The 10 Elements of Design: Which is the most important one?

Part 4 in the series of articles on the Art of Design

At a past conference an artist friend asked me for advice. She was at a complete loss and frustrated! A piece she had submitted to a jury of evaluators had been criticized and had failed to pass the criteria in a credential program. The artist didn't understand why and was desperately seeking an answer.

As I describe it, see if you can begin to realize the design issues. It was Art Nouveau in style with a beautiful floral pattern around the oval box. The feet on the bottom of the box were 4 square cubes. The lid had a dichroic glass cabochon, which was bezel set. It was beautifully finished, antiqued and technically well constructed.

What was the problem? It seemed pretty…

Elements are components of a design that can be identified or isolated. They help to tell the story. They communicate the purpose, idea, or meaning of the piece. The elements and its cumulative design allow the observer/wearer to connect to the piece in their own way. It brings their personal truth to it. It synthesizes their past, their thoughts, and their future. It speaks to the viewer!

Eclectic design is when you mix up a bunch of different elements from different designs or styles. Sometimes it happens to work but more often than not, it’s just a hot mess. So you have to be careful when adding elements to your designs.

Let’s examine three principals that should have been questioned in this design:
Shape, Materials, Emotion …and how that emotion ties into style or the theme. 

The shape of the oval box should be repeated in the shape of the feet.  If you are doing a geometric piece where the pieces are meant to oppose one another then that’s fine, but for this piece it didn’t work.  The feet were not supposed to be a focal point, yet because they opposed the shape of the box they became a strong element. 

The artist was dead-on spot with the oval shape as one of the key indicators of Art Nouveau style is its curvilinear, flowing forms. Next the style needs to be considered.  When picking a pattern, consider its history, and what that imparts as part of the information.  The Art Nouveau period was from 1883-1890’s.  Characteristically it has florals, elements of nature, a certain color palette, etc.  It evokes an emotion. 

A modern piece of dichroic glass doesn’t suit this style.  Instead this was a time in jewelry history where fine stone setting was being replaced by the use of enameling, opals and semi-precious stones.  An enameled lid would have been perfect.  Setting a semi-precious stone instead, in the color of one of the flowers would have been also suitable.  So the artist was on the right path with the design but the components selected didn’t convey the right information.   She had skillfully accomplished the piece, but design-wise it had issues.

The 10 elements to consider in your work are:
point, shape, form, texture, color, the five senses, emotion, function, materials and processes.

Here are some questions to ask yourself about your design elements: 

  • What is your design telling the observer/wearer? 
  • What elements engage them immediately and why? 
  • Is the shape intentional and does it convey information about the story of the piece?
  • Consider the texture as it shouldn’t be arbitrary.  It imparts great amounts of information.  Will it wear well?  Will the finish change due to wear, encouraging you to consider protection? 
  • Consider how the color works with the texture.  Is the intensity and amount of color suitable? 
  • Does your piece engage the five senses?  Is there one sense it engages more than the other and why? 
  • Consider whether your material is natural or symbolic.  Is that imparting more knowledge about the piece that you desire? 
  • Consider the number of items on the piece.  Is it 2, 3, 4, etc.  For example, a triad or three often represents controversy or opposition.  Is this the message you are sending?
  • Is the process unique to you or will it be compared to another master as his or her work? 
  • Does this process lend to the design or distract from it?
  • Most importantly, what elements do you need to edit, revise or adapt? 

I encourage you to copy this list of questions and ask yourself these questions as you make your pieces.  There are many others you can add.  This will perhaps spark other questions to be asked or answered to add to the list.  It’s a good place to start! 

I also recommend a little art history to consider when you pick a pattern or copy an image to use as a tear-away texture or PhotoPolymerPlates.  Even the selection of type-font imparts information to the viewer.  These are all things to contemplate and not select arbitrarily.  Good design begins with these basic concepts.

Don't forget to leave a comment and get entered to win a F*R*E*E give-away from Whole Lotta Whimsy! Drawing is March 31st, 2012!

19 Responses to The 10 Elements of Design: Which is the most important one?

  1. Those design principles that painters are so familiar with are not always mentioned in jewelry classes. Thank you for making them clear.

  2. Thank you for this series Tonya. In creating a jewelry business sometimes the well thought out design of the art we are creating can take a back burner. It is always good to be reminded that good design will support all of the other things we are doing to make our business successful.

  3. Hi Tanya,
    I agree with everything you said….but, sometimes it is very difficult to judge your own piece. I find that I am too emotionally attached to it, especially when I have recently created it. Sometimes a second or third opinion needs to be included in the mix.

  4. Hmmm, mindful creation. With your list of questions I think I could get past the emotional attachment and critique the piece as someone else might. I hope I will make decisions more deliberate, as in create expecting to have to justify your choices.

  5. I have a lot of historical reference books on jewelry and you're right – the importance is in keeping "in style" while still keeping your originality. I love working on designs based on ancient cultures, and find inspiration everywhere from the library to historical films like "Alexander" , "Troy", and even the fantasy pieces of LOTR. Your questions really help in keeping within the design parameters of the era you are working with.

  6. I am always amazed by your insights into art.
    "point, shape, form, texture, color, the five senses, emotion, function, materials and processes" In this list what is meant by "point"? Are we discussing the point the piece is trying to make?

    • Hi Karen,

      My bad! There are 9 Design Elements or "Points" that should be carefully considered.

      This is what happens when I write quickly without proofing!

      Thank you for the clarification…Suppose it's too late to change the title to 9 so we'll pretend I can't count either.

      However, I would consider replacing "point" with "line". The weight of a line indicates far more than just a simple visual element. Line can indicate movement, emphasis, rhythm, symbol, create depth, be a value builder, or the entire subject.

      I remember in design school I got a lecture from my professor about my line weight and it's misuse. It conveys information to the viewer about your design and it's meaning. So I suppose it's worthy of substitution.

      To err is human, right? *wink*

      Thanks for leaving me a comment and asking for clarification….

  7. I do not have an art background. I have taken some classes, but I am pretty much self-taught. This has been helpful. Thank you! Also, I agree with Sandra Elizabeth York. I also get too close to my pieces and am not always objective to critique them on my own. I am fortunate that my husband gives me his honest opinion when I need one. I always think it is a good idea to get an outsiders view, but it is also important to be true to yourself. Not everyone is going to understand or appreciate your work in the same way.

  8. I'm really thankful you are publishing this now. I've been struggling lately – and half-way through your article, it became clear why. I've been using the "oooh – this is pretty!" and the "ahh – I like that!" methods to create lately, when I need to focus on design principles and aspects. Thank you for creating that "Aha!" moment for me in the same gentle way you've lead me to many similar lessons. YOU are such a valuable gift!

  9. Great article, touching on some very important points that we all need to be reminded of from time to time. Thanks for posting this

  10. Great article. It is very hard to judge your own work sometimes and I find one of my best aids in this activity is my husband, it helps that I have always appreciated his taste in selecting gifts for me, they are always right on. It is difficult sometimes after I really struggled to hear criticism, but reading your article has helped me see what he has contributed is to address some of the points from the questions you have raised in addition to some personal biases, like he hates anything asymetrical. For those designs, I get valued input from others. To me line and texture are key ingredients, but all the elements are important. Thank you for such and insightful article.

  11. One other item that I have found to be a help in my jewelry designs is an interweave daily email from 'Artist Daily ', which provides various insight on art, similar to the 'Beading Daily ' emails.

  12. This is very helpful. I often find myself creating "on the fly" and sometimes do not make a decision of when the piece is finished. I tend to have difficulties knowing when to stop.

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