Visual language is comprised of simple fundamental components such as dots, lines, circles, squares, and triangles. Color, texture, and space are also basic elements of visual language. The term grammar refers to the system, structure, and elements of a language or area of knowledge. A language is a method of human communication. We are aware of this through the spoken and written word. Visual communication is also reliant on a language of its own.
In order to communicate using this language, it’s necessary to understand what its components are, what the relationship between the components is, and how they are used to create meaning and enable understanding. Acquiring knowledge of visual grammar will not only be fundamental to your practice of visual communication but will allow you to articulate through the spoken and written word the concepts behind your ideas. Many artists and designers have been fascinated by the fundamental components of visual language.
Certain shapes have become connected with deeper psychological associations we have as humans and our existential experiences. Circles have strong meaning in terms of our knowledge of the universe. Our planet, the sun, and moon are circular and this has a particular resonance with us. Squares are solid and stable. We use these associations when making compositions in the abstract to represent our concrete (real) world. Visual language can be manipulated to express, represent and communicate understandable concepts such as rhythm; speed (fast/slow); distance (near/far); movement (direction – up/ down, forward/backward, left/right); denseness; space; weight (heavy/light), force (strong/weak); impact; light/dark; proximity (close/apart); and structure (regular/irregular).
Squares and rectangles are stable – They’re familiar and trusted shapes and suggest honesty. They have right angles and represent order, mathematics, rationality, and formality. They are seen as earthbound. Rectangles are the most common geometric shape encountered. The majority of text we read is set in rectangles or squares. Squares and rectangles suggest conformity, peacefulness, solidity, security, and equality. Their familiarity and stability, along with their commonness can seem boring. They are generally not attention getters, but can be tilted to add an unexpected twist. Think of web pages that tilts framed images to help them stand out. Every element on a web page is defined by a rectangle according to the css box model. Web pages are rectangles made up of smaller rectangles and squares. In Buddhist symbolism a square (earthbound) inside a circle (eternal whole) represents the relationship between the human and the divine.
Triangles can be stable when sitting on their base or unstable when not – They represent dynamic tension, action, and aggression. Triangles have energy and power and their stable/unstable dynamic can suggest either conflict or steady strength. They are balanced and can be a symbol for law, science, and religion. Triangles can direct movement based which way they point. They can be used to suggest familiar themes like pyramids, arrows and, pennants. Spiritually they represent the religious trinity. They can suggest self-discovery and revelation. The strength of triangles suggests masculinity. Their dynamic nature make them better suited to a growing high tech company than a stable financial institution when designing a logo. Triangles can be used to convey progression, direction, and purpose.
Crosses symbolize spirituality and healing – They are seen as the meeting place of divine energies. The 4 points of a cross represent self, nature, wisdom, and higher power or being. Crosses suggest transition, balance, faith, unity, temperance, hope, and life. They represent relationships and synthesis and a need for connection to something, whether that something is group, individual, self, or project related. As with lines vertical shapes are seen as strong and horizontal shapes are seen as peaceful. Most everything said about vertical and horizontal lines can be said about vertical and horizontal shapes.
Spirals are expressions of creativity – They are often found in the natural growth pattern of many organisms and suggest the process of growth and evolution. Spirals convey ideas of fertility, birth, death, expansion, and transformation. They are cycles of time, life, and the seasons and are a common shape in religious and mystical symbolism. Spirals move in either direction and represent returning to the same point on life’s journey with new levels of understanding. They represent trust during change, the release of energy and maintaining flexibility through transformation. Clockwise spirals represent projection of an intention and counterclockwise spirals the fulfillment of an intention. Double spirals can be used to symbolize opposing forces.