Design Philosophy

Energy is ultimate, sometimes delivered powerfully with lightning bolts, tornadoes, roaring trains, rainbows, thrashing waves, swarming fish or locusts, yet usually rendered much more subtly.  I want my work to be about energy containing strong, intriguing, seductive movement, loaded with contrast and beautiful colors and lights.  While I am heavily influenced by nature, I am also attracted to light, motion and exquisite colors.  I believe light is all-powerful, a visual display of energy of which life is about.  Light possesses, and is a result of all color, so is extremely powerful in all ways and especially psychologically when it displays.  Light is energy, energy is light.  It is the very essence of our heat, food systems, health, welfare and nature itself.  If the sun stopped shining tomorrow, we would be dead in a matter of weeks.

I have been criticized for not creating designs that consider technical limitations of materials, and I technically violate them.  This is probably true since you can either let the material control you, or you can control the material.  I am unsure whether knowledge of art and design is a blessing or curse, since most everything around us is so poorly designed.  It is terribly frustrating, sometimes better to be ignorant than knowledgeable.  Ignorance may be bliss.

While art is a personal expression or communication, this message is drastically affected by the quality in which it's presented, with design being a crucial ingredient.  In other words, the messenger is just as important as the message.

I believe that 90% of artists and craftspeople do not aesthetically know what they are doing.  Yet, if so, they could double or triple the quality and impact of their work.  Their art could be complex, rich, potent, and full of interest whether someone understands their message or not.  If the work has to be justified through its title or message, it's not successful.  There are differences in levels of complexity and quality, like between the Rolling Stones and Tchaikowsky, the Simpsons and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.  While all may be great, some are greater than others.  Since there are many different levels, the question is which you seek.  Most work is too simple, boring, disorganized and contains too many inconsistencies.

As an educator, it is imperative to comprehend and constantly question what you are teaching, what you promote and think is important.  After many years, a simple "golden rule" has evolved which applies to all aspects of life from dressing to eating, from music to photography, from daily schedules to movies; and most importantly, all aspects of art.  It is so simple, I'm amazed it took so long to discover its' ramifications.  I believe design can be distilled to a few simple guidelines and goals, an elementary 1, 2, 3 approach involving the elements and goals.  To my students, I preach, "use as much variety as possible that is unified and organized", the big three.  Variety and unity are achieved by simply repeating everything, but in a multitude of ways, with no inconsistencies.  Organization is easy, meaning eye paths---where your eyes would follow.  We all are attracted to movement like a person walking by, an airplane flying overhead, women wearing dangling earrings, a leaf blowing in the wind; they all attract our attention.  In the animal world, discerning movement is the key to survival as a predator or prey.  In art, movement is a key to controlling a person's attention, so it is extremely important to understand its' value and incorporate it into artwork as much as possible.  If you want dynamic artwork, make dynamic movement; lead a viewer around and around, in and out and to make it even more interesting, make it complex and utilize as much spatial tension as possible, an even greater device. 

This golden rule has served me well in all my projects whether they are in precious metals and stones, stained glass, railroad ties, concrete steps, dirt, light panels, decorative wood work or planting flowers.  Many bristle when confronted with this philosophy, but fail to suggest an alternative, always a good experience/challenge.  It'd be stimulating to hear their philosophies, if they could express them in words that one can comprehend.  I don't wish to dictate, preach or lecture, I'm just trying to learn, and should I hear better will switch/conform/perform accordingly.  In the meantime, the rule just makes sense; I only wish I had discovered earlier.

In my personal work, environment and every aspect of my life, I try to utilize these guidelines.  I pretend I am one of my students subjected to these rules, and then ask what I should do.  In each case, the answer immediately appears.  I try to constantly add variety using the most drastic extremes, thus providing contrast.  There are only four or five ways in which to add contrast, but it is always dynamic.  We are always attracted to movement whether it be inward (called depth), physical or organizationally (eye paths).  I prefer negative shapes instead of positive, since they are suggestive instead of actually existing, and we like to see what we cannot.  I like to utilize iridescent colors, since they have much more variety than others, and change depending upon the viewpoint of the viewer and source of light.  Water (liquid light) is a great material, it constantly moves, a mirror of life/energy, always reflecting/echoing what is being broadcast.  There are other devices, but all are an attempt to occupy, involve or capture a viewers' attention and stimulate them with as much variety as possible.  I think you can evaluate a work of art by how long it makes you look at it.  The more time viewers analyze your work, means they appreciate and enjoy it, so will think it good.  Inconsistencies are a no, no; craftsmanship is a yes, yes.  The message should never be compromised. 

I am always trying to utilize my golden rule, but in addition, incorporating the artistic qualities of light.  I am trying to capture your attention and mind, and then play with both for as long as possible.  I no longer make objects, but designs that serve as objects---it has taken me many years to understand the difference.  Future artwork will focus on messages so they have more character and soul, a powerful and newly discovered element for me.


  •  Art is a message, communication or expression. 
  • The quality of art is affected by 3 ingredients:
    A. The message (soul) 
    B.  The manner in which it is presented (organized, designed)
    C.  The manner in which it is executed (craftsmanship)
  • If you can dazzle your viewers with some technological breakthrough, that's great but remember, naive observers often cannot distinguish between what is easy, difficult or impossible, so you may be wasting your time trying to impress the ignorant.
  • If you have to apologize for your craftsmanship, it's time to improve.
  • Often there is no correlation between quality and the economic art market as documented by Claes Oldenberg and Andy Warhol.  While household name artists, they were elevated to an artificially high "guru" level, but in reality are boring, banal, common artists who succeeded only through opportunity, sheer persistence, political savvy, friends and/or perhaps sheer luck.  Politics is always important, but just because a work of art is in a museum does not make it "good", it may just mean that artist was politically successful.  It's also amazing how so called "experts" are afraid to contest many banalities (boring artwork) and instead should call a spade, a spade.
  • The best art combines an extremely complex, soulful, interesting message; rendered in a highly complex, interesting organization; and crafted in a very highly skilled, technically fascinating manner where craftsmanship does not detract in any manner.  Additionally, there are no inconsistencies and your attention is commanded at all levels and areas.
  • Your enemy is boring, boring, boring (work).  The worst art is bad, boring and butchered.  We all seek as much variety as possible, yet unified and organized, the golden rule that works so well.

While art is a message, communication or expression, and even though craftsmanship is important, this paper will only deal with design, its importance, purpose and use.



shape (mass if 3D)
color (shade/value if black& white)

soul (psychological memory/history/imprint)---variable with each individual, example: how you feel when you look at a bee's nest, snake skin, bullets, spiders, butterflies, crystals, etc. based on personal experience.

PRINCIPLES OF DESIGN (meaning what you do with the elements):
    --radial symmetry
focal point
organization/visual movement (eye paths)
    --mental (great for mind games)
    ---laws of nature --higher on picture plane (farther away if below horizon)
    --smaller is farther away
    --vague (less distinct) is farther away
    --overlapping (an overlapped object is farther away) 
    --horizontal, vertical, diagonal lines and their effects
    --large areas are usually calm and a cool
    --laws of common sense, do not arbitrarily change things unless you can justify---it must make sense.


  •  Use as much variety as possible that is unified (repeated) and organized (establish definite eye paths).  Repeat, repeat, repeat, just change it often.
  • Don't be too obvious in your eye paths, otherwise you insult the intelligence of your viewer.  Make organization complex also.  Give the viewer lots of choices, five is better than three.
  • Make designs extremely complex but as simple as possible, yet complex, yet simple.
  • Use drastic negative space variation.  Space is just as important as mass.
  • Use lots of tension both spatially and mentally (which forces viewers to become mentally involved).
  • Use lots of depth (which draws viewers into the design, again forcing them to become mentally involved and it adds to the complexity of the movement).
  • Use soul and thought provoking messages (which forces viewers to become emotionally and psychologically involved), yet do not be too obvious.  It's always best to suggest instead of dictating.
  • Do not allow inconsistencies (this violates unity).  Repeat everything at least 3 times and in different areas of the work.
  • Use drastic contrast (extremes) in as many ways as possible.  It makes work dynamic:  huge/tiny, positive/negative, smooth/textural, busy/calm (simple/complex), dark/light, etc.
  • Negative shapes are more interesting than positive ones, they suggest instead of dictate.
  • Constantly turn your designs upside down and on their sides while working.  This provides a new viewpoint, which insures proper balance and an awareness of other potential problems.  Perhaps hold it up to a mirror to provide an even different perspective (trouble areas immediately jump out at you).  Another viewpoint is gained by placing it twenty feet away from you, upside down and try squinting, which will tell you if you have sufficient contrast.  Or, if you have the luxury and patience to leave it in a drawer for a year, it's a real eye-opener.
  • Maintain one large restful area where very little is happening, (preferably near, but not in the middle) for drastic contrast.  Plus this automatically organizes everything.
  • Do not put focal points directly in the center of the composition.  This would establish symmetry or radial symmetry, and while very unifying because of its repetition, can also be deadly boring.
  • Make backgrounds interesting; they usually are as important as the foreground.  Divide your background into big chunks, I call it the "big chunk" philosophy, where major portions of your art work are divided into high contrast backgrounds, making sure you use both light and dark in major portions; thus called big chunks.  This helps insure a less boring background, since you've used both light and dark in extremes, as well as size differences at both ends of the spectrum (big and small).
  • Consider never using symmetrical balance.  While great for unity, it decreases variety by 50% thus adding to boredom, unless counteracted by other means.
  • When you critique artwork (yours and others), always ask where your eyes are supposed to follow; where are the eye paths (meaning is it organized)?  How did you create your variety and how did you create your unity (meaning did you repeat)?  The big three---variety, unity and organization.
  • Once you are finished designing, try to double its complexity but make it look even simpler.  Then repeat, unless you have reached the important milestone when it is more important to subtract instead of adding---an ultimate goal of artistic maturity.
  • Avoid excuses, everyone has a story as to what your intentions were, how you were limited by the material, how you weren't inspired that day, etc., etc., etc.  If your goals were unintelligent, too limited, or incorrect, you aren't reaching your full potential.  Too many times I've heard the statement "but I like it simple" and usually it is out of honest ignorance, instead of the conclusion of a long time battle between simplicity and complexity, which one cannot understand until they've encountered the struggle.  So, simplicity as a goal for a beginner is incorrect and born out of artistic ignorance.

The bottom line is to make your viewers spend as much time as possible looking at your art work by utilizing the techniques and principles above: complexity, spatial tension, eye paths, depth, messages, movement, soul, detail and anything else to control your viewer's mind or body (eyes).  To intrigue a viewer, you need to play with their mind, in a gentle, non-violating way----intrigue/involve them.

© 2001-2018 Mark Baldridge, all rights reserved.

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