From Timid to Intrepid: All It Takes is
by Peg Laflam
Originally Published Spring 1999
What clearly marks the difference between a good designer and a really
outstanding designer? What word describes the artist whose work can
dominate a room or a wall? What word describes the artist whose wall
hanging, quilt or jacket with combinations of colors and fabrics that may
There can be only one word ... intrepid. There can be no room for timidity
in good design. But how does one become fearless and bold in the creation
of designs and in the use of color? Where does one get ideas or know just
which colors to put together?
No one is born with the talent for good design, just as no one is born
knowing how to play tennis or ride a horse. It is all in the practice.
Think of areas which demand skills ... anything from ballet to typing. Let
your mind recall a budding ballerina or a beginning typist and you will
see clumsiness and insecurity. But as your mind moves ahead and you watch
a skilled ballerina or a skilled typist, you see a grace and a flow of
beauty that comes from practice.
Designing is no different. The beginner will be insecure, timid and
clumsy. At this point some people give up saying they weren't born to be
designers, but the intrepid soul will repeat an exercise, will search out
teachers, and will develop skills in designing. As with so many things in
life, if you have a desire to do something, then time will be found to
learn how to do it. If you don't find the time to stretch and work at
designing, your work may remain at the timid and tentative stage.
In order to be the intrepid designer, one must first learn to see
design in everything. A notebook is not only helpful, but necessary. If
something catches your eye, you should make a note of it immediately in
the notebook. This can be something as simple as a pattern in the
brickwork (have you ever noticed that bricks can be placed horizontally,
vertically and even diagonally on a building and the direction can give a
clue to the age of the structure?), or the lines on a city map showing the
streets (compare the streets in Washington, D.C. with those in Manhattan).
Stonework, arches, ceilings in the architectural line; tennis racquets,
skis, footballs, and volley balls in the sports line; leaves, flowers,
streams, raindrops in nature can all be inspirations for design.
After a period of looking for and realizing design in daily life, you
can then select a particular subject that intrigues you. By reducing this
subject down to the simplest lines you can approach the subject from a new
and fresh viewpoint. Take the simple house plant you see everyday. Move
your eye in as closely as possible and discover new sights. Take a
magnifying glass and get even further inside the leaf or flower. Find a
part of the plant which has appealing lines and copy them into your book
of ideas. Then forgetting about the original source, consider this
collection of lines or shapes as your design. It is important to remember
that your finished work need not be realistic, it can be merely
decorative. If it doesn't have the appeal you are searching for, do not
despair -- repeat the lines or shapes several times, either in a row side
by side or by rotating the shapes. Make some of the shapes larger and some
smaller; here a copying machine is invaluable. Reverse them so that you
have some in mirror image. In fact stand a mirror beside part of your
design and see what new designs can be created by repetition of parts of
the original. Reverse the positive and negative areas in some. Make
combinations or collages of these sketches continuing to move them around
until you have a pleasing combination. Soon there will be an area of
greater appeal. One way to eliminate areas of lesser appeal and select the
area you want to devote your attention to is to create a paper frame so
that you can focus on specific areas. Try a round or oval frame as well as
square or rectangular to see which best fits your design.
After an area has been chosen, it can be enlarged to any size desired.
Along the way you may discover there are some lines that make the design a
bit busy, perhaps these lines create tiny spaces or shapes that are barely
seen. Do not hesitate to remove them. It takes a courageous designer to
remove lines; ask yourself if each line is necessary and if it is not,
remove it. In the search for design simplicity, restraint is the key. A
good example would be the Chinese Ying-Yang symbol, a circle with a single
bold curved line dividing the positive and negative areas.
Once you have completed this exercise, go back to your original design
source and repeat from a different angle or viewpoint. It is only by this
repetition and practice that you will find yourself becoming the intrepid