Exercise – Abstract Cities

Create a series of 10 abstract designs in which you balance blocks of subordinate,
dominant and accent colours. These designs are going to be used as covers for guidebooks to the following cities:

Madrid Malmo Managua Manchester Manhattan Marrakech Marseilles Melbourne Montreal Mumbai

The books are going to be A5 landscape (210mm x148mm) size. You can use as many colours as you like and need to include the name of the city – where you place this and its colour are also important decisions to make. You may want to find out more about each city to help you develop your colour palette and also the size, shape and positioning of the colour blocks.

Design Ideas

I started this exercise exploring ways in which I could give the abstract designs some meaning or association with each city. My thoughts on this were as follows:

  • Is there a colour associated with the city that I could use as a basis of the colour palette, for example  the colour of the dominant stone used for the buildings? After reading a very tedious paper on colmenar stone used extensively in the buildings in Madrid, I decided this was going to take a lot of work to determine the stone used for each city and the variation in colours would not be enough to make the designs sufficiently distinct from each other, so I rejected this idea.

 

  • Could the  colours of the country’s flag be combined with some abstract motif associated with the city, such as an iconic building? I decided using the colours of the flags was an obvious solution so I rejected this as an idea for the colour palettes. I did like the idea of an abstract representation of an iconic city building, however.

 

  • Given all the cities start with the letter ‘M’, could I assume that there would be guides for all letters of the alphabet and assign a base colour to each letter, so M would be dark red, for example. Could all the designs then be variations of a colour palette based on dark red? I didn’t think I could vary the palette enough for 10 cities (but this would have been an interesting exercise 🙂

 

  • Could I create a linear spectrum of colours ranging from coolest (blues) to warmest (reds) and map each city onto the spectrum based on their latitude, with cities nearest the equator being near red and further away from the equator, blue? Designs for each city would then use their ‘latitude colour’ as the basis for the design.

 

  • Could the colour palettes for each city be based on well known, traditional or indigenous art for the country, with the design incorporating a silhouette of the main art gallery in the city (making them art guides to the city)?  I liked the art idea as a basis for the colours but research on the art gallery buildings made me think that the building outlines would not be varied enough.

 

  • Could I incorporate an outline of a  silhouette of the city’s skyline into my abstract design, where the skyline is made up of iconic buildings of the city? I started researching iconic buildings in each city but after a while felt that constructing skylines like this for each city was going to be too much work.

 

  • I decided instead, to work with a colour palette of the art of the country and an abstract silhouette of a single iconic building of each city.

Thumbnail Designs

I first did a quick check to make sure that each country did have some form of art that I could use as the basis for the colour palette. I then started by researching the outline shapes for iconic buildings associated with each city.

My idea was to have an outline of a building embedded in a series of background blocks or bars with the building standing out in one colour and the background blocks in another.

Initial Test Mockups

I decided to try out my ideas for the designs with the first city, Madrid, using a colour palette inspired by Miro. The mockups are here:

These designs were just not working for me. My main issue was that my abstract building didn’t make sense – it wasn’t obvious what the large block of red was representing and I felt it was just distracting. I was putting too much effort into trying to work out which colours would make the building stand out and was not thinking about how the blocks of colour were working together.

I reviewed the designs with my husband, who agreed that he could not tell that the large block of red was meant to be a building. We decided that it was too difficult to create a design that was both abstract and yet representative of a building.

After a lot of thought, I decided to drop the idea of including the building silhouette and instead would just focus on a truly abstract design using my chosen colours.

It was back to the drawing board, this time researching abstract artists such as Kandinski, Miro, Ben Nicholson, Mondrian and Malevitch for inspiration.

Revised Test Mockups

I decided to try two abstract layouts, the first was based on Mondrian’s paintings. I thought that this layout also I had a feel of a street map, which would fit quite well as a city guide, I tried to make my ‘Mondrian’ layout look a bit like a street map.

I also tried a layout based on an abstract painting by Malevitch. I liked the tumbling shapes as they gave a sense of movement, fun and energy, which for me also worked well for a city:

These mockups where working much better for me. However, I wanted to check that these two abstract designs weren’t just working because the colour palette is one that is associated with abstract paintings, so I tried with my colour palette for Managua.

I felt happy that both of these abstract designs would work, so I had another review with my husband, and we both agreed that the ‘Mondrian’ inspired design, which had the feel of a street map, would work best, so I decided to move forward this idea.

Building the Colour Palettes

I had decided to base my colour palettes on art work associated with the country, either indigenous art, an art movement or works of an artist associated with that country.

I did have some concerns that doing this meant I wasn’t really putting my own colour palette together, but it was still quite a lot of work. Sampling colours from images of artworks found on the internet, gives quite a variable result, so I used sampled colours as a starting point and then refined them (with the help of Adobe Colour) to try to identify complimentary colours, triad colours etc. to put together what felt like a comprehensive palette which resembled the artworks I had based them on.

Madrid

The colour palette was based on some iconic works by Spanish abstract artist, Miro

   

Miró: The Experience of Seeing

Malmo

This was quite a difficult colour palette to put together as I struggled to find examples of typical Swedish art. Eventually I did a Google search for ‘Traditional Swedish Art’ images and found quite a lot similar to that below, which I have based my colour palette on.

Managua

The colour palette was based on the Nicaraguan Primitivista painting movement which originated from a community of artists founded in the 1970’s on the islands of Solentiname in Lake Nicaragua. This style of painting is influenced by the Haitian paintings of the late 40’s and 50’s and shows idealised scenes of community life and lush natural environments in bright colours.  Noted artists are Alejandro Benito Cabrera, Victor Santiago Crespin, José Ignacio Fletes Cruz and Rosa Delia Lopez Garcia.

Manchester

I based this colour palette on paintings of British countryside by John Constable.

Manhattan

This colour palette is based on American pop art. I decided to use one of Andy Warhol’s images of Marilyn Monroe.

 

Marrakech

This colour palette was based on a design for Moroccan border found on shutterstock

Marseilles

I based this colour palette on paintings of the Cote D’Azur by Van Gogh as these were based on countryside near Marseilles.

Melbourne

This colour palette was based on colours typically used in aborigional art. I particularly focused on the image of Uluru by Danny Eastwood (the image with kangeroos below).

Montreal

This colour palette is based on the artworks of Willie Seaweed, a First Nation wood carver and artist from Canada.

Mumbai

This colour palatte was based on traditional indian ‘Rajput’ paintings.

Final Designs

Adobe Illustrator vs Adobe Photoshop

I created most of these designs using Adobe Illustrator with the exception of Manhattan and Marrakech, which I created using Photoshop. I found Illustrator the easier tool for these designs as is it easier to manipulate shapes and manage colour palettes. In hindsight, I’m not sure it was a good idea to create 8 designs on 8 different art boards in one Illustrator document as it made managing the layers in the document very difficult. I also had a lot of problems exporting the individual designs, with components being missed off an export or ‘extra’ components from other artboards getting included in an export. it took a long time to unravel!

It was perfectly feasible to create these designs in Photoshop, but because you can’t ‘click’ on objects to select them, I needed to be very disciplined in naming and managing my layers so that I could find objects within the design, which was quite time consuming.

Also in both tools, I had trouble with the colours in the designs changing when I created the final files. I think this was due to issues with the colour profiles used by the files. I had created the designs in CMYK mode but in exporting the files as JPEGs for display on my digital blog, the colours changed. I fixed this by exporting the files as PNGs from Illustrator and by saving the files as JPEGs from Photoshop but manually changing the colour profile in the JPEG from ‘US Web Coated (SWOP) v2’ to ‘sRBG IEC61966-2.1’. This seemed to do the trick!

 

Thoughts on this Exercise

This exercise was a lot of work – it has quite literally taken me weeks to complete!! The research took me a long time, first reading about types of stone, then endless research into iconic buildings and then different types of art associated with each country.

I also realised that what seems like an inspired idea in my head often looks anything but when I actually mock it up. I should test the design with mockups sooner before doing a lot of research (I wouldn’t have needed to spend so long researching iconic buildings as I decided against this design as soon as I saw the mockup).

I did most of my research using Google Search which is quite a dangerous way to do research given the amount of irrelevant junk that gets thrown up! Searching for ‘iconic buildings in Managua’ for example, returned buildings from all around Nicaragua so I then spent more time trying to cross check to see if buildings really were in Managua.  I need to find some more reliable sources for my research. The internet was useful, however, in helping to discover more general concepts like the typical style of art in Nicaragua.

I am conscious that I also needed to do more research to ensure that I haven’t committed any cultural faux pas! Would the residents of Mumbai be offended that I based the colour palette for their city on  Rajput art? I have no idea.

I was a little concerned that using colour palettes taken from existing art works was not quite in the spirit of this exercise, as I was not defining those palettes myself from scratch. However, it was very interesting analysing the colour palettes from existing artworks and trying to decide how to use and lay those colours out in my abstract designs.

Finally, thinking of a design concept AND colour scheme AND layout together is very difficult!

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Part 3 – Exercise 3: Seeing the Light

Using only an image of a light bulb, the word ‘light bulb’ and a block of colour of your choice, create different designs that explore visual dynamics.

I began this exercise thinking about the colour I would use for my ‘block of colour’. I really felt that I wanted my chosen colour to somehow represent ‘light’ but I didn’t want to choose yellow as that felt a bit obvious.  Instead, I decided that my chosen colour would be white and therefore the background of my designs would need to be black.

This raised some interesting questions..

Is white a colour?

If I remember correctly from my school physics lessons, in the world of light it is. Combining all colours of the spectrum makes white light. Conversely, black is the absence of all colour, so choosing my colour block to be white and background black, felt like it did make some logical sense to me.

However, from a printing sense, we typically start with a sheet of white, ‘blank’ paper on which coloured inks are placed, so in this sense, white is the absence of colour.

Despite some misgivings that white would not be considered a ‘colour’ for this exercise, I decided to try it anyway, with my black background and white block of colour to see how it worked out.

Interestingly, because I am so used to white paper representing ‘nothing’,  I found it quite difficult to draw the thumbnails on paper when my colour block was white – I found myself almost having to think in reverse. For this reason, I drew my colour block on the thumbnails in yellow, so I could more easily see what was ‘colour’!

I approached this exercise by drawing as many different design layouts as I could think of, without thinking too hard about the visual dynamics of the individual designs. I then picked about 20 which I thought represented the different layout styles. I recreated these selected designs using Adobe Illustrator.

My thumbnail designs are below.

My edited set of designs:

            

   

   

   

   

   

   

   

Thoughts on the Visual Dynamics of these Designs

Designs where all the elements of the design have a role to play in the overall message worked well for me, such as the design below, where both the white block and the word ‘Light’ are representing the spread of light from a bulb. The word bulb is clearly relating to the small object that is creating the light. The spread of light from a bulb is much bigger than the bulb itself, so it made sense for the word ‘light’ to be bigger than ‘bulb’ in this instance.

Designs where  the elements don’t all appear to be serving a purpose, do not work so well. In the design below, I am questioning why there is a block of white floating in space, without any obvious connecting with the other elements?

Designs where the white colour block is merely serving as a background label for the text, as in the designs below, generally work but are less interesting. I feel there is a missed opportunity for the white colour, which could be contributing more to the overall design.

  

Designs where the layering does not follow a logical order, do not work so well for me.

In this example above, I am questioning why the bulb is hidden behind the white colour block, which is quite distracting. That said, I quite like the design below, which also follows a somewhat illogical layer order, but I am more accepting of this as I think of the image of the bulb as the most important element, so I am happy to see it first. It feels more playful to me that the image is so dominant that it is blocking out the text.

The design below works well for me in terms of the layer order. I am reading the words naturally from left to right and diagonally across and down the page. Each word feels like it is associated with the correct visual element and the bulb, which is more important that the colour block, is layered above it.

Designs that are a little bit playful and make me work a little bit to understand them, work well for me, such as the two designs below:

    

The design below does not work at all for me. I can’t easily read the text and there is no logical reason why the text is half black ad half white.

The design below is the one that works best for me.

I like the balance between the position of the text and the image and the symmetry and simplicity of the black and white colours. The diagonal split is visually interesting and I get a sense of that sudden transition when you switch a light on and the room is instantly flooded in light. It also feels very natural for me to read the text first in the top left corner and then for my eye to travel to the bottom right to see the image.

Interestingly, despite thinking I had pretty much exhausted all possible designs, I have now noticed that almost all of my designs have the text positioned horizontally with both words running in the same direction. I could have had more designs with the two words split and running in different directions, more designs that could make use of diagonals or I could have had some text upside down. I can see that escaping your conditioning and designing something which is less obvious can be quite hard!

Part 3 – Exercise 2: Signs and Symbols

Choose one of the following concepts: Danger, Movement, Love, Here

How does existing visual language represent these concepts? Research the different similes and metaphors that are in common use. Document them through drawings, collecting examples and mind maps.

Now create an alternative symbol to represent at least one of these concepts.

I decided to choose the concept of ‘here’ for this exercise as it wasn’t immediately obvious what signs and symbols would represent ‘here’ apart from the obvious ‘map pin’ and pointing arrow and I was interested to see what I could come up with.

Signs and symbols for ‘here’ involve indicating a location. They draw the eye to a specific area or object of interest. Typically symbols can be map pins, pointing fingers or arrows.

    

Signs for ‘here’ can also be lines that mark an area or boundary, such as:

The word ‘HERE’ is also often used to indicate ‘here’.. such as ‘Ice Cream Available Here’

My mind map exploring the symbols relating to ‘here’ is below.

My thumbnail sketches exploring symbols for ‘here’ are below:

I chose the concept of a pointer dog as an alternative symbol for ‘here’. The dog is still effectively a ‘pointing’ symbol but is a different form of pointer from the more usual fingers, arrow heads and map pins.

I sketched the outline of a pointer dog in his ‘pointing’ stance and then simplifed the image into a series of angular shapes.

I used Adobe Illustrator to digitally create the same shapes and then combined them together into the dog outline.

I made the outline of the dog red to attract the viewer’s attention and gave the dog a pointy red nose, intended to pin point exactly where the viewer should be looking. My final symbol is below:

 

 

When I put my new symbol into practice on a map, I was a bit concerned that it wasn’t standing out, so I reversed the colours to make it predominantly red (and easier to see).

 

 

 

Part 3 – Research Point: Visual Dynamics

How do your eyes travel around the items you have collected? What do you look at first? Where is the contrast in what you are looking at?

Emma Dunbar: A Riotous Bunch on Yellow

My eyes travel first to the colourful flowers, then to the jug and then left to the cup.  I then become aware of the background – the table that the jug is standing on and the slight difference in the shading of the panels of the background. I then go back to the flowers to look at them in more details.

The contrast in this image is in the red, pink and purple colours of the flowers and the yellow of the rest of the image. Layering of the jug on top of the table gives context to the image. The slight panel of yellow behind the flowers help to frame it and make it stand out.

Ed Ruscha – Standard Station 1966 (Colour Screen Print)

In this image, I look first at the word ‘Standard’, then the white building (from left to right), then the petrol pumps, then the orange background, particularly the boundary between the orange and blue,  and finally, the blue background.

My eye is naturally drawn to the text first because I want to read it, it is quite large and prominent and is naturally on the left of the frame, travelling right. The building follows the same line as the text, so my eye travels quite naturally to it. The contrast in this image is between red and white, with the white really standing out. The orange and blue background give a sense of context, looking like the hot desert ground and cloudless sky. The gradient in the orange background also gives a sense of depth.

Ed Ruscha – Made in California

My eye is drawn straight to the text in this image, which I read from top to bottom. I take in the orange background and then go back over the text to examine the ‘water droplet’ details of the letters.

The only contrast here is the writing which is slightly darker than the background (and also is picked out with some highlights).

‘Apricot rose’ by Volontaire (Malin Åkersten Triumf and Yasin Lekorchi) with a photograph by Niklas Alm for Amnesty International, 2007.

My eye is drawn straight to the light coloured rose, in particular the centre where the petals are close together. Then I examine the sutures which I find very disturbing and which look very out of place stitched into the rose. I find the rose and sutures very compelling but eventually notice the darker leaves of the rose. I eventually look at the background. I don’t know what it is and I find I don’t feel I need to know but I am quite distracted by the blob of what looks like plasticine as I don’t know why that is there. The last thing I look at is the text. Because it is small, I have to make an effort to read it and I only read it when I have seen enough of the image to want to know more about the poster.

The contrast in this image is in the light coloured rose and the rest of the image, which is dark. There is also contrast in the soft and natural nature of the rose and the violence and injury of the sutures.

I thought I would try out some visual dynamics analysis on a promotional card on display in a local coffee shop.  Interestingly, my eye was not drawn straight to the most obvious element, which was the red writing, instead it went straight to the drink and then to the lemon. It was a hot day and the long, cold drink and bright, sunny lemon just looked too enticing! My eye then went to the title writing, although I think I noticed the green ‘zesty lemonade’ more than the red ‘summer goodness’. Then I looked up at the bunting and then down to the logos at the bottom. To me the black and brown coffee shop logo looks out of place and is quite distracting.