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Elementary: On the Sleuth for Design Elements

Our Challenge: Create a model that represents the elements of design. Popular ones may be a “Design Element Safari” or a set of “Design Trading Cards” featuring any objects. Or create your own model — one that helps you learn about the elements and reflects what you’ve learned.

The design elements I followed were  by Robert N. St. Clair  from a paper, Visual Metaphors, Visual Communication and the Organization of Cognitive Space. It was presented at the International Association for Intercultural Communication Studies, Taipei, Taiwan. July 2005.

visual syntax

Robert N. St. Clair

I initially had intentions of trying my hand at Prezi, which is something I only briefly dabbled in before, but thought it might be fun.  However, time again, was not on my side and I deferred to creating a set of trading cards in Microsoft Publisher since I’m pretty comfortable with it.

The area in which I chose to look for these elements was the natural world- specifically in animals.  Luckily I have some knowledge regarding the Animal Kingdom so I had ideas in mind for each one.  The idea sometimes led me to another animal, but overall it was pretty neat to view and think about animals from a more artistic point of view.

Many people will look at this picture and think it is one organism.  However, aside from all the patterns creating a wholeness of visual unity, this Honeycomb Coral is actual a harmonious colony of individual polyps.  Each green spot is an individual animal! Want to learn more information about coral?  Check out NOAA’s website, Coral Reef Conservation Program.

VS Variety

Picture of coral from

So when we think of variety in animals, we often think of biodiversity.  The more varieties of coral forming a reef, the more diverse it is.  The more diverse a reef is, the more variety of other organisms it can support.  Variety is awesome!

VS Balance

Picture of butterfly from
Image by Glenda Cotter

So when I saw the word balance, I immediately thought of butterflies.  These are great examples that we can use to teach kids about symmetry because, well they are pretty, they fly, their tiny and non-threatening so the kids love them!  If you ever want to teach about radial symmetry then sea urchins are a great example from the animal world.

VS Emphasis

Picture of sea worm from /
Image by Steve Haddock/Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

I took Biological Oceanography last semester and we touched on bioluminescence. In general it is either used for offense or defense.  Examples of offensive measures can be to lure prey (most people think about the Angler Fish in Finding Nemo) to them or to light up dark places to see the prey.  Examples of defensive measures could be to flash and startle the predator trying to eat you or  to light an area of your body you could afford to lose if something was to take a small bite out of you!  Communication is another reason animals may have to light up our lives.  If we are thinking about visual emphasis- then bioluminescence is perfect!

VS Rhythm

Picture of box turtles from

I LOVE box turtles.  I worked at a wildlife hospital for a couple of years when I was thinking about applying to vet school (the teaching bug caught me instead). Initially everyone thinks they are boring because thier not as active or noisy as some of the other species.  But they are remarkable healers. Seriously.  I witnessed turtles completely recover (with scars obviously) from having their shells run over by cars.  It may take them a year (or two), but many patients that came in were also able to leave.  I also came to appreciate their “personalities”.

But back on track to the assignment, I chose these guys for rhythm due to their shells.  No two shells are alike. They are like fingerprints.  However each scute (scale of the shell) will have the same/similar pattern to the other scutes on the shell.  I think you’ll agree they are works of art in and of themselves and that they each have their own rhythm. :)

VS Movement

Picture of zebras from

So the movement element took me the longest to think of an example.  I decided to just type “animals that look like they are moving” into the Google image search bar, which yielded a bunch of results that didn’t make sense for what I was looking for, until I came across a random zebra photo.  So its thought that zebras have stripes to (1) confuse lions- it can be hard to pick out one zebra from a group of zebras (fun fact- a group of zebras is called a herd or a zeal) and (2) their stripes are like fingerprints and zebras may use them to identify each other.  It also makes me think of those optical illusions that when you stare at them they appear to move.  I think if you also stare at picture of a zeal of zebras that you might see them move too!

Compound eyes have always fascinated me.  What would it really be like to see like a fly?  Beyond that, they can actually be fairly beautiful.  I’ve seen a lot of photography focusing on invertebrate eyes, unfortunately a lot of the really cool ones were protected so I couldn’t post them here, but they often look like a wall of patterned jewels.

VS Graduation

Picture of shark from
Image by George Ryschkewitsch

So when I first saw graduation, I immediately thought of counter shading.  Some animals will have more distinct differences between the dark and light sides, but this Carribean Reef Shark demonstrated a nice example of graduation.

VS Proportion

Picture of drawing by Luc Viatour /

The Vitruvian Man was another image that jumped right into my mind when I tried to think of an example.  Leonardo DaVinci was obsessed with proportionality.  While searching for this image, I came across the one below.  I found it pretty interesting with the concept of proportionality and how in something like a living creature, it can change.  I remember learning in one of my undergrad classes that babies are designed with the way they are to make us want to take care of them.


Journal of Heredity (1921) Volume 12, pg 421

I really enjoyed this assignment.  It made me think about a familiar subject in a different way.  I now have this new lens in which to view the world!

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