Principles of Design and Their Shadow

The Principles of Design
and Their Shadow

By Gerald Grow

A paper presented to the Visual Communication Division, Association for Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication, Chicago, August 2008.

A revised version of this paper appeared in Visual Communication Quarterly, 17:2 (2010), 108-116, titled “Back to School with Gerald Grow: The Principles of Design and Their Shadow.”

Abstract. Although the Principles of Design are often presented as though they are scientific and rational laws that were discovered in a design laboratory, they arose in a specific historical context. I suggest that these Principles still carry with them the shadow of the very things they were a reaction against — 19th century eclecticism, the arrogance of power and empire, and especially the fear of mass chaos following World War I. The result, I suggest, is that the Principles of Design favor design that tends toward high Swiss modernism and define as chaotic any design that strays too far from this ideal. The Principles provide a one-sided vocabulary of design that describes the orderly but have fewer resources for describing the rest.

After nearly 25 years of teaching undergraduates, I’ve accepted the opportunity to retire, in order to have time to think about some other things. Like most teachers, I have a mental file drawer that contains notes for research I never completed, ideas I never developed, articles I never wrote. This paper is about some of those ideas.

My purpose here is to present a few unfinished ideas, and to present them as clearly as I can. It is my hope to stimulate thinking along these lines, in the hope that it might prompt you to develop or reject some of these ideas, or to have new ideas of your own, that lead to further discussion and research.

Prevalence of the Principles

Almost every introduction to design begins with the Elements and Principles of Design, concepts familiar to every designer and design teacher. Different terms may be used by different authors, but the list of elements typically includes such items as point, line, shape, value, and texture, and the list of Principles typically includes such terms as alignment, proximity, balance, proportion, unity, emphasis, and rhythm. In what appears to be the most fundamental theory of design, the Elements are combined by use of the Principles to produce effective works of design.

The Principles (and I’ll use that term to include both Elements and Principles) are described as “the axioms of our profession.” They are “the basic visual toolbox of design tactics in every visual design discipline.” They have been accepted as being so fundamental to the practice of design that they are sometimes described as “visual grammar.” You find words of advice like these, “How we apply the Principles of design determines how successful we are….”

The Principles of Design appear in most presentations like scientific laws. They exist in parallel to the Periodic Table of Elements in chemistry, and the principles by which chemical elements can be combined to produce chemical compounds. They may appear in conjunction with such Gestalt Principles as figure and ground, closure, proximity, and similarity. Because the laws of chemistry and Gestalt can be readily demonstrated by laboratory experiments, it is easy to assume that the Principles of Design have a similar validity.

I would like to question that assumption by examining the context out of which the Principles of Design arose and looking at some of the possible effects of widespread acceptance of the terminology of the Design Principles. And I would like to issue a call to expand the terminology of design beyond the historical and ideological assumptions behind the Principles of Design.

First, let’s look at the context out of which the Principles of Design arose.

Historical Context

In the early 1900s, Europe represented one of the peaks of Western civilization. The economic and cultural triumph of Europe had endowed it not only with vast colonial empires, but with an astonishing sense of confidence and entitlement. Europe drew to itself everything it found of value in the whole wide world and Europeans considered it their right as a superior culture to receive, adapt, and use anything that could be transported into their homes and minds. For most of the world, Europe had become the civilization to emulate.

Then, while the admiring world watched in horror, what were arguably among the greatest civilizations in history turned on one another in that massive European civil war known as World War I. Germany, France, Austria, Britain, Italy, leapt at one another in a spirit of idealism and honor. Filled with nationalistic �lan, French cavalry charged into German machine guns. Glowing with confidence, glory, and the great sense of entitlement, these great civilizations quickly began to grind millions of men into the mud, while the rest of the world watched in disbelief.

Millions died, economies crashed, the glory crumbled, and confidence in the European model faltered. Then came 1918. About the time the United States entered the war, another combatant appeared — the Spanish influenza — and it was to conquer many times more victims than the war itself. By recent accounts, a few million died from battle, while as many as 30 million died from the influenza.

All of us have seen what we know as the “flu,” but the Influenza of 1918 is easier to understand if you compare it to the Ebola epidemics of Central Africa. In 1918 and 1919, an estimated 30 to 50 million people died of this pandemic — often through a horrible internal hemorrhaging and often within only a few hours after the first symptoms. No treatments were effective, and some of the common ones only made the suffering worse.

Against this background of vast slaughter and even vaster death by epidemic, against this background of the falling of civilizations, the failure of honor and glory and empire, this background of the imploding self-destruction of a high culture, arose a series of reform movements that exploded in the 1920s.

Among them were the vibrant idealism of the Socialist and Communist movements in their early phases. Among them were enthusiastic experiments in education, art, literature, psychology, public health, and statecraft — ranging from the League of Nations and women gaining the right to vote in the U.S., to the communal schools in Russia to the Wilhelm Reich’s idealistic sex-education clinics in Germany.

This was the time Gestalt psychologists were re-thinking the nature of perception. Here were innovators like Stravinsky, Picasso, Nijinsky, and Joyce, each profoundly grounded in a traditional art and setting out to completely re-invent it.

Here were the new technologies — the automobile, the airplane, the cinema — with Charlie Chaplin bringing to a battered world the renewal of laughter.

It was a time of immense creative vitality, fervent in its need to make the world anew, to change the history that just culminated in so much self-destructive suffering. This was a period when creative people all over Europe strove to rise out of the ashes of chaos and reinvent civilization on a sounder basis.

We have the sober knowledge, decades later, of how so many of these movements failed; but they began with the hopeful fervor of people determined to be reborn, to be new and different, determined to live up to the label of “the modernists.”

It was in this context that the Bauhaus schools of architecture and design were founded in Germany — successors to schools founded with a similar impulse during the earlier Arts and Crafts period. The Bauhaus schools did not focus on the history of art or the traditions of design. They did not teach the crafts and skills of the past. Instead, they taught students to create everything anew from first principles, rather than from tradition. These first principles were pure, abstract, and reasonable. They were grounded in a scientific approach and worked happily with the new era’s technological advances in materials and methods.

Something similar had happened before: During the Enlightenment, 18th-century philosophers developed an approach to life based on empiricism and reason. This also did not come out of nowhere, but arose very much against a background that it opposed — a background of arbitrary authority embodied in monarchy, religion, and tradition that had culminated in the British civil war that punctuated almost two centuries of religious persecutions.

And while the Enlightenment represented itself as a fresh and neutral way to re-think existence, an empirical and reasonable approach to life, it continued to contain an implicit opposition to tradition, authority, intuition, and disorder; the Romantic movement arose in, and perhaps as, the shadow of that Enlightenment. Journalism, rooted deeply in Enlightenment principles, retains more than a tinge of this shadow today.

Of course, a quarter-century later, WWI led to WWII, but, as Rick Poynor points out in the documentary “Helvetica,” another wave of similar re-thinking followed World War II, and it led to a renewal of earlier modernist themes that was epitomized by the design of the font Helvetica in 1957.

Like the principles of empiricism and reason during the Enlightenment, the Principles of Design, just after World War I, presented themselves as neutral first principles, but, I suggest, carry with them a bias toward Swiss high modernism and a built-in opposition to other modes of design — perhaps in particular designs that suggest tradition, arbitrary authority, personality, or chaos.

This subtle opposition to other forms of design is one of three byproducts of the Principles of Design I would like to name here. The other two are the way the Principles focus on product rather than process, and the way the language of the Principles of Design has forestalled the development of a more comprehensive language for describing design.

The Shadow of the Principles of Design

Might the Principles of Design, abstract and clear as they are, drag behind them a bias that is rooted in the historical moment out of which they arose? I suggest that this may be the case.

The idea here derives from another innovator whose presence shaped the 1920s — Sigmund Freud: The Principles of Design continue in some way to re-create the chaos they were a reaction to. They create this chaos in part by definition — by defining as chaos everything that does not follow a somewhat prescriptive application of these Principles that leads to the clear, spare modernist school of design.

As a result, rather than finding that the contemporary arena contains a rich variety of approaches to design, the Principles of Design lean people toward thinking that there is one right kind of design and then, well, there is the rest of that stuff, the undesigned, arbitrary, traditional, eccentric, the merely personal, disorderly, or chaotic.

The result has been a recurring “return of the repressed” to haunt those who embraced this modernist approach to design — in the form of punk, postmodern, grunge, hip-hop, and other experiments, some of which have been widely influential, and none of which can be adequately described in the language of the modernist Principles of Design.

Let me anchor this theoretical discussion in one specific principle. One of the most essential concerns of modernist design is legibility. If you cannot readily make out the letters in a design, you can’t read the text and understand the written message. The importance of legibility runs through practically every prescription for good graphic design, where you find the rule — in Jan White’s books, for example — that design should serve first to express clearly the textual content of the message.

Yet legibility is one of the things that has been most consistently challenged by experimental designers — dating back to some art nouveau posters, then psychedelic rock posters, then grunge fonts (with their fragmentation and distortion), and more recently the eclectic mixing together of traditions and materials, and the multileveled overlapping layers of design elements that may look the way a piece of experimental music sounds.

In some of these designs, legibility, instead of being a main principle, becomes subordinated to something else — and the Principles of Design don’t provide much help in figuring out what legibility is subordinated to, and why, and why the fragmentation and seeming chaos of some non-modernist design works so well for its audience.

Principles vs. Process

The Principles of Design, I suggest, favor modernist design and contain an inherent bias against forms of design that are more traditional, or more personal, arbitrary, or multi-focused.

As they are usually presented today, the Principles of Design also tend toward a second kind of bias: They direct us to consider the products of design and the rules by which they are constructed. Reading some chapters, you sometimes expect designers to be wearing white lab coats and bending over beakers of color, contrast, alignment, etc., concocting design in some laboratory.

What is deemphasized by the Principles of Design is the idea of design as a process. The moment you consider design as a process, your scope immediately expands to include a client, a purpose, a budget, a set of constraints, a series of deadlines, a context that includes previous designs for this client and other designs by the client’s competitors.

Considered as a process, design takes in the historical and cultural context of the moment, and how these affect design. Design approached as a process is quite different from design approached as the application of a series of principles.

Perhaps most important, the process of design includes dialogue with other stakeholders and how that dialogue modifies the developing design possibilities. It includes the essential steps of getting the client to sign off of each stage of the project and on the completed project — introducing personalities, biases, and influences far removed from the abstract principles.

As an approach, the Principles of Design do not include any of the many activities that make up design when considered as a process that takes place in a specific commercial environment that involves multiple stakeholders and a hierarchy of decision-making.

Generally speaking, this lack of emphasis on process has probably not created much of a problem, except it may well have caused writers on design to focus on the bracing clarity of the Principles at the expense of focusing on the complicated dance of communication and creativity that lies at the heart of the design process, and on the equally complicated negotiation of client, designer, and audience that lies at the heart of the most profound of all design problems: how to do creative work that earns a living.

Principles as a Language of Design

In addition to favoring modernism, the Principles of Design, then, tend to draw attention toward the abstract compositional aspects of design and away from the interpersonal interactions that frame the design process. The Principles of Design seem to affect designers in a third way, by providing the dominant vocabulary by which design can be discussed, and, in doing so, creating the illusion that these terms adequately describe the work of designers.

Years ago, I began to notice a peculiar disparity in some designers. When I watched them work and worked with them on projects for which they were designers, I was impressed by the amazing skill, intelligence, and creativity they brought to the work. But when I asked them about their designs, it was if someone else began to speak who was different from the creative artist who had produced the design!

Suddenly, I heard a brisk, clear, no-nonsense vocabulary of balance, contrast, alignment, etc., drawn apparently from the their training in the Principles of Design. And though the designers could speak with some confidence about the characteristics of their work, the result was unsettlingly unconvincing.

The description — in the language of the Principles of Design — suggested almost nothing of the immense intuitive integration of disparate elements in the heart of the designer and the creative skill that placed this synthesis into a few key elements on the page.

I felt that one person did the work and a different person talked about it, and the person who talked about it — using the terminology of the Principles of Design — spoke with clarity and confidence — but was unconvincing and possibly wrong.

Since then, I have often felt a touch of concern that the illusion of completeness created by the Principles of Design has diverted people away from the task of figuring out how to describe design in a richer, more useful way. The clarity of those rules may have hindered people from recognizing how little they actually understand about how design works and from searching for a new vocabulary for describing design.


I will end with a brief recap. Although the Principles of Design are presented as though they are scientific and rational laws that were discovered in a design laboratory, they arose in a specific historical context. I suggest that these Principles may still carry with them the shadow of the very things they were a reaction against — 19th century eclecticism, the arrogance of power and empire, and especially the fear of mass chaos following World War I. The result, I suggest, is that the Principles of Design favor design that tends toward the study of high Swiss modernism and define as chaotic any design that strays too far from this ideal.

I have also suggested that the Principles of Design direct attention mainly to the products of design and away from the actual way designers work — through a multi-staged, interactive process of designing.

And I have suggested that the language of the Principles of Design has so much dominated discussions of design that it has discouraged the development of other, more adequate ways of talking about design — an enterprise I hope this paper encourages.
Copyright 2008 by Gerald Grow

Articles and Creative Work