Project 3 
A Visual Language

“Eventually everything connects.”
—Charles Eames

Rubin’s Vase, an ambiguous figure identified in 1915 with conflicting figure-ground perceptual cues
Four weeks

How can you translate what you see into a graphic language?

In 1919 Kandinsky wrote an essay in which he used the metaphor of verbal “language” to discuss the laws of visual form, calling simple geometric shapes “forms belonging to the first sphere of graphic language.” He came up with the full metaphor of “visual language” not long after and it has since become a foundational concept in the study of graphic design.

In this project we’ll use the basic structures of  language to lead an interpretive deconstruction of our surrounding, transforming them into a distinct graphic language. Just as paragraphs can be broken into words and words can be broken into letters, we’ll break photos of our environment into their basic formal elementals. We’ll translate those elements into new graphic forms, exploring a variety of materials and tools as we go. Your collection of forms will then be used to create new compositions, a graphic language all your own.

Learning objectives
  • develop a new form from what you see
  • excercise an understanding of gestalt principles
  • explore traditional and nontraditional tools and materials
  • develop a distinct visual voice
  • practice transparency of process and generosity with creative methods

Part one
Photo Hunt for Form.
30 minutes.

Shoot a minimum of 10 photos for each of the following categories.
  • Shape
  • Volume
  • Line
  • Pattern
  • Texture

Shoot quickly!! Don’t belabor the creation of these photos, you will be transforming them later. You are hunting for potential. Look for the inspiring, the beautiful, the curious, anything the prompts a graphic translation. Speedily capture what’s you see and start looking for the next opportunity to photograph. Seek diversity in your collection of images. These are your sources to work from later, take as many pictures as possible within the allotted time. Go to stores, buildings, museums, schools, parks, different streets you normally don’t walk on.  

Part two
Begin editing your images down and selecting ones that relate to eachother, tell a story or ones that can be viewed as a collection.

Edit the collection down to a set of 40 images. If you feel you need to capture more images, do so for next week and add them to your collection of 40 images.

(For reference only, do not replicate)

Translation process
Look at an individual element in your photo then translate it into a graphic form. There are no strict rules for the process of translation. It might be a simple procedure: Sketch an element, then scan that sketch. Or it might be several steps: Build a structure that mimics an element, then photograph the shadow cast by that structure, bring that shadow into photoshop and refine further, then map that image onto the surface of a digital 3D form. Create physical structures, mark make by hand, manipulate lighting, alter image with code, etc. Anything BUT the original photo can be used as a graphic form in your collection. The idea is to translate and evolve a new visual language distinct from, but inspired by, your original photos. Your voice will reveal itself when greater interpretation is required. Your tools and materials will reveal their influence in the translation process.

Pursue more than 40 studies, you’ll narrow and refine later. Start fast, creating looser studies and sampling a range of materials quickly. Misuse or intermingle materials and tools to force unexpected results. When you discover a promising process, put more time into crafting the technique. Keep your camera close or be ready to take screen shots. Document the steps in your technique to share later. A successful technique does not need to be complex, the strength of the final form determines its worth. As you work in the studio, keep in mind that your final collection of graphic forms will be digital.

Non-traditional images & tools: 
(You must use at least 5)
  • needles
  • thread/string
  • marshmallows
  • tissue
  • toothpaste
  • Vaseline
  • salt/paper
  • straws
  • QTips
  • balloons
  • cotton balls

Traditional images & tools:
(Use at least 5)
  • paper
  • tape
  • Xacto knife
  • mark making guides: S curve, ruler, stencil
  • mark making: sharpies, pens, pencils, india ink, gouache, acrylic
  • Adobe Suite: Illustrator, Photoshop, et
  • documentation tools: camera, scanner
  • code: processing, javascript, etc
  • 3D software: Cinema 4D, Blender, CAD, SketchUp, etc

Narrow your favorite explorations to a set of 40 graphic forms based off of your taken photographs and prepare a title for your collection.

Digitize your physical work and be ready to share in class next week on screen. You will prepare a keynote or Google slides presentation of your 40 selected images.

The first slide of your presentation must begin your collection title.

Week 1, Sept 18
  • Take 50+ photos of shape, volume, pattern, form and texture.
  • Translate your photos into graphic forms using a variety of materials and tools.
  • Google Slides presentation of your 40 studies. The first slide should be a working title of your collection and each study should lead with an image of your original photo.
  • Reading: “Ways of Seeing” (excerpt), John Berger

Week 2, Sept 25
  • Revise: Make edits to your exsisting collection of translated forms/images from last weeks class.
  • Think about these as a cohesive set of objects.
  • Critique: A Visual Language
  • Reading: “About Looking” (excerpt), John Berger

Week 3, Oct 2
  • Continue to refine your collection to a finilized set of 40 graphic forms. Keep pushing, you should not be content with your exsisting set.
  • Now it’s time to put this collection into a vessel. In InDesign you will place each form/image from your language onto it’s own 8.5in x 11in page (One form, one page). If you have images relating to your visual language, think about how they can be shown.
  • Your collection will also need to have a cover page, statement page, and a contents page. Think about scale and tension when pacing the book when laying it out.
  • Reading: “Function and Gestalt,” Max Bill

  • Pages: Minumum of 43 pages (including Cover, summary and contents)
  • Dimensions: 8.5in x 11in (vertical or horizontal)
  • Cover page: Collection title with your full name, date and time of its compeletion.
  • Project statement: A brief description about the idea and process of your collection.
  • Contents: 1 summary image of all 40 graphic forms.
  • Typography: The font must relate to your collection, do some research on fonts relating to your collection idea.
  • Binding: Hole punched, paper fasteners or post bindings (you can purshase these at any office supply store).

Week 4, Oct 9
  • Push your final language along with any final edits from the previous week. You will bring in a set of thumbnails on 11in x 17in outling your collection for pacing, tension and scale. It should consist of a cover page, table of contents and your final language.
  • Critique: A Visual Language
  • Reading: “A Primer for Visual Literacy”, Donis A. Dondis

Week 5, Oct 16
  • Bring in your final fastened 8.5in x 11in print outs showcasing your final langauge. The final print outs should be on a nice(ish) paper.  
  • We will have a guest critic for a class critique.
  • Final Critique: A Visual Language
  • Reading: “Visible Wisdom”, Muriel Cooper

Visiting critic

Required readings
“About Looking” (excerpt), John Berger
“Function and Gestalt,” Max Bill
“Language of Vision, Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller
“Continuity and Change”, Max Bill
“Ways of Seeing” (excerpt), John Berger
“Visible Wisdom”, Muriel Cooper

Zach Liebermann
“A Public Character,” Shannon Ebner
“Printed Matter/Drukwek,” Karel Martens
“Gestalt, Fos,” OK-RM
Tauba Auerbach
WAX Magazine
Neil Donnelly
Chad Kloepfer
Dante Carlos
Inventory Press

This project is a translation from Keetra Dean Dixon’s Design Studio unit at the Rhode Island School of Design. Thank you.