You are never allowed to say “pretty” ever again: Part 2

Yuri Zaitsev
Apr 26, 2019 · 8 min read
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Photo Credit: Elena Koycheva

In Part 1 we went over seeing. It’s such a basic thing that we do probably all the time. But in Part 2 we are bringing a deeper focus on that, and will switch from looking at things to really seeing them for what they are.

This is the list of words that 1) describe how your brain parses information from your eyes and 2) helps you to speak about every single detail of what you see. Let’s jump into it:

1. Gestalt

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Lecture on Gestalt — Bill Burnett

These are 4 random squares, and they don’t really mean much. But if we put them together then all of a sudden a lot happens.

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Lecture on Gestalt — Bill Burnett

The first things most people notice is the big square. The second thing most people will notice are the 4 little squares. The third thing people might notice is the invisible square in the middle of the intersection.

Gestalt is our ability to extract meaning beyond what is literally in front of us. It is when we turn shapes, blobs, and negative space into symbols.

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Barcode — Banksy (2004)

The best part is that our brains can do this extremely quickly. In fact this is one of the fastest things our brain does; probably something to do with being able to distinguish predators and people from the landscape. So the primordial lobe of our brain should’ve been able to easily recognize what the last picture was.

The important thing is to not screw up the gestalt. It’s fun to trick the brain, but it is not fun to make it confused. The point is to make it easy to understand the object and how it is oriented at a glance. Puzzling over how to hold something or how to place it is a gut punch that poorly designed objects have a hard time recovering from.

2. Geometry

Many people use some common phrases to describe geometry without realizing that that is what they are describing. For example if an object looks “man-made” or “natural and organic.” What people are actually talking about is whether the object has rational or irrational geometry.

Rational geometry is squares, circles, and triangles, which can be also be 3D like cubes, spheres, cylinders, and pyramids. Most of the objects that we make are rational shapes glued together, just look around you if you are indoors. Rational geometries make sense.

Irrational geometry is everything else. These are splines and complex polynomial equations. Most natural things are irrational shapes, like how a tree root growing in the ground is shaped. However we make some irrational shapes also, like the combination of curves on a car or some fancy furniture. These shapes tend to be more linked with emotion, like how long, swoopy, points could be “aggressive” and “fast” while large blob shapes could be “slow” or “cuddly”.

So does the object make total logical sense or is it more emotional? Here is a quick guide on how geometries combine.

Utilitarian = Completely rational

Soulful = Entirely irrational

Modern = Mostly Rational softened with some irrational

Edgy = Mostly Irrational hardened with some rational

3. Edges and Intersections

Objects are generally made up of a lot of lines, and edges, and intersections where two materials meet. Poorly made, these lines and intersections create a rambling mess which speaks to poor quality and lack of intention in the design. Well made, these same lines can create paths that draws people to the important stuff, and guides them to look over the entire object.

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Photo Credit: Michal Jarmoluk

People tend to like intricacies and complexities that are intentional. Parting lines and edges can lead the eye to important features or create fun patterns.

What path do the lines take you on? Where do they lead?

Edges, parting lines, and intersections are the physical products equivalent to leading lines in composition. These features frame the object and either work together as guides, or they jumble and interfere with each other.

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In this example all of the lines on the walls and on the escalator point back to the focal point of the photo, the guy in the middle of the stairs. Lines speak to quality and intention.

4. Surfaces

Big picture: surfaces and materials will tell you how an object is meant to be used. A mobile phone with many shiny and reflective surfaces made out of glass will have a lot more inherent preciousness in it than a mobile phone made out of matte, tough looking plastic which will look more durable and rugged.

Buckle up because we are about to get into some science. We get all of the information about a surface from how light reacts with our object. And this reaction happens in two big ways: how “diffuse” it is, and how much “subsurface scattering” it has. Objects like mirrors and metals are extremely not diffuse, making them reflective and glossy. Objects like wood and plastic are more diffuse making them appear matte and soft.

Subsurface scattering is all about how light enters and exits an object. Peacock feathers, beetles, gold, and bubbles are not diffuse so they are shiny, but they look iridescent and rainbow like because of how the light scatters on the surface of the object and reflects back more or less where the light hit the object in the first place. Soft and organic materials look extremely soft and glowing because the light scatters within the object and exits from a different point.

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Creative Commons CC0


So objects can look: hard, soft, glossy, matte, shimmering, and glowing. In any sort of combination.

What makes sense for the object? If a surface on the object doesn’t make sense, we could use a different material or alter the surface to change how it looks. Materials and surfaces is how we create consistency in our objects, and can define how a person should handle the object.

We’ve just crossed a line. If everything was done correctly before, we know the entirety of the object, the quality of it and how it is used from a glance. But now, starting with color, we are going to speak about the emotion and mood of the object.

5. Color

Color creates the atmosphere for your object. Imagine a bright red juicy strawberry. We know we can eat it because we see a strawberry. We know it will be good because it has a rich, deep red color. Now imagine the same one but it is pale, and even slightly green on the top and bottom. We know that it is still possible to eat, it still looks like a strawberry, but the color of it makes it much less appetizing. Using colors correctly you can change the mood of the object, force a person to pay attention to something, or tell a certain story about the object. Used incorrectly, color can make people irritated at an otherwise lovely thing.

Certain colors can evoke certain feelings but in a nutshell: Bright, highly saturated colors tend to signify joy and happiness, but also give a sense of surrealism and make objects cartoony. Unsaturated colors are generally colder, create gravitas and make objects more real. You can balance unsaturated colors to give your object the right level of seriousness, with saturated colors to highlight certain areas and creates places for people to anchor on. Too many saturated colors make objects painful to look at, and too many unsaturated colors make it look sterile and lifeless.

The biggest thing to keep track of is that colors do not mean anything until they are in the context of another color. Here is a good example: a bright blue sharpie on a white(ish) piece of paper pops out and looks blue. However the same bright blue sharpie on a yellow piece of paper looks dull and almost black.

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6. Logo/Graphics

I will say this at risk of incurring the wrath of many graphic designers spending too much time with fonts: logos and graphics get thought about dead last. For some reason many people jump to thinking about this first.

Not to say it isn’t important.

Gestalt, geometry, lines, surfaces, colors: all of that exists to describe the object and its tone. Logos and graphics exist to describe the world in which the object lives. Logos and graphics support all of the other pieces and create a consistent narrative around everything. For most well designed objects, you know what it is as soon as you see it, even without seeing a logo. But the logo gives the object that authenticity and sense of place.

Let’s say you saw this large, well designed, single colored bookshelf. It looks impressive and instantly recognizable. All of the geometry is aggressively rational forming a big grid, and the edges and intersections are mostly all in line (this sort of depends if the owner of the bookshelf put it together well). It is nearly matte white but it does reflect light just a little bit.

Looking around you see a small sticker that was left on the side of the bookshelf, and yes: you see the brand name. This little sticker confirms the bookshelf’s humble origins in a Swedish factory, crafted according to the latest trends of Scandinavian minimalist design.

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Kallax — IKEA

Logos and graphics help define the world in which the product exists, and gives it a bit of history and character.

Stay tuned for Part 3 where we will talk about exactly how these words make people rich and why they matter.

Go to Part 3.


Curious ruminations on human-centered design, by Amplifi Design and friends

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