The Expressiveness Formula: A concept of making clear and appealing design

Makar Polovinka
4 min readApr 23, 2023

What is expressiveness

We are likely to call something expressive if we see thought or emotion behind it.

In this sense, The Ninth Wave by Aivazovsky is an expressive painting. You get the feeling of aw in front of mighty forces of nature:

An expressive portrait would tell us about the person. You can make a guess about who he is, what job he has, and if his life is difficult:

An expressive phrase makes you think:

However, conveying thoughts and emotions is not enough for being expressive. It should be done quickly.

If you turn the quote into a paragraph, it still will be informative. But you won’t call it expressive:

A city map has high information density. Landmarks, buildings, roads, gardens, parks. But to read it all, you have to sit and do it — slowly. A map is informative, but not expressive:

The city map of Madrid

So:

Expressiveness is when information — thought and emotion — is absorbed quickly.

The more information there is and the quicker we perceive it, the more likely we will call an object expressive. Hence the formula:

Why make expressive objects

Expressive objects are clear and tend to be pleasant to the eye.

Clearness. Expressive objects are clear by definition. They convey information quickly — and therefore efficiently.

This Times cover with an expressive look of a health worker conveys the idea—coronavirus is a serious topic:

Times cover, 20 April 2020

An expressive book title evokes emotions and hints to you what the book is about:

You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero book cover

Pleasure to the eye. We tend to like expressive objects. The reason might be that these objects: 1. Have a lot of information, and 2. Are easy to interpret — at the same time. So our brain gains a lot of value expending little energy.

In other words, expressive objects are somewhat like sugar. Sweet food contains a lot of energy, and it is easy to digest. That’s why we like it.

Examples:

Ilya Repin’s “Kalmyk head” is pleasant to look at. You can feel this man’s emotions. He seems busy and concentrated, maybe tired — he probably works hard:

But that’s not all.

Pay attention to the hair, eye wrinkles, and facial features of the portrait. They are also expressive—by themselves. The features are drawn without excessive detail.

Repin put just enough slate to make these features recognizable, so nothing distracts you from observing them. It makes them—the information—quick and easy to interpret.

Mikko Lagerstedt’s picture has something magical and intimate in it. The majestic polar lights and the small figure of a person make us feel the contrast—between the grand beautiful forces of nature and us, human beings:

In the next notes: Two ways to make something expressive.

→ Next
How to make things expressive

P.S.
Thank you for reading! This is the first note in the series of notes about expressiveness.

My dream is to find the logic behind making things beautiful and sound. Writing notes helps me with it. You are very welcome to share any thoughts and give your feedback.

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Makar Polovinka

My dream is to find the Philosopher Stone of design — a single method to improve any communication. Join me in my journey! Work: makariusus.com