Repetition and the Principles of Design

Last week when we celebrated spring by playing hooky I encouraged you to download a copy of our book, “Design: A Beginner’s Handbook.” That got me thinking about the relationship between our blog and our book.

When we wrote our design book we decided to focus on the elements and principles of design as found in the everyday world. Our interest was in training you to see and think visually – finding and understanding elements such as line and shape in your daily encounters.

We developed the blog as a supplement to the information covered in the book. The blog is the place where you will find the elements and principles of design put to use by artists and designers.

We often discuss sophisticated works of art without specifically signifying their relationship to these fundamentals of design. Our hope is that by reading the book you’ve created a filter through which you process the information covered in the blog.

Today we’re going to return to several of those core design ideas, looking at repetition as its found in the organizing principles of Unity and Variety (Chapter 8), Balance (Chapter 9), the Grid (Chapter 10), Pattern (Chapter 13), and Rhythm (Chapter 14).

Repetition: the act or an instance of repeating or being repeated

What are some of the ways artists and designers use repetition?

One device used by artists and designers working with both two-dimensional and three-dimensional media is the “multiple” or “serial” format. In these instances the artist makes several versions of the same piece, often with variations from one to the next. They are designed to be viewed together. (Note that the term “multiples” is also used to refer to editions, such as prints, but these are not meant to be seen as a single piece and they are not what we are discussing here.) Andy Warhol often worked in this manner.

Another device, found in many sculptural works, is the repetition of a single material or component. Examples can be found in the work of artists such as Tara Donovan and Félix González-Torres. Tara Donovan has worked with large volumes of toothpicks to create a cube, and huge numbers of styrofoam cups to make undulating cloud-like installations. Among other things, Félix González-Torres is known for his installations comprised of thousands of hard candies.

In other instances artists employ repeating elements within a single composition. The viewer’s eye will naturally move from one repeating element to another, unifying what otherwise would be a chaotic composition.

Let’s not forget the use of repetition to make patterns. In fact, repetition is how patterns are made. It is the basis of many quilts, of patterns found in architecture, and of the complex designs central to Islamic works of art.

Now, reread the chapters that I listed above. As you do so think about the idea of repetition. What role does repetition play in establishing unity and variety? How is it used to create balance? Does this change how you view the grid? Can you even separate the idea of repetition from pattern and rhythm?

Scroll through the images below and think about how and why the artist has used repetition. Does it help balance the work? Does it create a pattern or a sense of rhythm? Does it demonstrate the use of unity with variety? Does it increase the power of the individual unit or does it diminish it?

When I began to put together the images for this post I was reminded about how prevalent the use of repetition is in the fields of art and design. I could easily have included thousands of works.

Two print series by Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol

A sculpture and an installation by Tara Donovan

Tara Donovan

An art installation of hard candies by Félix González-Torres

Félix González-Torres

Art installations by Allan McCullum

Allan McCullum

Grid artwork of swimming pool by David Hockney

David Hockney

Painting of hills and houses by Roger Brown

Roger Brown

Graphic art project by Matt Kay and Michael McCaughley

Matt Kay and Michael McCaughley

Red and white quilt by Lucy T. Pettway of Gee's Bend

Lucy T. Pettway

Elaborate mosaic roof of Hafez tomb

Roof of Hafez Tomb

Four architectural facades

Clockwise from top left: Hawkins Brown Architects; Jing Mian Xin Cheng: ECDM Architects; ACXT Architects

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