On Design: Ellsworth Kelly, Material design, and Selena Gomez

So here I am. My name is Meryl and I am writing this blog because I am concerned about my lack of new ideas. I am studying UX design and was given an assignment to re-design an experience, anything. It could be going to a coffee shop or rock climbing, literally anything. So here I am, someone who identifies as an idea generator, without any ideas. I look around: What about this? What about that? Nothing.

Fortunately, I have a strategy.

I was sitting on a plane on my way back from Connecticut and a very kind woman sitting next to me, thoroughly prepared for our 6 hour flight, pulled out a ‘connect the dots’ book for adults. If you haven’t heard of this, it consists of a bunch of numbered dots that appear random but when you draw a straight line through, an image appears.

“Love Connect the Dots” Print by Patricia Pino (Allpsoters.com)

My strategy: Write this blog to connect the dots of what I am learning and what I know; and then, see what happens.

Here are my dots: the late painter Ellsworth Kelly, Google’s Material design, and the pop star, Selena Gomez.

They seem completely unrelated but I feel inspired by these 3 characters, so here we go.

Ellsworth Kelly recently passed away. If you’ve visited any modern art museum, you most definitely have seen his work. He was part of a group of painters known as the color field painters. These guys took abstraction all the way and painted large planes of color, creating a direct relationship to the experience of color. Color, among other simplified components, becomes the main focus of their work and thereby draws attention to one of the most important aspects of a painting. I always think of Abstract art as the pursuit of the isolation of visual variables. This way the viewer and the artist don’t have to consider pesky complications like if the nose contour is accurate or how light reflects off of a ball gown.

Ellsworth Kelly, like all Abstract artists, designed a style in which he had freedom to explore an isolated visual component for the purpose of understanding it to a greater depth.

One of my absolute favorite of these simplified visual components is edges. As one shape borders another, all kinds of dynamic events take place. (This may seem a little abstract [ha!], but keep going.)

Check this out: Here Kelly plays with edges by creating clear boundaries of even color. But, because the colors are close in value range( light to dark), the shapes shimmer when they slide up against each other. Can you see it?

“Blue, Green, Red II” by Ellsworth Kelly next to grayscale version

Which shape is on top? Are the blue and green shapes colliding? Or kissing delicately? Which shape is space and which is object?

In “Blue, Green, Red II”, Kelly creates an ambiguous space of color. This is fantastic for provoking challenging questions, but from a design perspective, there needs to be more visual clarity.

“Spectrum V” by Ellsworth Kelly and Google Calendar, mobile

For example, Kelly’s “Spectrum V” has a clearer sense of object and space because each canvas is separated from the next. Here, the rainbow is divided into delineated rectangles which are both independent pieces and part of a larger context.

I’ll admit it, I love Google.

I couldn’t help but notice a strong similarity to Google’s Material design. Material design employs bright solid colors to clarify a transition between ideas or, in the example above, different events.

Like Google designers, Ellsworth Kelly was very much thinking about the experience of his visual statements. Of course, every artist is creating some kind of emotional or symbolic experience: David’s grand paintings of Napoleon to create admiration or Degas’ women bathing to demonstrate ‘the [insert: chauvinistic]male gaze’. Kelly, however, creates the paradoxical experience of a tactile object and spacial environments. His paintings almost feel like toys, baby puzzle pieces, or giant Post-it notes and yet are physically large enough that they surround the viewer.

Similarly, Material design simulates a feeling of physical interaction as well as depicts large spans of color of clearly defined shapes. Did Material designers look at Kelly? I’m guessing yes.

Guiding Principles of Material Design,

Design vs. Fine Art

Because the purpose of design is not only to engage but also to be utilized, Material designers, like all designers, are required to make the intention of each component obvious. You can see how Abstract artists’ interest in simplified visual components connects directly to modern design.

However, unlike Kelly’s paintings,the user hopefully knows what a Material design product is for and how to use it (except my mom, but that’s not her fault). Design has somewhat of an invisible quality; making information accessible without taking over.

Back to Edges

Because of their particular intentions, both Material design and Kelly employ the component of edges in different ways.

Another way to think of edges or boundaries is : a transition from one thing to another. When my eye moves from the blue half circle shape to the red hour glass shape, I am experiencing a transition of color. When my eye moves from the colored bar containing a text to the white color of the background, I know that I am transitioning away from one piece of information into blank space. Because the colored bar stands out from the white background, I understand it as an object that I should pay attention to.

Contrasting transitions from one shape to another, between movement and resting, from large to small, etc. serve to inform the viewer the purpose of the product.

Web/mobile designers go one step further than visual design transitions by including interactivity. How does a user manipulate the information presented on a page in order to complete the desired purpose? A basic example is that the user presses a button and it takes him or her to a new page. However, an tiny animation could potentially help the user to anticipate what he or she is about to do.

what elements can be added to enhance to experience of the user?

To answer this question, Material design creates a system of interactivity that is rooted in the experience of touching. For example, I click on a shape and it appears to raise in elevation mimicking the action of lifting a piece of paper. As it lifts, I know for sure that I have clicked that particular shape and can anticipate transitioning to the correlating page.

I believe that this kind of animation, not only provides clarity of purpose but also creates a subtle sense of intimacy with Google’s products.

Because of experiences like anticipation, I feel like am a part of the process of navigating the product. As I feel more involved, I become more engaged.

You’ve been waiting for it, Selena Gomez

Strangely enough, I can’t help but think of Selena Gomez’s sensual music video, “Good for You.” I happen to love this song and while there is no physical interaction (press Selena and she jumps), there are most definitely similar design elements at play.

Again, like all artists and especially music video artists, there is an explicit intention to arise an emotional response from the viewer. In this video, Selena’s said goal is to “look good for you uh-huh” and capture the attention of her dude. She sings about wearing dresses and jewelry but interestingly enough, the video displays her showering and lying around in a bathrobe. She never gets ready, she never brushes her teeth, combs her hair etc. As I start to question this I think, “How do I feel watching Selena Gomez?” Or more importantly, “How am I supposed to be feel?” I personally feel a little uncomfortable, however, the obvious answer is that I am supposed to feel intimate with her.

Both art and design create a sense of intimacy through transitions and interactivity. Selena appears so close, you could almost touch her. With her messy hair and unkempt robe, she is not some perfect painted object out of your reach. Selena is the embodying symbol of transition so constant it becomes stagnant. Hanging out out in a bardo of desirous expression (possibly forever), she sings away. Is she ever going to put on that dress and go get her man?


The user feels connected or intimate with a design experience when he or she is involved in a process or journey toward a goal.

Ellsworth Kelly displays the process of isolating and exploring components.

Material design creates a sense of physical interactivity and anticipation.

Selena invites the viewer into her ‘about to get dressed’ angst-ridden experience.

There you go. Theses are my dots and I’ve learned a lot from investigating them. Understanding the importance of inviting the user to be connected to a journey is crucial for my future design work. Oh, and I came up with a design idea completely unrelated to this blog. Figures.

Thanks for reading!