What Does it Mean to “Design” a Photograph?

Photography has design, much like anything else. As consumers, especially with our mobile phone cameras taking snapshots, we don’t think so much about designing our photographs. And maybe that’s something we should think about.

After all, when it comes to photography, designers might think about it more than non-designers. And so maybe this column today will serve as a lesson to those of us who are non-designers. Graphic designers can follow along to refresh their memory.

When most people see a photograph, they see just the subject matter in it, be it a flower or a building or a person. And that’s the real difference between what a non-designer sees and what a designer sees. Because I’ve been a designer all of my career, I see shapes.

Photography is just another way for people to record what they see. Photographs can be planned, such as when a photographer is on assignment or in their studios to shoot certain things or people. But they can also be just snapshots, which does not necessarily mean they cannot be planned. If a street scene with a crowd milling in front of a landmark fills the bill for a vacationing tourist, why can‘t he/she design the shot?

Design is something we learn in design school: the idea of arranging shapes in an organizational manner so as to achieve a pleasing composition. We learn by using flat shapes, maybe cut from black paper, and adhering them to a white surface such as matte board. In today‘s digital formative two-dimensional design class, students might do it in Adobe Illustrator. It doesn‘t matter: the resulting arrangement is the key.

Remembering from our discussion in Tenets of Good Design, Part 1, good organizational design starts with a dominant shape’s placement followed by the placement of smaller, or subordinate shapes within a frame of reference. A frame of reference is the overall shape (usually a rectangle) within which we place those shapes.

Your camera’s frame of reference is that rectangle, and what you place into that frame is the subject matter you‘re about to record on that camera‘s CCD. So you have the device in your hands with which you’re about to record what you see.

How do you do it? Do you just snap it off right now? I know, you’re so in love with the scene you feel it necessary to catch it immediately. But is it really that necessary that you capture it right this instant? If it‘s moving, sure. If it‘s a family moment that‘s too magical to miss, of course. But what if it isn‘t? What if you can take the extra few moments to see if it can be framed in such a way that the shot becomes art?

Make no mistake: design is art. Photography is art as well. Don‘t forget that.

All of the above examples exhibit a good sense of design. Within each frame we can see the reason the shot was designed in a certain way. My friend Brian took most of these shots. He doesn’t think of himself as a designer (he‘s been a print manager most of his career), but his design acumen comes across pretty readily here.

Top left, he’s looking up at an adobe structure, and seeing the possibilities, he scopes in on the crack appearing in the wall. Does he place the window at the top in the center? No. By letting the window stay left, the interest remains the crack and the window an accent.

Bottom left, the palm tree’s intricate textures and varied patterns make for a good centered composition, closely cropped. Do you crop in-camera or afterward? Doesn’t matter, as long as you see the composition.

Center, the crop on the tall trees aids in appreciating their ascending beauty and strength.

Top right, the graceful curve of the shoreline sets up the difference in color and texture of nature‘s earth and water.

Bottom right, I just had to add this shot from Valmont, the 1989 movie from director Milos Forman and his cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek. As everyone knows, the cinematographer in movies is the one who literally designs and shoots the moving pictures you see onscreen. This still of actress Meg Tilly is one such beautifully designed image: she reposes against a wall, deep in thought, and we see the shot ever so slightly tilted left to accentuate that repose, while the rest of her world is unfocused to the right.

Photography is like any other discipline in design, and art. Shapes, placement, and visual interest.

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Type Design, Part 2

What constitutes a “type design”? How do you know if it’s a type design instead of just regular typesetting?

Let’s examine what type design is again: designing with typographical forms.

So by that definition, a straight typesetting operation—just selecting a font and setting a name or phrase in that font without type size or normal placement differentiation—is not type design.

Designing anything requires one to to apply the placement of shapes to a frame of reference, that being a “field” where you place your design. It can be a rectangle, such as a magazine cover or even a TV background. That’s a basic tenet of design. I suppose you could say that selecting a font to express an idea in print or on the web is an “aesthetic judgment”, but it’s not an example of designing with type, or even design itself.

But using type or type groupings can be a form of type design. The example at top left is such a design. This is minimal type design, but notice that it contains groupings of type; that these groupings have shapes; and that these groups are joined together in a way that forms an overall design (along with the shapes of the photos) within that particular frame of reference. The fact that “Apple” and “Pay” are joined together as a unit, and that they’re made to be the same width to form a unified simple shape, is a form of very simple type design.

The next example is a type design I’ve used before in this column. This design for Dancing with the Stars is an example of using words as shapes. Notice the designer chose the words “dancing” and “stars” for the most prominent shapes (and that these two shapes lock together in their close proximity), keeping “with the” (another shape) as subordinate. It’s far from being completely successful as a good type design, but you get what I’m saying about the shapes.

The third example is much better at using words as shapes. The way these shapes lock together and play off each other makes this one of the best type designs I’ve seen in recent years, and it’s practically perfect except for one tiny flaw. See if you can you spot it.

The last two examples are not type designs. Why is that? One uses a photograph as a substitute for a letterform, while the other uses a combination of a letterform and the shape of a key (rather convoluted) to express an obvious reference. Aside from further critique in those areas, neither works as type design.

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