Abstract imagery exists either as an abstraction of an actual object, or it functions on a completely different plane, totally untethered to real world visual references. Both forms of abstract art exist in design and abstract art within the realm of design holds an untold amount of power. By nature, abstract images are more difficult to understand right out of the gate than their more concrete cousins—fortunately, this allows for a tremendous advantage in the world of design. A successful abstract image might be used for a website header, the background for a mobile phone app, the meat of a concert flyer or function in any other way the designer imagines. In this article we’ll discuss the cutting edge nature of abstract imagery in design, its freedom from limitation, the way it appeals to emotion and how it bypasses our distracted human nature.
There’s a staggering amount of power contained in the new and unexplored. While computer art is not a recent phenomenon, there are programs and algorithms that are brimming with possibilities. Technology presents designers with a completely verdant and fertile landscape to work from and exploit. Photoshop and other programs make it relatively simple for even an inexperienced artist or designer to produce high quality, if not always breathtaking, images that can provide a multitude of practical uses. An experienced designer can use image manipulation software to turn out some stunning pieces, but there’s another avenue entirely for computer generated imagery—fractals. A fractal is, in essence, an image that still resembles its larger self even when magnified and divided. Fractals utilize a particular mathematical structure, but they are also found in nature. These geometric powerhouses are awe inspiring if they’re executed correctly. They bring to mind vast, unexplored alien planets, the infinite world of molecules, the strength of chemical bonds and the depths of the human imagination. Fractals are, compared to decades and centuries-old techniques, an unexplored area of design. There are an enormous amount of possibilities left in the world of fractals and the software and algorithms that power them. There is power in the uncharted.
Abstract imagery can be generated using a computer, but it’s certainly just as effective when it’s created with more traditional means. That’s the beauty of the whole thing—there are no limits. There’s power in both breaking away from the representational and in not being constrained by any particular design method. The abstract resides in the area beyond concrete perceptions and stagnant preconceptions; instead it resides in a world that’s made almost entirely of unconscious feeling. This freedom from the literal gives the artist a considerable amount of choice when he or she is sitting down to design something. Recognizable objects are set aside in favor of raw emotion, and the essence or idea becomes much more important than any real world resemblance. The boundless possibilities allow a designer to create using his or her personality and idiosyncrasies without any worry about structure or intelligibility. An abstract piece can communicate feeling much more easily than, for example, a painting of a duck in a pond might be able to. When working the abstract, a designer can use his or her own aesthetic arsenal at its full power. Websites, clothing, pamphlets, posters and anything in the visual medium become more powerful when they are set free from constraints. As long as it’s well executed and the thought behind the image matches the project, there is no idea that’s invalid. There is power in the infinite.
Appeal to Emotion
Representational works, such as traditional landscapes and still life, lie purely in the world of the rational. A viewer immediately knows if the work is appealing in his or her mind, and then that work is quickly abandoned in favor of something else. It’s been filed and catalogued in the viewer’s mind within seconds. Most of our thoughts lurk beyond the realm of the representational, and it is thoughts rather than literal images that occupy most of our brain’s time. We concentrate on emotions and on how a situation or image made us feel rather than focus on the image itself once we get past our initial viewing. Abstract art bypasses our senses and moves directly on to our hearts and our minds. There it stimulates strong feelings, which are often feelings of fascination or discomfort. Even if we don’t really know what’s going on inside of our heads, we allow abstract images to penetrate past the voluntary and connect to our subconscious. A designer can use a great abstract piece in a subtle way to illicit a feeling directly from the viewer, and there is no concrete image necessary in the transaction. An abstract image’s ability to entirely circumnavigate the world of normal, logical perceptions makes it a valuable tool for memorable design work. There is power in the irrational.
Freedom from Distraction
As we touched upon previously, a concrete image of a duck in a pond will cause the viewer to expend their brainpower on what the images represent—a duck, some water, some reeds, the sky, etc. The act of processing the images (is that a good duck? What do I like about that duck?) monopolizes the viewer’s mental energy until he or she is done with the image. An abstract image, however, is divorced from rational meaning. This allows the viewer’s conscious and subconscious to explore the feeling that the image produces within them. None of the distractions that representational images present to us are present with the abstract, but that is not to say that viewing an abstract image is a passive affair. On the contrary, abstract images in design challenge not just the viewer’s logical mind, but also challenges his or her psyche itself. The viewer’s own feelings and past experiences bubble up and become connected to the design, which forms a deep bond between artist, art and audience. Unlike an image of an animal and a body of water, a captivating piece of abstract art does not allow us to immediately move past it. A good piece of design that effectively uses abstract imagery can forge an iron link to the viewer’s memory because they actually become engaged in the image and how it makes them feel—it’s no longer concerned with exactly what the object in the image represents. Strong emotions create a much more enduring connection between audience and design than an image of a duck on a pond might hope to. There is power in absorption.
Abstract imagery, in the hands of a talented designer, is an extremely potent tool for creating a tie between audience and product. It’s effective in both web and physical design, and it works because there are so many new realms to explore, because the possibilities are endless, because emotional bonds are strong and because it can so effectively capture a viewer’s undivided attention. Though there will always be merit in the representational, there is extreme power to be tapped from the abstract.
Written by Adam Farwell: Adam Farwell is an online publisher for bluecotton.com, where you can design your own T shirt. He blogs about design, marketing and creative projects.