Info

Visual Narrative & Metaphor

So once you have all this meaning, you have images, you have forms, you're telling a story, of course, and that's the word 'narrative' means. In this case, we're talking about visual narrative, as opposed to a verbal narrative, which is like a novel or short story, a written story. Visual narrative is a sense of a kind of meaning that is derived just from images and forms together, without the benefit of any additional context. So, of course, as soon as you juxtapose two images or two signs of any kind, you're gonna generate meaning. And the meaning will vary depending on what the identities of those forms are, the subject matters. So, of course we have here also a kind of manipulation, already a stylization. This is a very highly reduced image of a Band-Aid that has been configured in a cross, so already we're looking at something that has to do with a hospital or with health care, perhaps. And he have, in relationship to, an image which is a flame. So this may be about burn victims o...

r hospitalization after a fire. And then we have it compared with the letter H, which, in blue, in combination with the red cross, stands in for the word 'hospital'. See how fast? I can't ignore it. And then on the last one, we have a combination of a hand, the same cross form made of Band-Aids, and a leaf form, so we might interpret this as kind of natural medicine or organic medicine. Cropping an image and also what you choose to include in it, versus what you choose not to include in it, is critical. Especially with photography, 'cause that's wherein the story lies. So, these are kind of a hypothetical study for a murder-mystery book cover. I just took some photos of stuff. So, this is a shelf with some stuff on it. We can tell from elements, there's towels, there's a cologne bottle, and I can see a shower curtain and a towel in the back. This must be a bathroom. That's really kind of all I can tell. Given the kind of the nature of the elements, the sort of the elegant style of the clock, the attenuated quality of the vase, the sort of refracted crystal quality of the cologne bottle, the glassiness of the shelf, this unusual uplighting, is that there's something a little bit unusual going on. And it feels kind of serene. And quite sort of high-brow. So it might be a hotel bathroom, not one's home bathroom. Here the lighting's gotten a little bit more extreme, whereas the lighting here's a little bit more even. The uplighting, the fact that the light source is actually on the floor instead of up above, where it should be, usually, tells us that there's something else going on. Why is the light coming up from the ground? I don't know. So as we pull back a little bit... I may actually have a duplicate there, a little detail. So we'll just jump to this one. So suddenly I've introduced, in this other, last image, a new kind of an object, which is adding a dramatically different kind of situation. So here, where this alteration of light begins to suggest something is off, because it's unexpected, here the inclusion of additional elements gives us a kind of a story. There's a knife, there's key, is it the hotel key? Or is the key to that secret lock box? Where the money is? There's some money there, as well. So what you choose to include, how you edit out, how you crop an image, can have a lot to do with how it's perceived, and what you're really communicating with it. Now, if we were going to use one of these images for the cover a murder mystery, we could go right here and say, "Okay, this tells us the whole thing." And that would be fine. It's a nice image. It's got some cool color, the weird lighting is still there. Here, it's even more intense, as though the lamp has been knocked over, and the bulb is exposed, and it's giving us this really high-contrast, kind of blown out highlight. But, on the other hand, if we were to pair this with a title by Agatha Christie, I don't know what it would be, that just the sense that the light is in the wrong place might be enough to evoke that sense of danger or mystery, without having to actually go the whole way. Of course, the context in which something appears or someone appears, will completely change the identity of that person. Kind of self-explanatory. Words and images alter each other. So any time you see an image next to a word, the word is gonna tell you what to think about the image. The image might, to a certain degree, tell you what to think about the word, in reverse. The two become inextricable. So when you see this image and this word, you have one kind of a feeling, or thought, or understanding. And when you see this pairing, you're thinking about something entirely different. And you're probably thinking about something very specific, because that narrative is, kind of, currently on top of mind, or has been recently since the year 2001. In particular, in America. Words can be affected in terms of their meaning by an image. An image, placed next to a word, will tell you which of the meanings of that word, or which sense of that word, or what metaphor is being asked of that word. And it will change. The word is just changed, even though it's the same word made of the same letters, that means essentially the same thing. It's that the entire narrative is now very different. And yet again. Juxtaposition creates a gap in meaning between subjects. And so that gap, which I like to call the 'semantic gap', semantics has to do with meaning, what things are, what their subjects are, what their metaphors are. And the gap can be very, very close. That is, two images in juxtaposition can be very closely related in their intrinsic identity, or their intrinsic meaning, or subject matter. And they can be very far apart. And the further apart the intrinsic identity of each image becomes, the bigger the gap in meaning, and the more complex the narrative becomes. Or, in another way of thinking about it, the closer together, or the smaller the semantic gap is between the images, the more literal that narrative is. And the wider the semantic gap is, the more metaphorical or symbolic, or many-layered, or complex the narrative becomes. So here we have an image of two creatures. And the semantic gap here is quite small. They are both infants, they are both unevolved, they are both innocent, neither of them knows a whole lot, they're both soft, and they're both cute. They're both babies, they just happen to be different species. So the semantic gap is quite small. When we come here, now we're confronted by this new image. The semantic gap has become a little bit wider. Even though this image represents a human, and so in that sense the subject matters have become a little bit closer. There are so many other kinds of potential meaning intended on this image that we have other questions to ask. So the identity of this woman relative to the infant is now up for grabs. Or the identity of the infant relative to the woman is up for grabs. This could be the infant's mother, it could be the infant's sister, it could be the infant 25 years later. In the last pairing, the semantic gap is quite wide. There is no intrinsic, immediately understandable, relationship between infants and money. Or are there? Sure, there are. But they're weirder and they're much more complicated. So in this pairing, this juxtaposition could be telling us that children are expensive to raise, childcare costs a lot. We might interpret that also to mean that education, saving for college, is financially challenging. Or we could understand that babies are very expensive on the black market. Sequence plays a dramatic role. As soon as the juxtaposition of images moves beyond a pairing, suddenly you start the viewer off down a kind of a hill, or you've revved up a train, like a locomotive. And as each image appears, adding its information to what is already been seen and understood, the narrative begins to kind of move forward and speed up, and then the viewer will often supply the summary, the conclusion, or the expected summary or conclusion, at the end. And by supporting that, you make them feel very, very happy. It's very fulfilling to a viewer to end up in the place where they thought they were gonna get to. But the thing about images, especially in juxtaposition or sequence, is that you can make somebody believe almost anything you want to. Because people will just take for granted, especially with photographs, that whatever you're showing them is real, and that the fact that these two photographic, or more photographic images, are combined together, suggests that that narrative has to also be real. The sequence, it's gotta make sense. But that's not always really the case. So here I'm showing you a house. It's a nice house. And then suddenly we're confronted with an image of two people of opposite gender. Now, I'm sure that most of you have already assumed that this is a romantically-involved couple. Even though there's no information given to actually support that conclusion. You projected that. Whenever we see people of opposite gender, even of same gender, standing together very, very closely, intertwined, holding each other with smiling faces, and especially also because there's a kind of a color reference to romance, or Valentine's Day, is that we'll assume they're happily-involved romantic couple. And because we've seen them appear after we've seen the house, we must assume that either this is their house, or they're looking for a house to buy, because they're building their lives. Which is then supported by the following image. Or is it? Because there is no evidence that the people in this image are actually the same people. And, in fact, they're not. They're from totally different sources, and even though this image is black-and-white, and this image is in color, you don't care. You still believe that this couple has gotten married, after moving into this house. And once they moved into the house, and they were in the bedroom, the conclusion is reached. A single image can be manipulated in many ways. And here's another narrative using the same image. So in about 12 seconds, you're gonna believe something entirely different. So here's, again, we see the same house. And following it we see stormy sky. Most likely, you have already come to the conclusion that this house exists in the place where this landscape is, and that this storm is threatening this house. Still keep in mind that there's no evidence given for that. But you already believe it. Following that, we see a slightly blurred image of two people running, holding hands. Now, if we ignore everything else, this image could mean a whole bunch of things. Maybe it's that previous happy couple, running through their yard, playing. They're chasing a dog. They're running through the fields. But in the context of this, what we believe is that this couple is very, very afraid for their house, and they're running away from the storm. They're in danger. Last, we see an image of a destroyed house, and I know that you already believe two things. That this couple's house has been destroyed and they've abandoned it, because you already assumed that this house belongs to the couple. And because of the storm and because it's destroyed, they're no longer there. They left, you see, they ran. But if you notice, this house... Oh, and that this house got destroyed by the storm. If you'll notice, this house is actually of wood construction, whereas this house is of stone construction. But you don't care. Because the narrative train has left the station, and has driven you to believe that the conclusion of this narrative is some kind of disaster, and this house has to be that house, even though your eyes are, right now, telling you that that's not really true. Last, we'll talk a little bit about visual metaphor. And really, a lot of these kind of things that we've been looking at are metaphors. That is, they're ideas that kind of stand in for other things. They refer to, they allude to different kind of experiences or ideas that might not necessarily be related specifically to the subject matter that you're communicating about. And there are all kinds of visual metaphors. One kind is the symbolic metaphor, which uses symbols in combination in order to generate an idea about something else. These are both... The subject matter here is about a film festival and these two advertisements are creating the kind of a sense that the film, which is represented by the film reel, is actually an apple. Which is kind of a metaphor for creativity, the fruit of one's creative pursuits. You know, fruit and trees and film have nothing to do with each other. It's a metaphor. And then we also see the apple in the context of a snake coming out of a tree, and the apple being offered by a woman to a man. And so here we're being treated to a biblical reference, as a metaphor. The apple is the seed of knowledge, knowledge is an artistic or part of the artistic pursuit, and maybe filmmaking has a dark side to it. These two, actually these three images make use of another kind of metaphor, which is vernacular metaphor, it's that they draw upon experiences from some other, unrelated kind of context. That may or may not have literally anything to do with the subject matter, but things that we can recognize from other situations, or things that we see in everyday life. Or things that we have used, or been around, that means something to us, because of what they are, but in this case they've been kind of repurposed. Their language has been taken and used to translate the concept, the image. So here, this a CD cover for a compilation of metal music, rock music. And the vernacular metaphor here is the kind of scribbling and doodling that high school students do on their trapper keepers, on their folders while they're bored during class. (audience member laughs) This object is a business card for a library science consultant. And it uses the vernacular, both the shaping as well as the typographic style, of an object that we associate with libraries, that is, the card catalog, or used to. At this point, this is also an archaic vernacular reference. Since I do not know if there are card catalogs anymore. In fact, I don't know if people go to libraries because you can do all of your research at home, in your pajamas, online. And then last, this is a book cover for recipes about afternoon noon tea treats. And it uses the vernacular of English wallpaper, as a covering. Here we have, on the other hand, a very, very different kind of metaphor. This visual metaphor is a typographic metaphor. And it's about kind of form identity. And about the quality of the type elements that actually leads to a communication. So, this is a poster advertising a lecture and seminar about architecture, ten proposals on national politics of architecture, in which the numbers, which signify the 10 lectures, and which also contain the information about their specific lectures like in sequence, have been given the three-dimensional form and lit so that they take on the quality of buildings. And so the metaphor is very, very direct. It appears architectural because our sense of the scale of these images, these objects relative to very, very small size of the text typography that accompanies them, and also because of the lighting and the clustered, sort of monolithic, vertical configuration of them. And so there are a lot of options that designers have for communicating with images, for visualizing material. And it's best to not initially preconceive or jump to any conclusions about what kind of option to use, but rather to experiment, to explore those options and then to choose the one that seems, not only the most compelling but also the most relevant, and the most appropriate, and most engaging for the project and its audience.

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.