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15. Design Language - Introduction

The tongue-in-cheek cliché; “Everyone’s a critic” holds truth under scrutiny. Our environmental input is continuously processed and assessed by our subconscious and conscious minds to surmise if something is appealing to us or not. Sometimes it is easy for the observer to put into words why they find pleasure or displeasure in something, at other times they may find it very hard to put into words beyond “I just like that”. However, we are all born with subjective taste which qualifies us as critics. The factor that separates professional artists, designers and critics from the amateur is their design fluency.

Every physical environment communicates to us through a design language. All objects, fashion, buildings, graphic media and people project a message to their environment. This message may be interpreted in a variety of ways between different observers, but the ability to articulate that message is determined by the observer’s fluency in what we call the physical language or the design language.

Just like any language, fluency and literacy can be improved through education and practice. Whilst practice is the responsibility of the individual, we hope that the following chapter provides you with some helpful information if this is your first time studying the design language.

Within the design language there are many different dialects. A dialect is a facet of design language that often has two opposite and complementary concepts (or accents) at either end of a spectrum. We have shown the masculine/feminine dialect above and will continue to reference it in the following examples, however there are many other dialects, some of which are outlined in the following chapters. All objects, people, fashion, buildings and graphics communicate many of these dialects simultaneously like a switchboard with 100’s of gauges. 

Identifying a dialect ratio is a subjective exercise, but the goal is to determine an approximate measure on where the design sits on the spectrum. It’s very useful in assisting the critique of a design/object, but also in helping one determine why something may not appeal. This skill is important because rather than dismissing the validity of a design because it simply “is not my taste” one can self-diagnose and appreciate the dialects that do appeal and adjust (or eliminate) those that do not.

Understanding the dialects and assessing the ratios is an important skill and imperative step toward speaking the physical language fluently, but these skills are not enough to differentiate a successful design from a poor one. This is because one accent never has more merit over another. The impressionists commonly approached the canvas with a strong feminine style and the cubists with a masculine, yet there are a range of masterpieces at various ratios between these polar accents.

Rather, what identifies a design as being successful is the clarity and expression of the accents.

Lastly, just like most verbal languages you will find that there are certain nuances as you start to become more and more design literate. For example, Organic lines are frequently used in Feminine design and Linear in Masculine design. However, they are not exclusive to one another. It is harder to achieve, but a design can still be very much masculine and feature organic elements and vice versa. Adjacent are 2 examples of predominately feminine (with a factor of approximately 70) yet very linear (with a factor of 100) designs.

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