When my son was just entering college we took a road trip up to Michigan just to hang out and see some new country. One of the highlights was a chance visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes on western shoreline. I wasn’t prepared for the vista. Towering vertical sand dunes that plunged far down to a distant beach. We stood on a board walk with signs warning not to make the foolish attempt to descend the steep sandy bank. That became even more apparent when a speedboat shattered the silence far below. The boat looked like a small water bug and gave the eye a true sense of how massive the dunes really are. It was both breath taking and somehow a bit unnerving. Without the boat to give some contrast it was difficult for the mind to process this vast spectacle.
I think a lot about how contrast is employed in design and how we respond to it. Traditional design tends to avoid a grid and instead favors using contrast or a hierarchy.
It seems at first blush to be counterintuitive. We are creatures that like order and lining up identical sized objects seems to make sense, at least on the surface. I’m reminded of something I read by C.S. Lewis where he pointed out that reality is often very different than what we might imagine at first blush. He used the solar system as an example. Our mind may imagine a neat orderly arrangement of planets circling the sun, but the reality is a hodge podge of different sized globes traveling in elliptical orbits. Orderly yes, but not fitting into a neat grid by any means.
For centuries designers have recognized that using major and minor elements is a way to help our eye take in a design. They employed this concept of major and minor in the larger elements of a form down to composing the smaller elements in a carving or molding.
Frequently on period work the contrast is created using simple whole number ratios like 3:4 or 2:3. Take the time when looking at furniture you enjoy to see how the design makes use of major and minor elements. When you look at a really great carving, notice how the elements may be broken up into major and minor. Even inlay looks more pleasing when the different bands of color contrast in width. Any one have thoughts on why we find this major and minor appealing?
George R. Walker