I want to preface this by saying that as you learn and apply design principles, and gain experience with organizing elements within a design space, you should start seeing things differently in general. What I mean is, you’ll notice how things are designed and become aware of how form and space are shaped.
The more you’re aware of design principles — things like balance, color, shapes, texture proportion — the more you should be automatically noticing these things in just about everything you see. It’s a natural change in how you observe.
In a way artists and designers are sort of onlookers. We people watch and observe everything around us with a certain fascination and curiosity. Over time we will just naturally observe in this way.
This kind of observation gives you stuff to work with. Observation is the first step in curation. You have to curate to create. How many of us, when we’re trying to come up with an idea for our next artistic effort, run to Pinterest or do a Google image search to look for things that will spark us to greatness? In another article I discussed swipe files and how to curate images to inspire your work.
Looking at things in order to understand them is known as critical practice. As you look at any design, illustration, photo or art, look for evidence of the creator behind the work. What decisions did they make? Their decisions are evident in the work. We can go so far as to say that the work we’re looking out or the thing we’re using is evidence of the designer or artist who created it. It’s the result of their design process and decision-making.
No matter what stage you’re in as an artist or designer, no matter if you’re a beginner or a master, becoming comfortable and consistent with attentive observation will bolster your technical ability. This is true whether you’re working in traditional media or software.
Aspects of attentive (intentional) observation
Contrasts and comparisons
Looking at things in order to understand them gives you knowledge of how they’re formed. That knowledge helps you draw them with a greater degree of accuracy, whether are you are drawing what you actually see or from your imagination.
Whenever you look at something, ask yourself “What can I learn from this design? What do I see in it, and what can I incorporate into my own process and thinking?”
An Exercise in Attentive Observation
Let’s take a drawing by Edgar Degas and break it down in terms of the design elements and principles that are present.
So now that we’ve looked at the drawing:
What did you learn that you will apply your own work?
Did you notice anything that will help you improve your compositions?
What did you see that added to your knowledge of how to create the illusion of space?
What focal point(s) did he emphasize?
How did the artist use implied line to move your eye across the design space?
How did he use drawn (inscribed) line to create texture, light and shadow?
Can you break the work down into simple geometric shapes to understand its composition and underlying structure?
We often look at things without really seeing them. Even things we look at every day we don’t really notice. For example, can you draw the front of a quarter? Who is represented on the coin? What direction is he facing? How large is the portrait in relationship to the whole coin? What lettering is included? Where is the date positioned?
Intentional observation requires effort and practice. Design and art require the ability to see with sensitivity and detail, and this is a skill you can learn.
Intentional observation is a discipline that helps you think analytically and insightfully. This is one reason why drawing is so useful to all visual artists no matter what their discipline. Drawing causes us to see more detail and with greater understanding then the common person. So as you are developing your drawing skills you should at the same time be developing your perceptual skills.
Three exercises to boost your observational skills
Practice is required. As with any skill, you have to actually do it to get better at it. Here are three quick exercises you can do to starting seeing better. If you do these regularly, over a period of time your observation skills will get better and your drawing will improve.
1) Draw one object from at least three different points of view. The different points of view will give you the understanding of the dimensionality of the object, all of it shapes, and how was put together. When you understand how an object is formed or a space is been built, you will be able to draw more accurately.
And when you can draw accurately you can add to that drawing expressively.
2) Draw the same object using only geometric shapes: squares and rectangles, circles, ellipses, and triangles. This is an abstraction (simplification) process, and is often the way beginning artist designers are taught to start their drawings. Get the basic shapes and structures down on paper before building out the contours and details.
3) Compare two or more objects to each other. How are they similar in form? How are they different? Making comparisons is useful to seeing with sensitivity. When you compare, you’re analyzing and engaging your whole brain in the process. (Drawing and design are whole-brain, not just right-brain, activities — with apologies to Betty Edwards). Making comparisons allows us to see form in a way that we draw information from it to use in our own work.
Making comparisons also allows us to see what’s similar between one form and another and to make connections between then. Humans are always looking for patterns and similarities in order to make sense of the world. Designers and artists deliberately build on this tendency for the purpose of creating meaningful work.
It’s a fact that innovation happens when unexpected connections are made. You cannot connect two things unless you know what those things are. And you know what those things are because you’ve either experienced them or you’ve observed them.
The Hidden Benefit of Intentional Observation
A side benefit to this is attentive observation practice is that you will be able to appreciate and value a work of art or a design even if you don’t like it. In the class recently one of my students looked an example I was showing in my slide deck and exclaimed that she didn’t like the example because it looked messy.
…you will be able to appreciate and value a work of art or a design even if you don’t like it.
I agreed with her that it did look messy. But then I was able to show her the design principles involved, and the evidence of the designer’s thinking and forming process. I showed her how the forms worked to activate space, how it was asymmetrically balanced, how the use of diagonals gave it a sense of energy and movement, and how color and texture worked to unify the form into a complete design.
We don’t necessarily have to like something in order to appreciate it. We can find value in anything we see if we look at it with a designer’s eye.
How to practice attentive observation
How do you intentionally observe something? What should you be thinking about? What should you be noticing?
If it’s a small object, pick it up and turn it over. Look at it from all sides an top And bottom. If it’s a large object like the car walk around it. Squat down to look at it from a lower eye level. What do you see? If you can look through it do so. What do you see? If it’s a space walk around in it. Look at it from different points of view. Go to and survey the Space. And survey each corner. What do you see?
First, look at the whole thing. What is it shaped like? What is the overall color? What is its closest geometric shape a rectangle? Square? Triangle? Are there any areas of negative space inside the form? What is its compositional stress or structural stress — vertical horizontal or diagonal? Or is it more square with equal stress in multiple directions? is there a focal point? Is the object or space functional? What forms help it to function?
Then, observe the details. Examine the individual shapes and elements. How was the object formed? What material is it made of? What aren’t service characteristics?
As you’re observing try to understand how the creator of the piece figured out its specific look and feel. How did they structure the piece? The idea here is to not be able to copy the piece directly (but that can be helpful to you in order to understand it) but to adopt an approach or mindset for your own projects.
The same rigor with which you look at objects and spaces should be applied to two-dimensional works. Illustrations, photographs, sculptures, architecture, environmental design, your vacuum cleaner, your coffee maker, your drawing pencil. Any form of visual expression and industrial design can be the basis for your own designs.
No the idea is to not copy but to be inspired by what you see. Inspiration is all around you. We draw from all aspects of life and other creative work to shape our own work and strengthen our own approaches.
In addition to curation, keep a sketchbook or notebook with you at all times. Whether it’s a physical book or a digital app, always be ready to sketch, draw, and take notes. With smart phones it’s easier than ever to always have a camera with you. And there’s no excuse not to take lots of photos whenever photos are allowed.
The whole idea is to record what you see, examine and analyze it, and understand it. This will build up your observational ability for drawing, painting, photography, and design.
Drawing … involves the ability to understand what you are drawing, how it was formed, and why it exists.
Drawing involves far more than just technical ability to handle a pencil or stylus well. It goes far beyond being able to draw expressive lines, and he picked figures in animals and plants and things in proper proportion and shapes. It involves the ability to understand what you are drawing, how it was formed, and why it exists.
Your Turn: A Drawing Challenge
Get a small sketchbook, or a drawing app on your device. Take it with you wherever you go for the next 30 days. Each day, make at least one drawing of one thing you see. Next to the drawing, use words to describe it. Then, tap a piece of tracing paper or flimsy over the drawing and on the overly diagram the compositional axis, overall shape and smaller shapes within the form.