Visual Impact

Kadavy, David. Design for Hackers: Reverse-engineering Beauty. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2011. Internet resource.

Chimero, Frank. The Shape of Design. Shapco Printing, Minnesota. 2012.

Golombisky, K. & Hagen, R. White Space is not your Enemy: A Beginner’s Guide to Communicating Visually through Graphic, Web & Multimedia Design. Focal Press, Burlington, MA. 2013.


focal point; proportionality; empathy


“The most important element of delightful design is empathy” (Chimero, 107).

There is a tendency to think that to delight someone with design is to make them happy. Indeed, the work may do that, but more appropriately, the objective is to produce a memorable experience because of its superior fit (Chimero, 101).

Rhetorical Analysis

An artifact’s focal point grabs the viewer’s attention and says, “Hey! Look here first!” The focal point should be singular, that is, not in competition with any other visual elements of the artifact. Whether an image, shape, or line, the focal point is the single most important visual element of an artifact, and proscribes the hierarchy for the elements that follow. It also sets the tone of the layout and evokes empathetic response. In The Shape of Design, Chimero states, “The pedigree of great design isn’t solely based on aesthetics or utility, but also the sensation it creates when it is seen or used” (101). Here, we’ll look at an painting and examine the artist’s (designer) choices of focal point and hierarchy and try to understand how she communicates with the viewer, and how she is ultimately revealed in her work.

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Sky above Clouds IV,” 1965

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Sky above Clouds IV hangs in the east stairwell of the Art Institute of Chicago. It is a large painting, about 2.5m by 7.5m, bathed in natural light. A series of similar-shaped images (clouds) repeat across a field of blue, receding into the horizon at the top of the canvas. The artist establishes a focal point at the bottom of the painting rather than the top, where the shapes become smaller and blurrier. The decision to create a focal point at the bottom of the painting draws the audience into the painting. The proportional relationships of the clouds move the eye immediately to the bottom of the large canvas, where the large clouds provide an entrypoint to the viewer. O’Keeffe creates movement as the eye ascends up through the smaller clouds and into the horizon. The painting wants the viewer to scan from bottom to top. If the clouds were all the same size, the painting would be less interesting, and the focal point may not be clear, competing between the clouds that are in total focus at the bottom, with the horizon at the top. The painting’s empathy is evident in the artist’s hierarchical design choices. It is not a documentary photograph of clouds, but rather the artist communicating with her audience by establishing her presence in the work. “The work becomes more humanized in its tone and effect, so it becomes easy to see that there are people behind it” (Chimero, 107).


Chimero states that “design isn’t solely based on aesthetics or utility, but also the sensation it creates when it is seen or used” (101). The O’Keeffe painting is concerned with creating an empathetic emotional response, through aesthetics. A similar visual trick is employed on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive southbound lanes as you reach the curve at the Drake Hotel. A series of several white lines in the asphalt become increasingly closer together as you reach the curve. The lines are “intended to give drivers the impression they are increasing their speed as they go into the curve” (Hilkevitch). This should make drivers slow down and the curve safer. What does the utility of this design have in common with the elements and purpose of the O’Keeffe painting? What is different?

Lake Shore Drive “nudges,” or white lines

Hilkevitch, Jon. “Lake Shore curve to get more alerts.” Chicago Tribune, 24 July 2006.

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