Try This Design Exercise

close-up of an open mouth with a train sitting on the tongue

A synergistic relationship that employs the design principle of scale and proportion.

This is a good exercise to start your explorations into design. I call this exercise “Synergy.” In a synergistic relationship the images have a strong connection to each other and mean more when joined together than they did on their own.

So, let’s start…

The goal of this exercise is to combine two found photographic images to form a synergistic relationship. This is an instance when less really is more. Unlike a traditional collage that might include several images this project works best with only two images.

Lemon slice and snowy field

In this example a connection is made between the shapes of the lemon sections and the field with its fences.

There are many ways that your photographs can relate to each other but the two main possibilities are formally and/or conceptually.

Formal connections are grounded in the elements and principles of design. You can juxtapose lines, textures, colors, shapes etc. Perhaps you think that a photograph of hair has a similar visual texture to ocean waves. Once you see this connection your next step would be to find a way to emphasize that similarity in your composition.

Stupa made to look like a woman's dress

The shape and visual texture of this buddhist temple mimics the shape and pleating found in a woman’s dress.

Conceptual connections, on the other hand, often depend on narratives such as satire or commentary. These types of synergistic relationships can be found in political cartoons and mainstream advertising.

Man slaying a serpent that has multiple human heads.

A political cartoon from the 19th century.

The best way to begin is to let images meet by accident. Leaf through several magazines and cut out images that are personally appealing or interesting. You might prefer to find photographs online and either download them and print them out, or if you know how to use image editing software such as Photoshop you can do this entire project digitally.

Man holding hose that appears to merge with a network of highway roads.

The design principle of unity and variety is evident in this example. The gestalt principle of continuity creates a seamless connection between the hose and the mass of roads.

Lay the images out and mix them up. Don’t intellectualize at this stage, just see what happens when images butt up against each other or overlap. Pay attention to accidental relationships that appear. Now you can begin to put things together, paying close attention to composition. When you think you’ve arrived at an eye-catching design fine tune it – consider the negative shapes in your design, think about scale relationships. Do you want a border around your piece or does it work best when it bleeds to the edge of the paper? Do you want to “break” the picture frame by extending your collage beyond the implied frame?

smoke coming out of factory that joins with the plume from a jet

This design, which is based on the gestalt principle of continuity, breaks the rectangle of the picture frame.

To complete the project you can use rubber cement to glue the photographs to poster board or paper. Another option instead of gluing is to just photograph your design.

I’ve included several examples for you to look at but don’t limit yourself to versions of what I’ve put together – there are an infinite number of solutions to this problem so try for your own unique vision.

For more information about the Elements and Principles of Design consider our book Design: A Beginner’s Handbook.

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