Design Studio : Communicative Shapes

Step 1: Exploring Pittsburgh, August 30th - September 1st


Intersection area of Forward Ave. and Murray Ave.

Area Description:

First Glance

The moment when I got off the bus on Murray Ave, I had a sense of abandonment, which may be raised by the deserted factory area at the corner of Murray and Forward Ave. The giant chimney that stands tall in front of the factory immediately caught my attention. There are numerous big scratches and some part of the white wall surface is falling apart as well. However, either the white concrete wall of chimney or the dark red brick walls of the abandoned factories are renovated. There is also a grass and stone area adjoins to the Murray Ave. and Forward Ave in front of the factories. I noticed some students and young adults are lining on the grass waiting for busses. The grass area is also not taken good care of as well with different kinds of garbage including beverages bottles and plastic bags.

Residential Area

Walking north along Murray Ave., I entered the residential area, which gave me a strong sense of narrowness. The houses are small and at the same time humble.They are also lack of decoration and protection. The telephone signal cables are very close to the houses. And each house is immediately next to the other leaving only a very narrow space between the walkways to the street. Again, garbage appears ubiquitously on the ground.

Commercial Area

The commercial area is at the opposite direction of the residential area on the Murray Ave, which surprise me of how close the two areas are. There is a row of little stores, including supermarket, dollar store and nail salon etc. Woods, concrete and bricks are the materials composition of those stores. Although the scale and architecture style will not be considered modern, the stores look much newer comparing to the residential area and the abandoned factories. From my observation of the two visits, people walking on the street vary in terms of race and age. There may be a pattern that there is not much adults (30–50 years old) on the street comparing to young adults (18–30 years old) and old people (> 50 years old).

In General

After the two visits of the intersection, I generally felt the space is not utilized efficiently especially the abandoned factory area. And the buildings are old without any renovation, which reveals a sense of obsolescence. From the observation of the environment, materials of the buildings and what people are wearing etc., I will assume that people here may have low-income and definitely are not living in a high standard of material lives.

Step 2: White-on-White paper Relief

September 3rd - September 11th

Criteria :

  • A white on white paper cut out that communicate the space and vibes of the intersection.
  • Details should be simplied as long as there will be no confusion.

Materials :

Pencil, Bristol paper, glue, X-acto knife

Preparations :

I went on a few more visits to my intersection in order to get a clear sense of the ambiances and details around. The first step is picking the right photo from the large number of photos I took at the intersection. Picking a photo that precisely describe the place and reflect the feeling around will be crucial to the project. I chose one scene of the old factory area because the factory, the buildings behind and the person stands in front reminds me my feeling of loneliness and abandonment at the intersection. The simple space and shape also represents the overall composition of the intersection pretty well.

Intersection photo & line drawing

Process :

After i picked the photo, I did a simplified line drawing. The trick is to measure how much detail I should reduce that the remaining details will still communicate the space to the viewer.

Then I started my cutting part. I went for the approach of layering in order to create a sense of dimension. Layers are consisted from the largest piece to the smallest piece. Each layer is at least some part little higher in altitude than the one next to it. And then I stack the layers together on a plane sheet of paper.

I purposefully dragged each piece slightly off the ones before, creating a sense of visual dislocation that I found interesting. After finding the comfortable way of stacking them, I glued them together into one piece.

Final Look :

size: 12" x 8.5"

Step 3: Revision

September 11th - September 13th

Reflection :

After the first attempt and critic section, I understood some part of my white on white needs to be adjusted in order to more clearly communicate the space. The overlapping effect that I found intriguing actually cause confusions such as understanding whether there is one person or multiple person standing in the front. Confusions like this and other crafts deficiency need to be revised in my second attempt of the white on white paper cut out.


  • Correct the confusions and craftsmanship problem in my first attempt of white-on-white relief.
  • Size restriction: 8’’x 6’’
  • Simplify details and communicate the space clearer.

Process :

Because I was working on a smaller scale (6’’ x 8’’), I eliminate some of the unnecessary details, so that it will be easier to see the main composition. I started with the same approach as my first one. For the second time, I felt my craftsmanship skills improved, as I was able to do completed shape with neat finish.

I abandoned the visual dislocation effect, which caused confusions of understanding the space. In the second time, I was able to refine the details and finished the smaller cut out for a relatively shorter time.

Final Look :

Step 4: Gray Scale

September 13th-September 15th

Criteria :

  • Using four tones of warm grey paper (almost brown) to make up the intersection scene.
  • No particular rules of how to use the tonesClear communication of shape and shape; avoid confusion.
  • Convey depth and dimensions

Thoughts before start :

With the involvement of the color shades, the ways of making those paper cutouts may be different. The color difference between shapes might be big enough that there is no need to use the entire relief method of creating depth and dimensions. How to use the shades effectively will be critical to the overall communication of the intersection. Should the choices of grey base on the objects’ brightness, color intensity or size? Will inversed color be a good idea? Questions like these will have to answer by testing them out.

Preparation :

In order to figure out the arrangement of the four tones of grey, I used my line drawing from the first white-on-white paper relief and color it with grey tone copic markers.

Since the color differences are pretty big, I try to avoid using the same color on the adjoining shapes, which may cause lost in details and confusions. I colored four different compositions of greys: one based on natural brightness of objects, two different inverse colors and one random arrangement.

After comparing them together and asking for peer opinions, I decided to go for the one on the bottom right, which I felt is the clearest in communication of space and dimension.

Cutting process :

The cutting process went fairly quickly based on my previous experience. Yet I also encounter problem that although the copic markers can to some degree simulate the actual warm grey paper, there is still some deviation of the color difference to the actual ones. So I made minor changes of color accordingly during my cutting process.

For the sky, I picked the darkness color. Although it may not seem to be realistic, I felt the darkness create more contrast to the building underneath, and when I try putting together it looked accord with the vibes of the space as well.

Final look :

Step 5: Spot color

September 15th - September 17th

Criteria :

  • Base on the grey scale paper cut out, chose one color paper as spot color to replace one of the grays.
  • The color should communicate the same feelings of the intersection place
  • Use the color to TELL A STORY
  • Pay attention to balance and overall composition
  • Measure of how much color to replace how much grey to remain, avoid confusions

Thoughts :

Adding another color is definitely exciting comparing to the previous white and grey world. Yet among all different color choices, picking the right color will be crucial to the story that we want to tell about the space.


The first color that draws my attention is the steel gray, however I found it too similar to the existing warm greys. I finally decide to use the baby blue. Although it’s a risky choice because of the bright color, I felt my original composition will be interesting add a bright color. Moreover, blue represent the loneliness and peace that goes along with the mood my original picture. The color I replaced with the light blue is the second light grey, which I found the two have similar brightness relatively that will not cause imbalance of my final paper cutout.

Cutting Process:

For the fourth time making paper cutout, the cutting part went smoothly for me. Again, I made some minor changes when I see some confusions of using too much blue on my overall composition. After cutting and adjusting, I was pretty satisfied with my final result.

Final Look :

I took out the blue shoes and blue shadow for my final look because they are unnecessary and cause some confusions.

Three finals :


Looking back from the first day of taking intersection pictures, each step is a new attempt for me. There are many struggles in between about how to communicate the space effectively with simple shapes and limited color. Other than my obvious improvement of paper cutting craftsmanship, I am starting to look at things differently with a deeper understanding of shape, color and space.

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