Visual Design Fundamentals

The following series of videos are meant to be presented as part of a complete college-level course. Each section of the course includes a video and one or more projects and assignments. If you are interested in seeing a sample from the course I host at please contact me at:


SECTION 1: Elements


This opening video for the course gives a broad view of what the course is meant to achieve. Establishing a clear and consistent vocabulary is one of the primary purposes of this class. In this video all of the "Elements" of visual design are defined and explained. 

Project 1: Abstracting the signature

Where does visual design come from? How do I start? What is inspiration? 

In addition to establishing a common vocabulary and teaching you the basics of visual design, this course is also meant to help you with the practical reality of how to get started.

A blank white piece of paper can be daunting and it is easy to get paralyzed by the reality that you don't really know what you are doing. I hope by the end of this class the phrase, "I don't know what I'm doing" is an exciting and empowering place to be rather than an overwhelming roadblock.

Artists by definition are trying to create things that have never existed so, "not knowing" comes with the territory. The good news is there are infinite options. The bad news is... there are infinite options.

For this first project we are going to find inspiration in something very familiar to you - your name. As we go through this project I want you to remember the point. The point is not that you should always use your signature as a starting point for inspiration.

The point of using your signature is to highlight the fact that even the most mundane familiar visual information surrounding you everyday has the potential to guide you into fruitful paths of exploration.

Let's get started.



What you need: 

  1. Metal ruler or straight edge
  2. 5 sheets of regular white 8.5 x 11 computer paper
  3. Xacto knife
  4. A variety of pens and pencils
  5. 1 fresh 15" x 22" white Crescent illustration board
  6. 1 small ink brush
  7. India Ink


Step 1: Write your name

Take one of your sheets of 8.5" x 11" white paper and write your name. Your full name in whatever language you like.


Step 2: Fill the page

Pick up a different pen or pencil and write you name again in a different way. Then again. I want you to fill the entire sheet of paper with different versions of your name.

Challenge yourself to make each signature unique. Big, small, cursive, block letters, stacked letters, upside-down, overlapping, left and right handed, fast, slow, dotted, scribbled, etc. etc. See how many different ways you can write your name.

Make a mess and fill the entire paper.



Step 3: Measure out squares

Once your paper is filled with versions of your name set it aside.

On a fresh 15" x 20" white illustration board measure out two five-inch squares. Very lightly draw them in the center of the board two inches apart using pencil.



Step 4: Cut a window

On a new sheet of 8.5" x 11" white paper measure and draw a .5" square. Using an Xacto knife and self-healing matte cut out the square so you are left with a small square window in the paper.



Step 5: Find designs

Place the paper with the .5" square hole on top of the page filled with your signatures. Move the hole around and see if you can frame interesting square designs using the lines from your signature. When you find a design you like use a pencil to trace around the square so you can find it again later.

Once you have outlined at least ten different .5" designs you can put the paper with the square hole aside.



Step 6: Enlarge

Choose two of the ten designs you outlined and enlarge them to fill the 5" x 5" squares on your illustration board. Using a pencil draw them as accurately as you are able.



Step 7: Refine

Once you have your two designs drawn in pencil at 5" x 5" on your illustration board set aside your page of signatures. Without looking at the original page take a moment to refine your design a little. Don't add anything new, just see if you can add a little more variety. For example if you see that all the lines are the same width try making some of them thicker or thinner. If all the lines are clean and sharp try making some broken up or irregular. Refinement and variety.


Step 8: Ink

When you are satisfied with your designs use a brush with India ink to fill in the design with a solid black. Do not use any water to dilute the ink. For parts of the design too small to fill in with a brush you can use your black technical pen.



Step 9: Border

When your design is filed in solid black use your technical pen with a straight edge to make the border black. Be careful when using a straight end to not smudge the wet ink.


Step 10: Erase

Finally after you have completely inked your design and let the ink completely dry (I'd give it an hour or more) take an eraser and erase any remaining pencil marks from your initial drawing.



That completes this project.


Journal Assignment: 

Collect examples of the elements of visual design in your daily surroundings. They might be pieces of paper or photographs you can tape into your journal or you can sketch what you see into your journal. Label each with the element you associate it with. Find at least one example for every element.



SECTION 2: Principles

A continuation of the first section this video completes our list of vocabulary by defining and explaining the "Principles" of visual design. This vocabulary is meant to form a common ground for meaningful discussion of how visual language works. 


SECTION 3: Unity and Variety 

Unity and Variety are on the list of Principles but I decided to devote an entire video to this principle rather than include it in the last video. I have personally found that this simple relationship can be a very potent and practical way to understand how to strengthen visual communication. Much like "contrast" this is an over-arching concept that is applicable to every other word on our list.  


SECTION 4: Composition and Proportion

A discussion of how we go about organizing stuff in a given format. Limits and constraints are an important part of any creative endeavor. 


SECTION 5: Contrast and Emphasis

Contrast is, "the mother of all principles". Without it we wouldn't see anything. Understanding contrast is key to learning how to control visual language. Not only does contrast enable us to see, it is one of the primary mechanisms we use to emphasis or de-emphasis areas of our compositions. It helps communicate what is and isn't important.  


SECTION 6: Color

Color is a huge topic and deserves much more time that we give it here. Here we cover the three properties of color: hue, value, and saturation. We also take a look at the color wheel and talk about the most common color relationships.


SECTION 7: Balance

Our understanding of visual language is heavily influenced by our experience of the physical world we exist in. There is no better example of this than balance. Tapping into those instinctual ties between visual and physical can be an effective way to communicate with an audience. It is also crucial that we understand the pitfalls that can come from incorrect assumptions we might be making as a result of default behaviors and common-sense perception.


SECTION 8: Pattern, Rhythm, and Movement

Much like balance our sense of visual rhythm and movement are closely linked to other senses and experience of the physical world. Using these principles effectively can help engage a viewer and help establish visual pathways to follow throughout a composition. 


SECTION 9: Volume, Space, and Scale

This course is about two dimensional design so the only "space" we have to work with is height and width - no depth. Whenever we discuss 3 dimensional concepts in the context of a 2D design class we are talking about an illusion of 3 dimensions. This is important to remember. Once we truly understand that it is an illusion and how illusion works we can manipulate the effect to achieve very interesting and powerful results.