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.

Please follow and like us:

Observations on Type Design

    

I love a good type design. What I don’t understand is why they don’t appear more frequently.

So this subject may be a recurring one.

Above are several type designs from national TV news programs. Most are run-of-the-mill designs, practically ignored by everyone in any walk of life. But to a designer, only one of them hits the mark of being an example of typographical thinking on the part of the one who designed it.

In doing type designs, one has to consider a few things about the type itself: 1) the font chosen for the design; 2) the shape of the letterforms; and 3), of course, the impact you want to impart with the overall design. Notice that I said “letterforms”.

In studying typography, any good school will teach just what is important in type design. We can go back and study the history of fonts, who designed them and for what purpose, the processes used to print them, etc. But what’s important more than anything is appreciating the shapes of those pieces of type: a lowercase “g” in Garamond Bold is not the same as a corresponding “g” in Universe Bold. They are the same letter, yes, but not the same letterform. The letters here are different shapes, something a good type designer cannot—or shouldn’t ever—ignore.

Another thing a good type designer should not ignore is that words themselves—groupings of those letterforms—are shapes themselves. And in design, the interplay of shapes is important. Their size, their placement and proximity to one another—all important considerations.

Let’s look at each of the above. “This Week with George Stephanopoulos”  is just an OK design. That black ABC circle is like a big punctuation mark preceding the rest of the design. The designer tried to make “this week” come together by fitting “this” between the left edge of the “w” and the stem of the “k” in “week”. The font chosen for “this week” is not refined enough for a high profile show such as this. It’s a stark design overall, and I suppose the red, white, and blue are somewhat rally points to say that this is an American political news show, which it is. It tries real hard. I’ll give it a C+.

Next is “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer”. Pretty plain, when you look at the placement of the words. The words “Situation Room” are larger than the rest—which is good—but the design has nothing going for it, so the designer relies on embellishments to the design by adding a slight chrome look to the letterforms along with a little 3D depth, then adding stars, and setting it against a background of a flattened image of the earth. Of course, the actual situation room is in the White House, but this show likens itself to that, so the image shown here aligns to that global importance and perspective. That’s just branding. But the type design portion here falls short. The design does have a tightness of assembly, which is good. So this gets a B.

Then we have “Anderson Cooper 360°”. I saw this and winced. I’m thinking right away that the “360°” in the name should’ve afforded the designer a lot of design possibilities, but I looked at several iterations of this design among the ones shown on my Google search, and they all have nothing inventive going with that angle. There’s just three “words” here, and look what the designer did with them: “Cooper” aligns to the right on “Anderson”, but then “360°” is centered on “Cooper”. Really? That’s the extent of it, and it’s not well put together. This gets a C+.

Next up is “Face the Nation”, and this one, despite having only three words again, has a certain alignment among its three parts that works only slightly better than the previous one. The font is OK—it’s plain and very readable—and the type spacing is OK, but it’s that the word “the” is stacked that drives me nuts. Words are meant to be read from left to right (in the vast majority of the world, and certainly in English-speaking countries), and not from top to bottom. You see it every now and then, but at least here it’s only three letters, so it’s not a mortal sin. But the designer didn’t lock it up very well by making those stacked letters fall short of the height of the letter “E” right next to it. This gets a B.

“Meet the Press” is nice in that it does lock up well among its parts. The shapes come together well, marrying the NBC peacock into that otherwise negative space upper-right. The rest is just OK. A-.

The last one takes the top prize among these type designs, and it does it without any frills. It has a tiny embellishment that it doesn’t really need, but that curvilinear contour that shows up in the “11th” is picked up from the background. The main image has everything a good, solid type design should have. And it locks up together well: the shapes of those words fit together like building blocks. And the emphasis is where it needs to be: “11th” is the largest assembled part, with one extra variable—its red color. It doesn’t even need that, but it does make it more noticeable on TV. A+.

You can always tell a good type design right away, because it works all by itself without any outside help from flashy backgrounds, shiny stars, or even motion.

Please follow and like us: