Color and Design Concepts: The Balance of Repetition and Variation (and a Snake)

Slight variations of warm taupe grays and cool blue grays aren't enough to make this "design" interesting. The monochromatic color use of the color gray along with the subtle differences in size and shape of the stones is so visually "quiet" it's booring.
Slight variations of warm taupe grays and cool blue grays aren't enough to make this "design" interesting. The monochromatic color use of the color gray along with the subtle differences in size and shape of the stones is so visually "quiet" it's boring.

Good design snakes our attention. Here’s why. Looking at too much of the same thing can turn a good thing into nothing you’d notice or want to look at. Too much of the same thing sends our brain to sleep. Maybe not literally, but our attention drifts and we’re on to the next thing.

Our human brains are on the alert for differences. That alertness informs us when the forest we’re walking through isn’t just grass and trees, but now includes a snake.

Good design of all types, including home interior design is about moving the eye, mind and body throughout the work. Whether that work is architectural, a photograph, painting or product, when the viewer is engaged, the work is a success. That doesn’t mean that good design appeals equally to everyone. That’s not possible. Despite that, there are general concepts or tools that designers and artists of all types use.

One of those tools is the balance of design repetition to variation. A good designer creates work that has enough of the same thing – repetition of design elements, along with enough differences – variation of design elements, to keep the eye and brain engaged in the way they want it engaged.

Too much repetition and something is so visually quiet, the brain can’t find stimulation and looses interest. Too little repetition and the work lacks stability. The brain gets overwhelmed by the lack of visual cohesion and looses interest. Bringing variation into the design mix is a balancing act that the designer or artist works with to create the “right” amount of viewer engagement.

Though the colors of the snake are similar to the gravel, the shape and texture of the snake instantly gets the brain's attention. Then the brain notices the slight variations in color. By then, I've run in the opposite direction. My brain was certainly awake.
Though the colors of the snake are similar to the gravel, the shape and texture of the snake instantly gets the brain's attention. Then the brain notices the slight variations in color. By then, I've run in the opposite direction. My brain was certainly awake and my attention engaged.

Because these design concepts can seem complex to understand, I’ve illustrated them with some photos I took in a driveway. Walking across a long gray graveled driveway several times, my mind was focused on anything but the steps I was taking. Then I saw the snake. All of the sameness was out of my brain in a nano-second. Even though the “variation” (the shape and slight color change of the snake) was a very small amount of the experience visually, it was more than enough to get my attention.

I like to think about the concept of balancing repetition with variation and how it exists in the world, both in nature and in human design. I first wrote about this in my book, Paint Happy and I’ve continued to be fascinated by how this design concept is so important in every facet of the arts, including music, theater and dance.

So, next time you’re choosing colors, designing, or making art, remember the snake. Your brain will thank you.

www.CristinaAcosta.com

2 comments

  1. Excellent post. You have eloquently explained a large part of my experience when I am hunting. Noting it is the absence of “sameness” which gets our attention. Oh, and snakes certainly do get my attention!

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