Seeking True Principles in Art and Design

A. Michael Shumate

A. Michael Shumate

“Birth of the Virgin” by Pietro Lorenzetti, 1342 (detail)

Discovering Perspective
Before the Renaissance, artists knew that parallel lines in architecture appeared to taper at different angles, but their attempts to show this realistically in painting were inconsistent at best. This resulted in lots of paintings with wonky architecture.

It wasn’t until about 1425, when Filippo Brunelleschi figured out the underlying principles of linear perspective. All across Europe there was a smacking sound as artists slapped their foreheads and said, “Mama mia! Of course!” Once the principle was disclosed, everyone could see it clearly and virtually all artists quickly adopted this principle. Why?

Because it worked.

"St Peter receiving the keys" by Pietro Perugino shows the principles of linear perspective discovered by Filippo Brunelleschi.

Unravelling Color Secrets
In the mid 1800s a chemist named Eugene Chevreul was the dye-master for the Gobelins Tapestry Works in Paris. He did extensive experiments combining threads of different colors. He formulated the theory of Simultaneous Contrast of colors after observing that threads of very different hue look richer when next to each other. Many of the impressionists and post-impressionists were thrilled with the practical application of Chevreul’s principles.

Vincent van Gogh even kept different colored balls of yarn to work out specific color combinations. His paintings, more than any other of those painters resembled separate threads of color. And what beauty van Gogh created with the principles Chevreul discovered.

"Olive Trees" by Vincent Van Gogh

Ephemeral or Eternal?
In my second week of teaching college Branding Design, I told a student that the logo concept he was working on would not be suitable as a professional identity design. He asked me, “Why?”

I answered that I didn’t know why, but that his concept was still a bad idea. I was certain some principle was being violated, but I couldn’t articulate what it was. I also knew that my answer was totally inadequate. I determined then and there to discover what those underlying principles were.

That twenty-five quest has lead me to look deeply at branding design and to seek for those constant, unchanging principles. Fads in art and design come and go. But principles don’t. Principles are enduring; they stand the test of time. We can ignore them for a while, but violating principles just breaks our work. Over time, we come back to true principles. Why?

Because they work. They always work.

I believe there are true principles in every area of artistic endeavor including branding design. I don’t pretend to know them all, but I’m sure I’ve discovered at least a few. Those are what I want to share here in my blog.

It doesn’t matter where knowledge comes from; when we find true principles, we would do well to adopt them.

Bedrock principles in graphic design trump fad and fashion every time. There are few areas where this is more evident than in branding design. Designers whose identities violate those principles will find that, sooner or later, their creations will be replaced.

Those who vainly seek to be on the leading edge find out, more often than not, that they are on the bleeding edge. The underlying principles of identity design don’t change. Those who cater to temporary swings in taste will find their work goes out of style quickly. Sadly, designers who think that they can do anything and call it an identity don’t understand the nature of identities.

Adapted from Logo Design Theory: How Branding Design Really Works

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