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Design Fundamentals: Understanding Shape Relationships

[themeone_drop_cap letter=”SHAPE” color=”accent-color1″ /] is one of the formal elements of 2-dimensional design. By formal we are referring to something that is form-based. Form is the visual appearance of something.

In addition to shape, the formal elements of design are point, line, plane, space, color and texture. Designs, and all visual art, are built using these elements. Line, shape, color and texture are arranged in a defined space, positioned at various points within the visual plane in relationship to each other and to the entire design space.

Much of what designers deal with involves placing shapes in relationship to each other (a design space) in a meaningful way. These shape relationships help us create and understand space. They are the building blocks of form, and can be combined in limitless ways.

These shape relationships are very closely related to the Pathfinder Palette options in Adobe Illustrator. The shape relationships are:


Shape Relationship — Detached ©2016 Alvalyn Lundgren

Shapes are positioned side by side. They are separated by negative space.


Shape Relationship —Touching ©2016 Alvalyn Lundgren

The edges of the shapes meet, and there is no interval negative space between them.


Shape Relationship —overlap ©2016 Alvalyn Lundgren

A shape sits in front of or on top of another, hiding part of the shape underneath it.


Shape Relationship —interpenetration ©2016 Alvalyn LundgrenA shape is overlapping another, and is transparent, so that the shape underneath it is visible.


Shape Relationship — united ©2016 Alvalyn Lundgren

The overlapping shapes combine into a single new shape.


Shape Relationship — subtraction ©2016 Alvalyn Lundgren

The shape sitting in front overlaps and removes part of shape underneath.


Shape Relationship — intersection ©2016 Alvalyn Lundgren

Only the common area of overlapping shapes is visible.


Shape Relationship — division ©2016 Alvalyn Lundgren



Shapes overlap and subdivide or fragment into multiple shapes. Each one is filled separately with a different color. The number of shapes is multiplied.

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.

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