Visual Grammar by Christian Leborg

05 October, 2022 - 10 min read

I. Brief Summary

Visual grammar provides a way to describe and communicate the features of an image. A great handbook on all visual elements. Consider this as a visual dictionary for beginners.

II. Big Ideas

  • Communication requires language. The visual language of design is no exception. Design elements are like letters and words.
  • The first chapter deals with abstractions such as dimension, format, and volume.
  • The second concerns concrete objects and structures such as form, size, color, and texture.
  • The third part describes the activities that can take place in a composition such as repetition, mirroring, and movement.
  • The fourth chapter deals with the relations between several objects in a composition.
  • The book is divided into four parts:

    • Objects – The basic elements we have to work with. Can be abstract or concrete.

      • Abstract Objects are idealized shapes that can’t physically be created. For example take a point. A point by definition has no area. It only has a position. Any point we try to draw will have some kind of area if we are to see it and once it does, it ceases to become a point. It can only exist as an abstract concept and not as a physical thing. Abstract objects include:

        • Points – A position on a coordinate system without area. Points have no dimensions.
        • Lines – A series of points adjacent to each other. Points have one dimensions.
        • Surfaces – A series of lines that are adjacent to each other and perpendicular to their direction. Surfaces have two dimensions.
        • Volumes – An empty space defined by surfaces, lines, and points. Volumes have three dimensions.
      • Concrete objects are perceived within defined limits called contours. Inside and including the contour itself is our object, our shape, our form, and outside the contour is everything else. Forms or shapes can be geometric, organic, or random (sometimes called abstract). A circle is an example of a concrete object. It’s contour being the curved line that encloses it. Concrete objects have:

        • Form – defined by a contour of surfaces and lines. A form is how a thing looks.
        • Size – Forms can be large or small. They are perceived relative to the person viewing, other forms in the composition, and the format of the design.
        • Color – we perceive different wavelengths of light as color. A form can be any color, though we are limited to seeing only those colors in the visual spectrum.
    • Structures – The patterns formed from our basic elements. Can be abstract or concrete.

      • Abstract Structures when the structure lines of a structure are invisible and inactive the structure is considered to be abstract. Consider the image below. The circles are clearly arranged in a pattern. There is a structure present, but the lines defining that structure are invisible.

        • Formal – even distribution of elements and spacing (structure units) between them.
        • Informal – lacking regularity in the arrangement of objects. Even if a pattern is observed the structure is informal if the objects do not follow straight structural lines.
        • Gradation – structure units change in form or size, but at an even rate.
        • Radiation – structure units radiate from a common center.
        • Spiral – uneven distribution from a common center.
      • Concrete structures have either visible or active structure lines. Where abstract structures indirectly show the structure, concrete structures directly show the structure. Concrete structures can be visible compositions on their own such as the patterns that form into textures.

        • Visible structures do not have to include objects. As long as the structure lines are visible, the structure itself is visible.
        • Active structures are those where the structure lines influence the form of the objects within the structure.
    • Activities – The processes we can represent with our basic elements and patterns.

      • Repetition – Anytime several objects share some characteristic repetition is created. When more than one characteristic is shared the dominant one is used to describe the repetition. Repetition helps create consistency and design flow.
      • Frequency/Rhythm – When the distance between repeated objects is identical we have frequency. When the distance is varied between several frequencies we have rhythm.
      • Mirroring – When light waves are reflected from the surface at the same angle they fall onto it, an object is symmetrically rendered around an axis and mirroring is created.
      • Mirroring against a volume – When the surface has several different angles of reflection it becomes a volume. Volumes distort the reflected object and the mirroring is no longer symmetrical about an axis.
      • Rotation – When an object moves around a point or axis it rotates around that point or axis. The point or axis of rotation can be inside or outside the object.
      • Upscaling/Downscaling – When objects are scaled up or down their dimensions remain in proportion to each other. Their width-to-height ratio remains constant.
      • Movement – Within a visual design movement can only be shown as a representation of movement. This representation can be shown as a sequence or some illusion of motion.
      • Path – An object showing movement travels along an imaginary line or curve, which is the object’s path.
      • Direction – A moving object has a direction defined by a line or curve that leads from start to end point.
      • Superordinate and subordinate movement – Objects can rotate, move back and forth, or swing as they travel along a path. This secondary movement is the subordinate movement, whereas movement along the path is the superordinate movement.
      • Displacement – When only part of an object moves it’s form is displaced. Displacement is define by an angle between the original point and the new displaced point.
      • Direction of displacement – Displaced objects move in a specific direction.
    • Relations – The relationships between objects, patterns, and processes. They’re the way everything in your design relates to each other and the viewer. Objects placed in a composition relate to each other, they relate to the overall design, the format and, they relate to the viewer. Through relations with each other, elements can attract or repel, they can imply movement and flow. Through relation to the overall design, elements convey a concept and theme. Through relation with the viewer elements communicate different messages.

      • Attraction/Static – Any time two objects appear in a design they appear to either attract or repel each other. A single object, not in movement, and with equal forces of attraction and repulsion applied, appears static.
      • Symmetry/Asymmetry – Objects identically arranged around an axis are symmetrical. Objects not identically arranged around an axis are asymmetrical. Symmetry is considered beautiful, but static. Asymmetry is more interesting because it is dynamic.
      • Balance – When the visual weights of objects in a composition are in equilibrium, the composition is in balance.
      • Groups – When objects display repetition or are in close proximity to one another they form a group.
      • Fine/Coarse – The distance between structure lines defines the fineness or coarseness of an object or structure.
      • Diffusion – An irregular dispersion of objects with varying fineness and coarseness is called diffusion.
      • Direction – Structures can actively define direction.
      • Position – A group of objects in a composition can define a position. That position can be in the center or along the edge or corner of the composition.
      • Space – Space is the empty areas between major and minor objects and is as important to a design as the areas where the space is filled with objects. Learning to see and use the space in your designs is one of the most important things any designer can learn.
      • Weight – All objects in a design have a visual weight based on size, color, form, surrounding space, etc. Our eye is drawn to elements with the greatest visual weight.
      • Amount/Dominance – The amount of objects in a given area of a design contributes to the visual weight of that area. Areas or objects in a design with the most visual weight are dominant and create entry points and focal points in a design.
      • Neutral – Elements in a design that do not stand out from other objects are neutral in relation to those other objects. When too many objects in a design are neutral the entire design can become neutral.
      • Background/Foreground – The position of objects, their relative weights, the space around them and, their relative proportions all contribute to which elements are seen as being in the foreground and which are seen as part of the background.
      • Coordination – When objects share the same coordinates, value, focus, and are perceived to be same perspective they are in coordination with each. Two identical objects aligned vertically are not in coordination as the one on the bottom is perceived to be closer than the one on the top.
      • Distance – Closeness and remoteness are relative. The distance between objects is perceived based on the viewer’s perspective. Objects that appear close in 2 dimension can appear very far apart when the composition is seen in a 3-dimensional perspective.
      • Parallel/Angle – Two lines that never intersect are parallel. When lines intersect they form an angle. Angles exist only in relation to something else.
      • Negative/Positive – Negative and positive are terms that relate to opposite values such as light and dark. Positive elements appear to be in the foreground and negative elements appear to be in the background.
      • Transparent/Opaque – Light shines through transparent objects and can not penetrate opaque objects.
      • Tangent – Two elements that touch and share a common point are tangential to each other.
      • Overlapping/Compound – When part of one object lies on top of another object, the first overlaps the second. When overlapping objects visually appear to be one object they become a new compound form.
      • Subtraction/Coincidence – When an object is overlapped by another subtraction occurs in the overlapped part of the underlying object. When two objects share form and size and are position in a way that when seen from above they appear to be one, the objects are in coincidence.
      • Penetration/Extrusion – When one object is pushed through a larger object the first penetrates the second. When an object is forced through the opening of another object in such a way that the opening alters the form of the first object it has been extruded.
      • Influence – When an object’s form appears to be altered by another object, the altered object has been influenced by the other object.
      • Modification – An object that has been slightly altered has been modified. Modification does not change the basic characteristics of an object. A rectangle whose corners have been slightly rounded still appears to be a rectangle.
      • Variation – When objects are repeated with minor variance or modification the repetition is called variance.

III. Quotes

  • The reason for writing a grammar of visual language is the same as for any language: to define its basic elements, describe its patterns and processes, and to understand the relationship between the individual elements in the system. Visual language has no formal syntax or semantics, but the visual objects themselves can be classified.
  • Knowledge of visual concepts is often acquired through physical experience and applied without the use of written or spoken language.
  • Reflection about what one is going to create or what one has created alters the creative process: we think differently when we have a language to describe something.