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The Elements: Nature's Sensuality

In this chapter from Design by Nature: Using Universal Forms and Principles in Design, you’ll enhance your awareness of how subtlety supports continuity between your design, color, and element—the sensibilities that underscore all relationships.
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Part of nature’s subtlety is its sensuality. There are many delicately complex and understated qualities of color, weather, and element that influence how you feel physically and temper your mood. Subtleties combine to give sense-ability to your daily experience of living by providing a background upon which all of life and its movements exist. Your senses are the receptors—physical and otherwise—through which you experience nature’s sensuality. Humans, as with all animals, are continually in a sensory intake mode to process the world around them. As a creature of intelligence, you may influence some things you come into contact with, but their causes are usually a far more complex interplay of forces and factors you are not consciously aware of.



  • Nature displays itself in sensually accessible ways, and it is useful to align its “sense-abilities” as informational and aesthetic supports in design.
  • The visible color spectrum is displayed as transmitted or reflected light within which there are subsets, such as structural color and monochromatic color.
  • Color is relevant to order as well as emotional and intellectual states, and has natural associations as well as cultural or traditional preferences.
  • The five elements are fundamental properties of physical space that are experienced through your senses and are associated with every other physical experience or manifestation.
  • Experience cross-sensual interplay while being attentive to design and its structure.
  • Understand subtlety as a crucial quality that brings depth and meaning to design by relating layers of information.
  • Learn to use color and elements and their associated properties to describe and enhance your design.
  • Create a “Sense-ability” journal to explore your personal interaction with the physical senses and develop them into a comprehensive design system.

Sensibilities influence your emotional state of well-being, your attention level, and your receptivity. The better you understand how to integrate some of the subtler relationships of sensuality into your design, the more sense-ability it has because you are mimicking nature’s play of color, light, and feeling that the human senses respond to. Subtlety plays a significant role in the success of design by engaging the senses deeply and inviting the viewer to receive and respond. This creates design with more longevity and reach. Art and design that survive over time do so by containing perennial aesthetics and accessibility. Anything that survives momentary trends is directly linked into natural and timeless relevance. To create this sort of longevity in your work, you need an appreciation of subtlety. To understand subtlety, you must slow the artificial pace of urgency in daily life (the smaller and faster technology becomes, the more demands it places on your attention, time, and energy) to nature’s pace of unfolding what exists around you in its own time (Figure 6.1). The beauty of nature is its continuity, which persists with or without your involvement. If you accept nature as your mentor and partner, you will find it a world of truth to learn from. In this chapter, you’ll enhance your awareness of how subtlety supports continuity between your design, color, and element—the sensibilities that underscore all relationships.


6.1 The last dandelion seed clings precariously to the flower head awaiting the right breeze at the right time, to blow it into its next state of being (opposite).


Color Your World

  • “Every light is a shade, compared to the higher lights, till you come to the sun; and every shade is a light, compared to the deeper shades, till you come to the night.”
  • —John Ruskin, 1879

Color is a visual effect caused by the composition of the light emitted, transmitted, or reflected by physical objects. Through a complex interplay between the light receptors in your head (your eyes) and the sun’s dazzling energy, you perceive the visible spectrum of the rainbow.

Although limited to seven distinct colors, human vision has the acuity to see a range of subtleties in the spectrum visible through the medium of light (Figure 6.2).


6.2 A range of colors visible within the human color spectrum and some of their more universal human associations.


Light Creates Color

Sunlight is colorless or the white light of which all the colors of the spectrum are composed to make visible those colors the human eye can perceive. When you are looking at a backlit monitor, you are seeing the primary hues of RgB (red, green, blue) being transmitted through light. In daylight you are awash in color displaying variations of hue (the color itself), saturation (intensity), and value (lightness of tint or darkness of shade). Light creates color whether it is bouncing off an object (any physical object from a piece of fruit to a magazine page) or being transmitted through the medium of light (a rainbow or television screen). There are subset variations of seeing light: one of the ways you most commonly see color is through pigment—or a color changed by wavelength-selective absorption, such as freckled skin or the printed image.

In the identity rebrand for Autentika (Figure 6.3), a creative-interactive agency in Poland, highly saturated ink pigments combine with shape to create a play between dimension, color, shape, and order that gives the sense of emulating dynamic movement. Spreads from Autentika’s identity manual (Figure 6.4) show the serious work that goes into creating an effective illusion of spontaneity. Spontaneity is a result of perfectly balanced structure. Balance provides the freedom to put energy toward something new. Rather than being used to continually align itself, balanced—or neutral—energy can expand into the next appropriately evolved version of itself.


6.3 Identity and branding elements for Autentika use highly saturated color combined with shape that express playfulness, inventiveness, and intensity. Design: Jakub “Enzo” Rutkowski/Kommunikat.


6.4 Spreads from an identity manual for Autentika demonstrate brand consistency that captures a sense of being lighthearted and professional. Design: Jakub “Enzo” Rutkowski/Kommunikat.

Color can also be visualized in ways besides pigment: structurally (butterfly wings, soap bubbles, iridescent feathers), dyes and stains (bodily fluids such as squid ink or blood), chemically induced bioluminescence (fireflies, marine animals such as jellyfish), as suspended particles (silt in water that creates different hues), and transparency (found in deep water animals). Colors signal many different things in nature, including warning, receptivity for mating, mimicry, camouflage, and transparency (which mimics its source of clear light at ocean depths where color is less relevant).

Color form

Structural color is a type of reflected color that changes in hue and intensity as light strikes multiple surface layers from different angles. The iridescent luminosity of butterfly wings, hummingbird feathers, abalone shell, and soap bubbles are all examples of this optical phenomenon. Butterfly wings are made up of structural scales that consist of fine ridges that diffract light to create metallic-looking colors, as the series of micrographs show in Figure 6.5. The mutation of light displaying as iridescent color is prevalent in tropical areas where vividly colorful wings and shells are in abundance. Because the tropics are inundated with brightly colored flora and fauna, a variation of bright color evolved to help mating partners find one another. Hence, microscopic levers that reflect multiple angles of shimmering light evolved to have an edge over saturated color alone.


6.5 SEM image of a Peacock butterfly wing. The increasing magnifications in this series of micrographs reveal the structure of wing scales (which are actually transparent) and the tiny ridges of which they are composed. This feature creates a structural color shift as the insect moves, which in turn changes the angle and reflection of light for an irides-cent appearance. Transparency, movement, and light combine to create luminosity.

Similar to iridescence in nature, metallic inks have bits of metal flake (or sometimes synthetic pigments that resemble metal) suspended within the liquid that reflect at multiple angles. Metallic inks are more opaque than regular inks and are significantly influenced by the surface they are printed on. Uncoated papers will readily absorb and minimize their shine by sucking up the particles, whereas a coated stock has less absorption so that the metallic particles can rise to the surface, catch the light, and reflect back as glints. Like a tint, they are most effective when used on a large coverage area. They don’t hold up well as delicate line art, thin rules, or small type because they can’t deliver the same impact of a large surface area.

The basic quality of color is light, and there are many ways to achieve variations in its appearance depending on how it is bent or what it reflects from. This refers back to angles as the fundamental structures in constructing three-dimensional space from the prior chapter. Structure refers not only to physicality, but also to the more elusive senses that help sort out a world of immense variety, including what you might consider to be the less interesting shades of gray.

The Noncolor Colors

Black, on the other hand, absorbs light and therefore color: When dusk falls, you become color blind and revert to grayscale images because minimal light changes all hues to shades of gray. Human males also have a propensity toward color blindness, with 1 in 12 males (as compared to 1 in 20 females) born with the condition; the most typical color blindness either confuses or is missing shades of red or green. This is the same color vision many animals have, which seems awfully dreary when you think of experiencing the world solely through shades of gray and a few blues and yellows. Your dog or cat sees the world like this, but before you start feeling too sorry for them, remember that they can see far better than you in darkness and also compensate with highly evolved other senses, such as smell or hearing. on the other end of the spectrum, some animals, such as butterflies and bees, see colors you cannot in the ultraviolet range that lead them to pollen—and pollinating. A beautiful system.

Color is varied and without doubt one of the more pleasurable senses. Like anything in nature, it works by certain rules that determine how it is received depending on the circumstance. For instance, whether you are perceiving color under natural or artificial light can make all the difference in its hue, value, or saturation.

The Changing Ways of Color

Have you ever bought an article of clothing or selected paint or carpet for a room and found it was a totally different color than what you thought you had chosen? This is called metamerism and is most common with neutral or saturated shades. When colors become lighter in value or more intense in color, the spectral range they can be viewed in gets smaller. This means that what looked great under fluorescent lights might look awful in natural light, and vice versa. This is a phenomenon of reflected light and why RgB colors from your monitor can look completely different when printed as a CMYK image in ink on paper. Color is the most malleable of all design elements: It can morph or mutate from one light source to another. This is an instance when embedding a color profile into your graphic is useful, because cross-monitor viewing with different color profiles will influence what you see. Because of the immense color shift variation between RgB and CMYK, a color profile can help to keep some control over how a client views your design. In the world of virtual working relationships it can be a challenge to keep everyone on the same page where color is concerned.

The universal color palette is within the earth-tone hues, whether viewed under artificial or natural light. These are the basic and universal colors found in almost any environment.

A Natural Palette

When humans began painting, they used “earth” pigments that were either readily available or could be obtained within a reasonable distance on foot. These colors might be considered drab in the flurry of candy-colored intensity today, but you still recognize a warm earthiness and consistency: Blacks were carbon sourced from burned wood, ivory, and bone; red or yellow ochres and umbers were ground from minerals (mining is believed to have originated with the need to procure color from iron ore and other minerals; the human urge for art has always been strong); and white came from ground calcite—all relatively common throughout the world (Figure 6.8). Earth pigments don’t fade over time and aren’t affected by climate changes like dyes from vegetable or animal sources; consequently, these basic colors are common in all prehistoric art. Integrated into your work, they create a timeless palette that relaxes and energizes the viewer, similar to the experience of being in nature. The earth-tone color palette in Figure 6.9 is a start to creating your own color combinations. Experiment with what makes you feel connected and think about how it might be appropriately integrated to support your design’s message.


6.8 Prehistoric graffiti as a personal statement of “hand to earth” from Patagonia, Argentina.



6.9 An earth-tone color palette makes timeless connections into nature and references common sensibilities worldwide.


David McCandless, a data analyst, information designer, and author, investigated color perceptions from different cultures. He asked questions like: What color is happiness in China? or good luck in Africa? or anger in Eastern Europe? Are any color meanings universal across cultures and continents? David was curious, so he researched, gathered data, and visualized the result in Figure 6.10. Although there are universal meanings for many colors, there are also distinctions between cultures because of custom and tradition. This infographic describes what he discovered while researching the similarities and differences between cultural meanings of color. David’s book is The Visual Miscellaneum: A Colorful Guide to the World’s Most Consequential Trivia (US version published by Harper Design, 2009), or Information Is Beautiful (UK version published by Collins, 2010). of particular interest is that black represents mourning in the West, whereas white represents it in the East, and purple is flamboyant in either place.


6.10 “Colours and Culture,” an infographic by UK data analyst and information designer David McCandless & (opposite).

In the following section, you’ll learn more about the elements, how they impact every aspect of your life, and how to use them as a vehicle to deliver the subtler communications of your design in concert with color.

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