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27 Building with Shapes

One effective—and surprisingly fun—way of coming up with a graphic simplification of a person, place, or thing is to build your subject using a visual vocabulary of basic shapes: squares, circles, rectangles, ellipses, triangles, stars, and/or polygons.

Building illustrations or icons of real-world subjects using basic shapes can lead directly to usable results or it could provide a strong start toward an image that departs from a purely shape-based structure.

Abstract icons, too, can be developed very effectively using basic geometric shapes—especially when tools like those found in Adobe’s Pathfinder panel are involved (available through Illustrator and InDesign).

The Pathfinder panel offers the tools-of-choice that many designers turn to when creating either representational or abstract icons from basic shapes. If you aren’t already familiar with these tools, become so. And do it as soon as possible. Pathfinder tools give the designer a fantastic range of options when merging, subtracting, or finding interesting intersections between shapes. You can use Pathfinder tools to sculpt both simple and complex renderings from shapes of any kind.

On a related note, you can create intriguing and attractive visuals by forcing graphically depicted subjects to fit within—and to conform to—a geometric shape. Challenge yourself, for example, to develop an icon of a thing or an animal that fits neatly into a circle, an ellipse, a square, or a triangle. Designers often do this when crafting logos: Take note of examples of this kind of thing when you come across them and gather ideas for your own work.

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