Introduction to Visual Design

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The sun sets at the border between Thailand and Myanmar

When I first started taking pictures, I never knew about the concept of “visual design”. I was perfectly happy snapping away what looked nice to me and I felt pretty good about my pictures. Ignorance sure was bliss. It was only when I began to get serious about photography that I learned there was a difference between taking a picture and making one.

One of my favourite photographers, William Allard, often draws analogies between photography and writing—good photography and good writing actually. It is also a great analogy to use to help understand visual design. Writing can be considered linguistic design that is, how we place and use words to communicate facts, feelings, or ideas. Words can be arranged to create a specific kind of communication, for example, lyrics, poetry, prose, etc. and can re-arranged to improve the communication. Visual design is the arrangement of visual elements to communicate facts, feelings, or ideas. These too can be moved around to improve the visual expression, which in our case is the photograph but also includes drawings, lithographs, paintings, and movies.

Over the next several weeks, I will discuss the six elements of visual design: tone, colour, line, shape, texture, and perspective and share some examples of how these can be used in making photographs.

Photographers, as the Greek translation goes, write with light. Light is actually the source of these six visual elements. Without it, we would not be able to see these elements, to recognize and to frame them to create a photograph. Light has its own qualities that are of interest to us, basically the quality and the direction of light.

When we talk about the quality of light, we are referring to its harshness or softness. Although there is a perceived value in the way these are described, hard light can be good and soft light can be bad and vice versa depending on what you are trying to communicate. As you become more comfortable with using the elements of visual design, you will begin to recognize which quality of light you need in order to create the photograph that expresses your idea.

The direction of light is usually described in three ways: front lighting, back lighting, and side lighting. It is often a key ingredient in creating mood through the illumination or concealment of the things you include in your frame. Like the quality of light, the direction can, and should, be used to help create your visual expression.

The vast topic of light is beyond the scope of this post but it is very important to understand as you grow in this craft. If you want to take an in depth look at the subject of light, the book Light: Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting would be an excellent addition to your library.

Next week: The Elements of Visual Design – Tone