Sculpting a Way to Increase Design Awareness

Sculpting a Way to Increase Design Awareness

As a graphic designer I want the viewer/user to have a successful and efficient interaction with what I design. But I also want to design an experience — set up a connection or reaction on multiple levels between the viewer and the designed piece. Is this a lofty goal? No, this is one of the goals of design, and reactions to it happen all the time — you just may not be consciously aware of it.

As an example, let's take a closer look at how we experience outdoor sculpture.

I like it. I like to look at it — but why?

  1. Sculpture invites interaction from its audience. Outside, a sculpture is often approached from a distance, it can be stalked and caught by surprise in the act of just being itself. The initial impact of seeing a shape from afar evolves into an examination of construction and materials when that shape is only inches away. The viewer’s body is experienced as their own personal scaling tool that makes them intimately aware of a sculpture’s physical size and mass.
  2. Rarely placed in a corner, a sculpture doesn’t require the observer to look at it from only one angle. Sculptures are patient; they have time to be observed and contemplated from many angles. The sculpture’s maker stood on every side of their work they were creating it. The viewer can often stand in these same places looking at and even through and inside the work.
  3. Outside sculptures may create a different impression each time they are seen. They are subject to the weather and may change with age, moss, bird droppings, or seasonal flowers and foliage surrounding them. In the rain, an outside sculpture will be wet; in the snow an accumulation may form a blanket; in the full sun, a shadow will be cast.
Madrina, by Mark Calderon on display in the Evan H. Roberts Memorial Sculpture Mall of the Portland Art Museum.
Madrina, by Mark Calderon on display in the Evan H. Roberts Memorial Sculpture Mall of the Portland Art Museum.

A piece that invites a closer look is Madrina, by Mark Calderon on display in the Evan H. Roberts Memorial Sculpture Mall of the Portland Art Museum. The first time I saw this piece I was curious what the “front” looked like. I couldn’t help myself from orbiting it several times to see it from every angle to satisfy that curiosity.

Another piece I find fun can be found in the William and Catherine Dickson Sculpture Park at the Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, Washington. This park has some intriguing pieces including Matt Cartwright’s Malabar Bombax. This huge red flower draws me to it as if I were a hummingbird, and where else can I really experience that?

Matt Cartwright’s Malabar Bombax
Matt Cartwright’s Malabar Bombax

A place I recently became aware of and has been added to my “gotta see” list is the Storm King Art Center. Located an hour north of New York City and situated on 500 natural acres of hills, fields, and woods, this sanctuary holds over 100 sculptures and rotating installations.

View of Storm King Art Center's  South Fields, Mark di Suvero sculptures.
View of Storm King Art Center's South Fields, Mark di Suvero sculptures.

Virginia Overton’s 2014 summer/fall installation is another one I would love to see in person. Situated four feet off the ground, 488' of 4" brass tubing and painted steel flows over the contours of the center’s landscape. The sculpture was designed to be just taller than the height of the hay (when fully grown) that it shares the field with. An excerpt of Overton’s installation as described on its website“The project … has a playful, joyful, and interactive dimension. Several musical instruments are made of brass, and the material carries sound readily. Visitors are invited to engage with and activate Overton’s work by listening and speaking into either end of it. It carries sound, picks up slight noises, and allows visitors different experiences—visual, auditory, spatial—as they traverse Storm King’s landscape. For Overton, both site and viewer are critical to the meaning of this piece.”

How sculpture has taught me to be a better designer

So what does this examination of outdoor sculpture have to do with making me a better graphic designer? There are many factors that can come into play to help visual art produce conscious and subconscious effects within the viewer. Interaction with sculpture, although a potentially rich experience, is optional. Interacting with books, ads, information formatted on a page or a screen, while many times something we choose to do, is something we're required to do all throughout the day everyday. Being aware of the nuances of design: color, font choice, size, hierarchy, space, image use, and how these components work together to create emotion, stimulate interest, clarify, point, and lead, is part of what makes my role as a viewer interesting, and also what makes my job as a graphic designer challenging and satisfying.

My encouragement to you

You are a reader and observer; daily you are surrounded by a rich assortment of visuals. Consider the chair you sit on, colors you are surrounded by, landscaping within your view, fabric, cars, hair styles, the pattern on your silverware… everything was designed with a purpose — to elicit a response from you and bring you to a certain understanding. Take note of what interests you. What do you find yourself looking longer at — not necessarily admiring, but thinking about? What words would you use to describe the experience that results from spending your time not just in gathering information but in voluntarily involving yourself with what you see? Think about why that is (or isn’t). Now keep going. What experience do you want to provide for others, and how will you take this new awareness and transfer it to how you do whatever it is that you do? Start with a conscious opening of yourself to the world around you and be attentive to what you encounter. Decide what experience you want to create for others and then be wide-minded in how you approach that goal.