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Learning Fundamentals By Practicing Other Media, Part 3: Graphic Design

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Welcome to the third installment of the series looking at ways of improving your photography without picking up a camera (initially). This time, it's the turn of graphic design and its quick, straight forward philosophy.

Graphic design, or visual design, is the art of visual communication. Its purpose is to quickly and clearly convey a message in visual form, either to a specific audience or to everyone regardless of background. To me, this parallels directly with photography, communicating the artist's message.

An example of clear communication- there's no uncertainty about the fact that this is a slating app for iOS.

Although this is the final article, I actually consider design to be the most important alternative medium to strive at. While superficially it may seem less related to photography than drawing and painting, the skills drilled by design are of paramount importance in the quest to produce iconic, timeless visual artwork.

I've been drilling the "attention to detail" mantra throughout this series, and quasi-realistic designs are a good way of practicing that.

While I'm not particularly recommending this course, as it's really quite time-consuming, I actually went so far as to register on crowd-source design platforms. Treating the prizes as a secondary concern (albeit motivational), I threw myself into it and found my design skills progressing by leaps and bounds.

It became less popular over time, but this style of app icon has always been my favourite. There are some stunning examples of the style out there.

After a while, I realised that many of these skills, thought patterns, and rules can apply equally to photography, and that I had actually been subconsciously changing the way I shoot without knowing it. With this conscious recognition, I was able to more formally list out the considerations and concepts that I could try to use in photography.

The least-awful iteration from my very first design project. Pretty terrible, all the same.
The least-awful iteration from my very first design project. Pretty terrible all the same, but don't be afraid to try, fail, and then push forward regardless.

One example of this is negative space. This is a prized compositional resource in design, but in photography is often derided as weak composition. While it's true that many photographers haven't yet learned the "get closer" maxim, the power of a correctly executed use of negative space is strong. Many of the world's most iconic images and highly-sought-after photographers use negative space for their impact.

A use of negative space- although the body of the Rubik's Cube isn't displayed, we subconsciously insert it, allowing the design to be cleaner.
A use of negative space, although the body of the Rubik's Cube isn't displayed, we subconsciously insert it, allowing the design to be cleaner.

Another example of a design rule which seems less considered in photography is called tangents. There are a number of different types of tangent. As the name implies, they were originally related to touching lines or edges, but now in art, they encompass a variety of "visually uncomfortable" compositional phenomena.

The primary issues in photography tend to be where a foreground and a background element of similar apparent size appear to be touching each other, or where a background structure appears to be "sprouting" out of a foreground element. There are a number of other tangents to avoid as well, as part of the design education process.

A portion of a game loading screen; tangents are easy to accidentally create with line art like this.
A portion of a game loading screen; tangents are easy to accidentally create with line art like this.

One of my favourite aspects of design is the unwavering focus on simplicity. If an element is unnecessary, remove it. Continue this until you're left with a design which wouldn't work if any more is removed. There is a tendency in photography to add more, to weave a more complex story within the image. This usually tends to result in over-stimulation for the viewer and conflict between elements.

A variety of iterations in no particular order for a single logo, constantly adjusting and perfecting the simplicity and feel.

A rule of logo design which I like is that it must work in pure black and white, no greyscale. This is for legibility when faxing, or to create embossed versions, or anything else which has a simple binary value system. While this doesn't translate directly to photography as we like our soft lighting and roll-offs, the idea of creating simple, bold images is one that appeals to me.

A mid-journey design where I had grasped the pure-black-and-white thing, although it's a little too complex for an effective logo.
A mid-journey design where I had grasped the pure black-and-white thing, although it may be a little too complex for an effective logo.

Consider the "propaganda poster" style prints like those of Che Guevara or Barack Obama, iconic designs, certainly, but created from iconic photographs. The instant recognition and impact is something we should strive towards. As photographers, we get caught up in bokeh and light leaks and split toning and other stylistic noise. Remembering that it's all about the camera, lens and light can keep us grounded in pursuing our personal talent rather than keeping up with the latest fashionable gimmicks.

I had seen some mid-20th century coastal shots and loved the timelessness, which is what I was trying to capture here. I feel like this image could have been taken at any point in the last hundred years.

Analysis is another design trait that the instant nature of cameras tends to inhibit. The speed of shooting and processing seems to subconsciously hurry the brain along in general, and questions like "why am I shooting this," "what message am I trying to communicate about this subject" and "why am I shooting it in this specific way" tend to fade into the background. The pull simply to capture, or keep clicking because something looks good, is strong. We need to slow down and really think.

I only shot three of these shots of myself on a pole-lathe I built, and chose between them based simply upon the position of the flying shavings. I observed and considered all aspects of the shot before I even set the camera up.

A design-oriented brain will first stand back and consider the questions and more. Not only that, but the design process itself is an iterative one, based on simplicity. Once the questions have been answered and the first few exposures made, then comes the second round of contemplation, evaluating the images themselves. Is the image the most simple and powerful it can be, or can elements be eliminated to focus the design of it?

My favourite design contests were always the icon ones. I felt like I could be more visually creative than the logo ones, although the design rules for both are still fairly similar. This was the 20th iteration of this design.

Occasionally I check in on those crowdsourcing sites and look through the contests on offer. I don't enter much any more, if at all, but I like to use them as "set examples" for self-educational purposes, keeping my "design brain" sharp. I tend to feel that this is better than trying to invent ideas myself where I could be unconsciously setting myself easy work which doesn't challenge me or push me out of my comfort zone.

The Light Tunnel in Detroit airport. I love the ability of long exposure to remove distracting details and create strongly graphical, impressionistic images.

I've primarily been talking about icon and logo design so far, but the principles of design apply fairly uniformly. If you have an affinity for web design, like to make collage print designs, business cards, or any other type of graphic design, all of the same main rules like color theory, geometry and simplicity apply. Only the medium-specifics change.

Part of a DVD cover I created for a producer friend a while back. Print design isn't my strongest suit, but I had a very specific idea for this one and liked the way it turned out.

Essentially, the message I'm trying to convey is this: your images are ultimately a two-dimensional abstract representation, in other words, graphic designs. Learning to approach them as such can improve them greatly.

Here we are at the end of this series! I hope it gave you some ideas or inspiration. Over this journey of exploring media I've been on for a few years now, and in the creation of this series, I've come to believe that ultimately all of the visual arts are different facets of the single whole.

I don't feel that limiting oneself to "photographer" or "designer" is very productive in the modern creative field, as disciplines continually converge and evolve as far as our imagination will take them. While it may be important business-wise to market yourself as primarily one thing in particular, in terms of influence and inspiration it's a big advantage to have a wider skill set.

Happy shooting! Thoughts? Questions? Hit up the comments below!

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