Caged Bird

When Kelita Haverland invited me to scribe the words to her popular song “Caged Bird”, she generously gave complete freedom—both exciting and daunting for an artist! The poignant lyrics deserved special treatment, so I immediately got to work choosing lettering styles and images.

WillowLetteringWhat was the inspiration?

Lettering. I’ve always admired the classic work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928), a Scottish architect, designer, and water colourist. His projects were inspired by the flourish of Art Nouveau and the simplicity of Japanese forms. He was known for designing a simple and elegant letterform called “Willow”.

A graduate of the Glasgow School of Art, Mackintosh was commissioned to design the School’s new building, but also the furniture, artwork, and stained glass windows—unusual scope granted an architect.

Images. While researching song birds, I was intrigued by the Merops apiaster species—a richly coloured, wild, migratory bird with a mellow song. Its name is Greek and Latin for “bee-eater”. Merops feed on flying insects—but not before removing their stinger and venom. What resilient birds. As resilient as the subjects in Kelita’s song.

In the final design, “Caged Bird” combines the influence of stained glass with watercolour and the “Willow” letterform. I am imagining that the letter “o” resembles a birdhouse entrance with a perch! It was tempting to refine the lines of the birdcage with pen and ruler, but leaving it rustic gives the impression of forged iron, which provides a counterpoint to the soft colours.


“Caged Bird” features watercolour, gouache, and ink on Arches 140 lb. watercolour paper. The piece was designed at the kitchen counter during studio renovation when supplies were in storage—a test of resiliency!

Have you been given freedom to design a project? What was your approach?


Viva Colombia!

Last Friday, I attended my first Parapan Am, 5-a-side football (soccer) match. The series was played by the visually impaired—that’s another story.

Innovative lettering for the word Colombia on jacketTeam players for Colombia and Mexico were battling for the bronze medal. Since I was there for the experience, I was impartial and cheered for both teams!

I happened to sit next to a veteran fan and admired the fabulous lettering on his jacket; it was characteristic of his country’s Andes mountains.

Although I did not speak a word of Spanish, nor he English, we shared snacks and the international spirit of the games. He allowed me to snap a photo of the terrific logo on his jacket.

In the end, Colombia lost in a shoot-out—a heartbreaking loss for him. Nevertheless, the Colombia logo is a clear winner with me!

Have you been inspired by a cool logo?

Seeing Clearly

Several things happened this past week that got me thinking.

eye examIt seems my vision is not what it used to be.

My optometrist sent me for a “glaucoma work up”. One of the tests—a field of vision test—required me to focus on a central spot and use a clicker to register quick flashes whenever they randomly appeared in my peripheral field. In exuberance, I was wildly clicking—apparently seeing sparks that were not there!

Life is like that. It is easy to get sidetracked by the flashy, shiny diversions that detract from the central focus—even to the point of pursuing distractions of no substance!

The Parapan Am Games in Toronto are coming to a close. Yesterday, I attended one of the medal games for 5-a-side football (soccer).

_DSC0602The fascinating aspect of this sport is that the players are visually-impaired; they wear eyeshades—blinders—to even the playing field. Only the goalie is sighted. The football is fitted with bells. Spectators watch in silence (silence!), enabling players to focus on the sound of the tumbling bells within the moving ball.

A sighted guide, confined to an area behind the net, directs his team by shouting directions. During a shoot-out, he also bangs on the goal posts. In the seeming chaos, goals are scored!

It takes intense concentration, timing, and coordination to detect the ball’s ever-changing location by its sound. Above all, the athletes are fearless.

The pain of stubbing my toe in the dark or walking into a wall reminds me to move slowly when I don’t see well. These athletes run at full speed during play. Running into obstacles, including each other, is a normal part of the game. They simply get up and keep playing.

eye chartFollowing Mexico’s bronze win, my husband and I celebrated over quesadillas at a downtown restaurant. On the subway ride home, he was remarking on various aspects of the transit system. He normally drives, so he was riding the new underground trains for the first time.

As he was commenting on the train’s articulated design, the dynamic subway map, announcements about station stops and door location exits, I was seeing my daily commute with fresh eyes.

This week’s incidents have me adjusting my lenses to stay my most creative self.

  1. Flashy distractions are just that—or not! Stayed focused.
  2. Fearless concentration. Never mind the obstacles—keep playing.
  3. Flags and sign-posts. Ball bells, coaching, and goalpost thumping—don’t see the goal? Use another sense—listen up.
  4. Fresh eyes on the world around me. My travelling companions see the same world I see, but with different eyes. Check out their viewpoint.

“The true voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having fresh eyes.” Marcel Proust

Yes, it seems my vision is not what it used to be…


I was ever so proud of my first pair of blue jeans. I even remember the brand—Wrangler.

After years of repeated laundering, the indigo washed out of them, and they became softly worn, fading to a fashionable shade of pale. Of course, now you can invest in a pair of pre-faded and mechanically stressed denims. But in the seventies, you bought a pair of Wranglers or Levi’s and devoted years to working them in. It was a badge of honour to wear a pair of authentically faded and worn blue jeans.

For centuries, artisans around the world have been dyeing natural fibres with indigo. The mysteries of indigo captured my imagination. I was pumped to get to a vat of indigo for some hands-on blueing.

Two days with Pam Woodward at the Colour Vie studio in Toronto had me learning how to infuse cotton and silk with indigo. Twine, buttons, and binder clips made random patterns. Cardboard triangles and folding patterns created more predictable resist images. The hand-dyeing process gave me an even greater appreciation for the dedication and expertise of indigo artisans.

And the origin of my Wranglers.

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Final Quest

As my Visual Design and Display of Information course draws to a conclusion, I reflect on learning outcomes.

  1. Design is as much about the presentation of text as the inclusion of quality and relevant graphics to complement the text.
  2. Design is not about decoration or ornamentation. Design is about making communication easy and clear for the reader.
  3. Learning the psychology behind the principles of design informs design choices and strengthens the impact of visual materials. It also helps me to articulate why a particular design choice might be successful.
  4. Use alignment as a simple, effective, and vital design principle to create a cohesive and unified page.
  5. Blogging is an effective way to share ideas, articulate a position, gain feedback, and connect with others interested in similar topics. Sharing ideas using both words and images, including photos, videos, and slides, facilitates communication.
  6. Lots more to learn!

I present my final assignment, the design blog DesignQuest, and answer a few questions posed in my earlier post.

Who is the audience for DesignQuest? This blog appeals to anyone who is curious about the concepts and issues related to visual design and display of information.

What is the purpose of this blog? As a student of visual design, I present design development concepts and best practices. As a newbie to blogging, I explore the reasons and basics of blogging. Since a blog is a personal journal, I share my thoughts on various topics.

What tone is used? Because I am curious and still learning, the posts reflect the tone of a writer who is learning, asking questions, and wanting to find out more. I do not present as an expert (yet!), but as a conduit of the information that I am gleaning and have uncovered in the process of searching.

Will this blog have an after-life following the class? Maybe. I could turn it into a forum for design techniques and artwork. Who knows?

Regardless, this has been a fabulous learning adventure!

Moraine Lake, Alberta

Moraine Lake, Alberta (photo: Gordon Sloan)

To close the chapter on my design blog, I attempted to find a relevant image. But none surfaced.

Sometimes life is like that. What you are looking for is not ready to be found.

However, I do have a favourite photo captured by my brother-in-law as he navigated the Canadian Rockies. (I enjoy the scenery’s calming biophilia effect.)

Thank you for joining me on the course of this  journey! Or the journey of this course!

Maybe our paths will lead us to meet here again.

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5. User-Interface Design

Design Principles – Part 5 of 5

Universal Principles of Design, a book describing 125 interdisciplinary principles, is a fascinating reference. I extract 25 of those principles and offer relevant examples in a series of five blogs.

Today’s topics – user-interface design:

  1. Alignment
  2. Chunking
  3. Comparison
  4. Five Hat Racks
  5. Operant Conditioning


 “The placement of elements such that edges line up along common rows or columns, or their bodies along a common centre.”

AlignmentWhen elements in a design are aligned with other elements, the effect is unity and cohesion, which contribute to the design’s overall appeal and perceived stability. Alignment gives information order and allows a person to navigate the information in an orderly fashion. Data arranged in a chart or grid helps the reader understand the relationships between elements.

In paragraph text, left-aligned or right-aligned content provides opportunities for alignment of other elements. Text that is centred does not provide this organizational cue. For more complex configurations, used justified text.


 “A technique of combining many units of information into a limited number of units or chunks, so that the information is easier to process and remember.”

Grouping numbers together is an example of chunkingA chunk is a unit of information – a series of numbers, a set of letters, or a word. Chunking seeks to package information in small units to ease the load on short-term memory. The maximum number of units that can be processed by short-term memory is 4 +/- 1.

Chunk information for audiences who are required to recall or retain information. In noisy or distracting environments, chunk information to alleviate the load when short-term memory is diminished by stress.


 “A method of illustrating relationships and patterns in system behaviors by representing two or more system variables in a controlled way.”

Comparison3Represent information in controlled ways so that comparisons can easily be made.

Use comparisons to illustrate patterns and relationships of elements to one another. Make sure that the variables of elements are measured in common ways, i.e., apples to apples.

Five Hat Racks

“There are five ways to organize information: category, time, location, alphabet, and continuum.”

Periodic table of chemical elementsTake similar items and tease out one common characteristic (such as category, time, location, alphabet, or continuum) for use as a basis to organize those items.

The periodic table organizes elements by their chemical properties (category).

For an entertaining and educational explanation of the organizational characteristics, view YouTube video Five Hat Racks produced for a university class assignment.

Operant Conditioning

“A technique used to modify behavior by reinforcing desired behaviors, and ignoring or punishing undesired behaviors. ”

OperantConditioning2Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior.

Operant conditioning is commonly applied to animal training, instructional design, video game design, gambling devices, incentive programs, counselling, and behavioral therapy.

There are three basic operant conditioning techniques: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment.

Positive reinforcement associates a behaviour change with a positive outcome such as an edible treat or monetary reward.

Mouse holding sign that reads "Will press lever for food."

Negative reinforcement rewards a behaviour change with the removal of a negative condition such as the silencing of a car buzzer the moment a seatbelt is buckled.

Punishment decreases the probability of a behaviour by linking the behaviour with a negative condition that costs the learner. A video game player loses points on a given action or a driver pays a fine for a speeding infraction.

Use operant conditioning in situations where behavioural change is desired. It is better to focus on positive and negative reinforcement rather than punishment. Punishment should be reserved for quickly terminating a behaviour or it should not be used at all.

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4. Product Design

Design Principles – Part 4 of 5

Universal Principles of Design, a book describing 125 interdisciplinary principles, is a fascinating reference. I extract 25 of those principles and offer relevant examples in a series of five blogs.

Today’s topics – product design:

  1. Aesthetic-Usability Effect
  2. Contour Bias
  3. Horror Vacui
  4. Ockham’s Razor
  5. Wabi-Sabi

Aesthetic-Usability Effect

“Aesthetic designs are perceived as easier to use than less-aesthetic designs.”

Aesthetic Usability CarPeople perceive aesthetically pleasing designs to be easier to use than less-aesthetic designs – whether they are or not. The effect has implications for the acceptance, use, and perceived performance of a design.

Aesthetic Usability iPhone

Aesthetic designs are more readily accepted. As a result, people are more tolerant of design problems that arise. Positive feelings towards a design encourage consumer affection, loyalty, and patience – all factors in the acceptance and long-term success of a design.

Aesthetic designs evoke positive feelings leading to ease of use, acceptance, and long-term use. They are purported to promote creative thinking and problem solving.

Contour Bias

“A tendency to favour objects with contours over objects with sharp angles or points.“

Contour Bias KettleContour Bias Kettle

Objects that feature sharp angles or pointed edges activate the region of the human brain that is normally involved in fear processing. This fear response impacts how the object is perceived.

Should all objects be made round to increase their appeal? Some objects naturally carry a positive emotional bias (stuffed animal) or a negative bias (sharp knife). Some are emotionally bias neutral. Biases aside, angled objects elicit a deeper level of processing, but in effect are more interesting to view.

Consider contour bias in designs where environments are emotionally neutral. Pointy and angular items attract attention and provoke thought.

Horror Vacui

“A tendency to favour filling blank spaces with objects and elements over leaving spaces blank or empty.”

Horror VacuiHorror vacui, Latin for “fear of emptiness”, is a desire to fill vacant spaces with information or objects. It is used to describe a style of art and design that leaves no empty space. Examples are newspapers, comic books, and even websites.

Research shows an inverse relationship between horror vacui and value perception: when horror vacui increases, perceived value decreases.

Horror Vacui Shop WindowsHorror Vacui EmptinessIn a survey of clothing stores where merchandise was displayed in a store window, shops filled with mannequins, merchandise, and signage were perceived to have lower prices and less brand prestige. Conversely, high-end boutiques featuring a few items were perceived to be more expensive and have greater status.

For those accustomed to having more, less is more. For those familiar with having less, more is more! Those who have more are generally considered to be well-educated and wealthier; those who have less are considered to be less-educated and poorer.

Market to high-end clients using minimalism and to budget-conscious consumers using horror vacui.

Ockham’s Razor

“Given a choice between functionally equivalent designs, the simplest design should be selected. ”

Ockham's Razor clean living room arrangementI chose this principle because of its unusual name. It is attributed to William of Ockham, a 14th century friar and logician.

When designing a functional item, keep it simple, clean, and pure. Remove unnecessary elements to increase the item’s functionality and efficiency and to reduce unanticipated consequences.

Ikea items, with their trademark simplicity and functionality, characterize the Ockham’s Razor principle.


“Objects and environments that embody naturalness, simplicity, and subtle imperfection achieve a deeper, more meaningful aesthetic.”

Wabi Sabi table and chairsThis is a Japanese philosophy and aesthetic that favours the subtle imperfections of hand craftsmanship (such as a nubby woven wool rug) and beauty achieved over time (such as the smoothness of a weathered outdoor sculpture).

Objects gain value through use and age.

This is an aesthetic that embraces the impermanence, imperfection, and incompleteness found in natural materials and organic forms.

Next: Part 5 – User-Interface Design

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