Communicative Shapes

{ Abstract }
The following is a documentation of my first project in Carnegie Mellon School of Design’s studio course. We created two-dimensional representations of an intersection, using lines, shapes, and limited tones to communicate its ambience. This project was done in three main stages: a white paper cutout, a grey toned paper cutout, and a colored paper cutout. We studied how color, tones, contrast, shapes, point of view, and craftsmanship impacts a piece and the story it tells.

{ Day 1 || Intersection assignments }

Each student selected a Pittsburgh intersection to photograph. We were told to study and capture the essence of our intersection within the range of its four corners. The professors encouraged us to visit our intersection multiple times, since some intersections may reveal different personalities at different times of day.

I chose the intersection: Fifth Avenue + Bigelow Boulevard

Map of my intersection, Fifth+Bigelow, from Google Maps

{ August 30 and August 31 || Observing, researching, and photographing }

Fifth and Bigelow, located in the middle of two major universities and amongst popular Pittsburgh landmarks, is a bustling 4-way intersection filled with both moving and static vehicles and pedestrians throughout the day. Although I’ve waited at and crossed this intersection many times before, I never took the time to closely observe its features and understand its distinct ambience.

The Cathedral of Learning is University of Pittsburgh’s Central Library
Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall is a museum and memorial open to the public. It is situated next to student housing and a large parking lot.

Immediately after the bus drops me off, I notice the very prominent Cathedral of Learning and grassy lawn leading to the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall. These two historic landmarks, established in the early 1900s, have a gothic-style architecture. The surrounding buildings follow a similar color scheme and architectural style even though they serve as student dorms or retail stores.

Benches next to Soldiers and Sailors for people to rest. There is a Starbucks and other retail stores across the street.

Three of the four corners of the intersection are bus stops and one of the four sides had an additional crosswalk behind the stoplight crosswalk. You can expect a lot of movement by foot and car at this intersection. And while the intersection is busy at any given time of day, it does not have the same ambience as the fast-paced streets of NYC. Part of the effect may be due to the placement of older architecture in an urban setting. This juxtaposition slows down the pace of the environment. The Soldiers and Sailor lawn is also very wide and inclined upward which makes the intersection feel less congested. Additionally, Fifth and Bigelow makes room for static people to wait for the bus, buy food from street vendors, and to play frisbee on the Soldiers and Sailors lawn. There were also bikes for people to rent and use.

A street vendor is selling shaved ice and hot dogs. People are conversing on a nearby bench.
Bikes are available for people to pick up and get moving or come to a stop at the end of the day.

The vast majority of pedestrians crossing the intersection are students. Walkers who are not students often dressed in business casual clothes or a work uniform. This shows that a lot of businesses are in close range of this intersection. The greatest hoard of students is especially noticeable around 12:30 pm and 4:00 pm when most classes take place on the Pitt campus. Around 6:00 pm, there were a greater mix of people and a lot more vehicles on the streets. There are nearly 35,000 students on the PITT campus, yet I ran into the only two people I knew who study at PITT. This shows that the intersection is truly a popular and central intersection among Pitt students.

Crowds of students cross one of the crossways.
Four buses are lined up behind one another.
Unintentionally caught two shots of my PITT friends.

Since many vehicles are moving alongside pedestrians, the intersection has features to accommodate the traffic of people and cars. For one, the sidewalks are wide enough to fit large groups of people. There is also a railing in between parts of the sidewalk and road. This may have been placed to prevent pedestrians from falling into the streets or easily jaywalking. The crosswalk signal also verbally announces when it is time for pedestrians to walk.

The sidewalks are wide enough to accommodate for large groups of people.
A view of Soldiers and Sailors and its groomed lawn.

For the amount of traffic going through this place everyday, the overall location is very well groomed. The grass is cut and the bushes are trimmed into neat rectangles. There is limited litter on the ground, such as a few cigarettes next to the bus stop.

I feel safe and at ease when walking through this intersection based on the knowledge that people are always around and how clean and trustworthy the structures are.

{ Day 2 || Photograph review and discussion }

We pinned up the top three photographs of our intersection for a critique. We discussed how well they communicated the ambience of the intersection.

My top three photographs:

I wanted to show the bustling college life of the intersection, as well as the static areas and older architecture.

Important notes:

  • What is the photo’s focal point? Is it too zoomed in on an ordinary object?
  • What story does the photograph tell? Is it communicating the space?
  • How would you describe your intersection in a few words?

To describe Fifth + Bigelow in a few words: busy, well-groomed, historic, spacious

Near the end of class, we picked one of our images and started tracing shapes out of the photo. I picked the following image for its bustling vibe and architecture. I tried to highlight how the busyness of the intersection juxtaposed with the old architecture.

I had to separate the crowd of people into chunks because otherwise it seems like people are at the same distance away.


  • I want to go back to the intersection and capture better photos that embodied the words I used to describe my intersection.
  • I will try to talk to people/strangers about the place to see if how they felt walking through the intersection lined up with my observations.
{ September 5 || Further research and photographing}

I went back to the intersection at 1100 on a Sunday morning. There was still a flow/trickle of people crossing at any given moment.

I saw a tour bus that crossed the intersection, showing that this is truly a popular site for its historic buildings.

I took this photography while riding a lyft.

This time I noticed how the walk signals would just light up on its own without having to be pressed.

I also noted how the people reacted to me taking photos. Some people were nice and waited for me to take a shot or would quickly walked past me/tried to duck from the viewfinder. Other times, people would give me strange looks or simply ignore the fact that I was there.

People dressed in “Sunday morning” attire.

There were no street vendors that morning, nor were there strangers I felt comfortable stopping and talking to.

For a normally hectic busy intersection, it starts to feels like a walk in a park.
{ Iteration #1 || White cutout}
The result of my first iteration.

First, I had to choose a photo that communicated how I felt about the space. I decided to go with a photograph I posted earlier that embodied the main characteristics I wanted to emphasize about the space.


  • pedestrian heavy (students at PITT)
  • traffic heavy (many buses and cars)
  • historical landmarks (cathedrals, soldiers and sailors)
  • well groomed (lots of trees, trimmed grass, pile of mulch)
  • static (bus waiting area, food vendors, benches)
The original photograph

I narrowed down to the following picture because it showed someone waiting at a bus stop (static), the hill and tree (well-groomed and grassy), people walking (very pedestrian), cars (ongoing traffic) and a historic landmark (soldiers and sailors).

Using a cropping Ts, I decided to crop out other people in the image to keep the focus of the image more on the building. I also omitted some of the other buildings for the same reason. Additionally, I thought that a group of walking people and one standing person was enough to communicate the movement of the place.

To make the iteration I listed out the layers and which parts of the photo I would want to and I started cutting out the shapes

I looked at the building and thought that the main features I would need to include for people to be able to identify the building were its columns and roof designs.

{ Day 3|| Cutout review and discussion }

We looked at each other’s cutouts.

Important notes:

  • When working with the paper, some people had too much “step” from the stacked paper and others were too flat/subtle. I felt like mine was more on the subtle side and I should add more or less step in different parts of the cutout to highlight certain features.
  • To get rid of pencil marks, we should cut the reverse of the shape
  • If the movement of the image is spontaneous, it can be too distracting. I didn’t feel like my image had this problem.
  • Some cutouts had divide zones and depth. My image had a sense of depth since there was the building, road, and sidewalk.
  • Details might pull away from how someone interprets the intersection, such as graffiti on a mailbox, tree branches, a person, etc. Even though you might have a story for your choices, the viewer will not have that verbal language to understand the visual piece.
  • Ask people “What do you see?”


  • My cutout felt plain and I want to try adding more background and subtle details.
  • Fix my tree because it is not recognizable.
{ Iteration #2: White cutout with specified size }
The result of my second iteration.

The criteria for this iteration is a size restriction. We could either do 7 x 7 square or 6 x 8 rectangle.

In this iteration, I also introduced a leafy background and adjusted the amount of layering/step I had on the building. I also chose a square shape for the extended width, which would allow me to add leaves on the tree.

In the end, I was not happy with the result and preferred my first iteration better.

Comparison of my previous one to my square one.
{ Day 4: Cutout review and discussion}

Important notes:

  • Lines can communicate a lot. (Not to self, look up Henri Matisse.) What do the curves and lines in your project communicate? (Why do we see a young girl? How are natural v manmade characteristics curves different?)
  • Do certain parts of the piece feel loud or quiet? What kind of activity is going on?
  • In the location, where is the eye moving towards?


  • The leaves on the tree and some vegetation were distracting even though it was subtle and on one of the first layers. I want to remove these features.
  • People were able to identify the building, however the structure still felt odd. I will add more to the building structure in my cutout. The railings, however, are a nice touch since they helped people recognize the location.
{ Iteration #3: Cutout with “grey” tones}
The result of my third iteration.

For this iteration, we were given four shades of “black” to use in our cut-out.

I used photoshop to plan out how I will incorporate the shades.

Photoshop planning of the values.

I wanted to use tones to show depth and separate the different zones of the picture. I thought the darkest color would be in the forefront since it mostly resembled the shaded area under a tree. I also did this so it does not take away from the important of the building. It was suitable to have the background be the lightest color since it gave a spacious and clear feeling to the cutout, which is true of the intersection.

I made the building mostly one color to show less contrast within the building. I used another shade to highlight main, identifiable features on it.

In this iteration, I added more subtle details on the building (by cutting/gluing paper of a shade on top of the same shade) and omitted parts of the previous cutout that I thought were distracting.

Since some of the toned paper could not be used on a light box, I used tracing paper to outline shapes and first made white cutouts of the shapes as stencils. (I also compiled the white cutouts to make a new version of my white cutout. However, I ran out of the paper I was using so I ended up using two shades of white. :( )

The shapes were traced in reversed so pencil marks could be hidden.
My third iteration of the white cutout.

I returned to the rectangular shape because I liked how it framed the image and gave the cutout more breathing room at the top.

I was not satisfied with this image because the building looked kind of slanted and the accents on the building appeared out of place. However, I was pretty content with the placement of colors.

{ Day 5: Cutout Review and Discussion}

Important notes:

  • Tonality, some people used the colors to separate items while other used it to recede in space
  • Background color, consider how the dark v light sky looks, try inversion
  • Is the tonal space uneven?
  • Does it tell the same story as the white cutouts?
  • What did you make more important with tones?
  • Distance (what doesn’t read well from afar? What has been grouped together? car clouds v individual cars)


  • I should make tonal thumbnails on paper rather than photoshop
  • My tree still doesn’t read well, so I will use artistic liberty to make the tree more tree-like. Someone suggested that I get rid of the mulch section under the tree trunk , but I wanted to keep it since it indicated that the space is well-groomed.
I tried inverting my tones. I realized this changed the mood/time of day of my cutout significantly.
  • I would also like to try to use tone/color as a means of distinguishing shapes and objects.
{ Iteration #4: Cutout with shades and a color}
Result of the fourth iteration.

We were given a selection of colors to replace one of the grey tones.

Colored paper

Out of all the colors, I immediately gravitated towards the greens because of the grassy lawn and “walk in the park” vibe I’ve mentioned earlier.

However, I did experimented with different color layouts in photoshop.

I thought that these were either too dark or too bright.
I got a mellow or ominous feeling from these layouts.
In the first one, there is less focus on the building, and in the second one, the people get lost.

In the end, I replaced the dark tone with the mossy green color, because it represented the grassy ambience but was not jarring.

The foreground stands out a bit more, but still allows the building to be the center of attention.
{ Day 6: Cutout review and discussion}

Important notes:

  • Do the different iterations of your cutout tell different stories?
  • How does color play a role? Does color indicate a time of day/sunset/mood?
  • Branding (some colors are associated with whole foods, target, peppermint bark, popcorn bags)
  • You can switch around the tones used when you introduce a color (the red buses)


  • I thought my color suited my location, but I knew I needed to fix some craftsmanship issues
{ Iteration #5: Final touches}
The three main cutouts: white, grey, and color.

I added more details, specifically on the building, to all of the iterations. I mostly focused on craftsmanship during this final stage.

{ Day 7: Final critique of the cutouts}

After working on this project for three weeks, we observe how color, tones, contrast, shapes, point of view, and craftsmanship affected the quality of our pieces. We also looked at our cutouts as a set and saw how the storyline changed or did not change.

{ Final thoughts }
Although the cutout of my intersection was simplified and straightforward from the start, it was still effective in communicating the intersection’s atmosphere. As the project progressed, I mainly worked on small compositional changes and embellished different parts of the cutout to improve its aesthetic and readability. I learned a lot about how to use exacto knives, to ask design questions, and to tell stories in a 2D form.
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