Wednesday, January 5, 2011

We-Design-Day: Design Theory

This week, I’d like to step back a bit and look at some more design theory. Although all of this is ‘text book’ stuff, it’s helpful in the sense that knowing it can help you see and feel a space differently. One thing I forget is that I use this stuff daily – whether I realize it or not. It’s become such a part of my daily life that the terminology gets lost, but the application and the theory are ingrained. Knowing all of this is helpful and I’m only going to provide an overview for you. There are many great resources available for further study – I’ll share a few later in this post.

Essentially, I learned design is comprised of two key purposes:

Design can be structural or applied

Structural design is integral – the underlying framework. It isn’t an embellishment.
Applied (or Decorative) is applied to the structural framework. Often to add character or a ‘personal’ touch to something.

Here is an example – a piece of fabric is structural. It has purpose and it is useful in its function. Adding a pattern to the fabric is applied (or decorative) design. It doesn’t change the structure of the design (of the fabric) but it enhances its visual aesthetic.

I won’t touch on it today, but there are several approaches that can be taken when looking at structural and applied design. These include organic and abstract – I suppose you could call them methods of design. We’ll look at these another day.

For my basement renovation, I’m primarily looking at applied design; however, I’m changing and altering some of the structure – but of course, not load bearing structure. Interior design focuses a lot of the applied design – but it isn’t always decorative.

Looking at the ‘bigger picture’, although I’m not creating something new or revolutionary, I’m altering the structure or space of our basement to make it work and function better for our family and our needs. I’m reworking the existing framework of the space and redefining the way the spaces relate to one another so structural design is integral to interior design and this is where interior decorating and interior design often stand apart from one another.

To wrap up this week, I want to take a look at the Elements of Design. Most of the reading and studying I’ve done refer to six or seven elements and often call them the building blocks of design (or language of design) – whether it’s paint on a canvas, pencil to paper or fabric to chair, building to ground. It is the starting point and the areas we examine when thinking about any type of design.

Generally, these are the seven with a basic “one line” definition.

Space – Area where things exist: Spatial concept & relationship to that concept
Line – Has direction and projects emphasis
Form – Can have dimension or mass, can be essence or inspirational; can be abstract (often called “Volume” – but the two are actually quite different but kind of fall here)
Shape – outline or definable contours
Texture – Visual or tactile characteristics of an object
Colour/Light – can be used to define form and give a sense of scale. Colour does not exist without light
Time – This one isn’t always listed – but I learned it as a fourth dimensional element – what will the space look like in 20 years? Life cycle and sustainability – how will the finishes wear (fading, discolour) etc.

Hand in hand with the Elements are the Principals of design, but I’d like to cover that next week as this is a lot to digest in one sitting. Putting the elements in any search engine will get you a host of definitions and explanations. A lot of the terminology used in interior design is applicable to graphic and industrial design and art. They are a foundation. I’ve provided an illustration of a very famous chair and highlighted the Elements for you. Can you see how they relate?

Barcelona Chair & Stool – Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – 1929
Photo courtesy of Knoll

(click on the picture to get a larger, readable view)

As always, I’m always open to questions and comments so please leave one! Next week, we’ll look at the Principals of Design and keep working through this process together. Thanks for stopping by!

Further Reading:

Wikipedia: Design Elements
John Lovett


  1. Hah! My question is... come design our kitchen! :0)

  2. No problem, I'll be on the next flight!



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