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Fundamentals of Creative Art and Design

by Clara LaFrance | May 19, 2011

The fundamentals of creative art and design are an important (in fact, inescapable!) aspect of any design education. The fundamentals form a structure that you can rely on later in your studies and in your professional work. Once you know the rules, you’ll know how to break them to develop innovative, creative work!

In this fourth post of our series comparing traditional and online design programs, we’ll look at the fundamental projects you’re likely to experience in design school.

Many fundamental assignments are considered “classics” and are given to students in traditional and online design schools around the world. There are some practical differences between learning the basics online or in-person, but you may be surprised by the similarities!

I created this black and white layout (top) for a traditional typography assignment, designing a poem using only type.

Regardless of the format, fundamental assignments can be fun to render and help you master specific skills in color and typography selection. Here are just a few of the assignments that I have encountered in my traditional design studies and that you’re likely to find online or off:

  • Expressive typography in which only type is used to visually convey the meaning of a word, phrase, piece of poetry, or emotion
  • Color wheel studies in which abstract imagery is created using specific color harmonies
  • Redesign of United States currency to exhibit color, type, and composition skills
  • Composite images in which two or more photographs are combined to create a new image
  • Basic logo design in black and white to explore the shape and message of type
  • Information hierarchy studies in which large swaths of text are organized for readability and message

A common first project in a traditional color theory course is painting a color wheel that you can later use to illustrate color relationships for design projects. You’ll spend countless hours with paints and a brush, painting individual colors on the wheel and identifying complementary colors and harmonies. In an online color course, like Color Theory at Sessions, the first project uses digital media with the same goal. You’ll use Photoshop and Kuler to develop abstract mood boards. A mood board uses textures, colors, and imagery to convey an emotion or feeling. The colors used in the board can then be translated to a color scheme for a design project.

And how about typography? Typography used to be entirely tactile. Letters were set in a press; lines of text were physically cut and pasted. In a traditional, in-person typography class, you will still find yourself cutting and pasting! I spent hours with an X-acto knife, cutting out tiny letters from magazines and newspapers to create an image using type. In an online typography course, the same exercise may be executed with Photoshop or Illustrator. Although software may replace the X-acto and rubber cement in an online program, no software in the world can replace your creativity and your brain! You’ll learn the basics of type right in the software that you’re expected to know as a professional, and the result is a creative digital composition that expresses your understanding of type essentials.

Mastering the fundamentals can be a challenge, but you wouldn’t expect to run a marathon tomorrow, would you? Neither can you expect to create perfectly balanced, aesthetically composed design if you haven’t trained your eye as a runner trains her body or a pianist practices scales.

Plus, all that work you put in learning the basics can lead to incredible, fully fleshed out design pieces. Just think: All of your cutting and pasting, or arranging letters perfectly on-screen, could turn into a stunning CD cover or poster design! (And you can annoy your friends by pointing out the fonts and color harmonies on shopping bags and in magazine ads.)


The Grammys used a similar approach to a classic type exercise with a stunning result.

Stay tuned for the next post in the series where we talk about a practical workflow you can use in fundamental and advanced design projects!

Clara LaFrance
Course Producer | Sessions College

Clara LaFrance is a freelance graphic designer when she is not pursuing her dreams as a circus teacher and performer. Clara has an M.F.A. in graphic design from Boston University.

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