search  current discussion  categories  teaching 

3-d design class - a few more thoughts on the process...

updated sun 10 jan 10


John Post on sat 9 jan 10

I think an important but sometimes overlooked aspect in design classes
is the discussion and analysis of some of the basic principles of
design. Balance, proportion, rhythm, movement, emphasis, unity,
variety, repetition, contrast and scale.

Assignments could be based around these ideas instead of around
materials. Students could be asked to create a sculpture that uses
one geometric form repeatedly (repetition). Then apply the idea of
emphasis to draw attention to one part of it using color
relationships, color families, gradations, or contrast, movement or

You could have the students bring in images of art works they find
visually appealing. Have them describe what elements and principles
of design are present in these art works. Have them look for common
threads in what they like.

I was at a museum once with a professor and he was asking us about the
art works that we found appealing. Then he asked if there was any art
work that did not resonate with our sensibilities, that we didn't
like. I told him that I did not enjoy this large portrait painting by
Alex Katz. He discussed and analyzed the flat space in it, the soft
edges between the shapes, the subtle color harmonies and it made me
see the painting in a new way. This painting still does not appeal to
me viscerally or speak to my sensibilities as an artist, but I can see
and appreciate the beauty in it and understand the ideas Alex Katz
works with in his art.

Instead of just making objects in a 3-D design class, I think a
discussion of how artists use the elements and principles of design in
an art work to convey their ideas is important. When artists work
with the elements and principles, they don't stand in isolation,
separate from the art. They are an integral part of the art work.
It's this connection between the artist, what their work communicates
and the use of the visual elements and principles that is interesting
and worthy of analysis and discussion.

A useful thing I do with my elementary students is to come up with
simple definitions for art terms. I don't look them up online or
check in various art references. I use the grandma method. How could
I describe this to my 90 year old grandma and to a kindergarten kid
and have them both understand what I was talking about.

As an example, this year in my elementary art classes I have been
teaching the kids about the various genres of art. The definition I
gave them for genre was "A genre is a category of art". (We talked
about the term genre as it relates to TV shows - sports shows, animal
shows, cop shows, talk shows, cartoons etc. These are all categories,
genres of shows and if you saw a football game on the cartoon network,
it would not fit into that network's genre.)
I defined the genre of landscape for them as "a picture of an outdoor
scene" The still life genre is "a picture of things on a table".

The principle of contrast is defined for my kids in a song that we
sing in class in a deep opera-like voice....

Contrast means opposite, opposite,
like black and white,
like day and night,
contrast means opposite, opposite,
figaro, figaro

They always laugh at the figaro, figaro part, but it makes the idea of
contrast "sticky" and unusual and this helps them to remember it.

These simple little definitions give kids a way to start analyzing and
discussing art works. The definitions are simple, but the concepts
are deep.

So maybe a good place to start on the first day is to have the
students write their own definitions for the principles of design.
College students should be able to come up with working definitions
for ideas like unity, contrast, repetition, harmony etc. These don't
have to be art definitions, but just what these words mean to us when
we hear them. Unity - all the parts of something working together.
Harmony - everything getting along well together.

I think that the analytical left brain students benefit in a design
class by working with their hands, creating and applying abstract
concepts they have in their head. The right brain creative types
often benefit from the discussion and dissection of ideas in a verbal
way helping them to analyze and understand what they and other artists
have created.

One of the best parts about teaching is that when you try to explain
something to someone else you often end up understanding and
internalizing the content on a deeper level for yourself. I think
that if your students left your class and could analyze art works and
discuss them using the elements and principles of design, then you
would have equipped them with a mental toolbox, a set of thinking
skills they can apply to appreciating and creating art in the future.

John Post
Sterling Heights, Michigan

:: cone 6 glaze website ::
:: elementary art website ::

Vince Pitelka on sat 9 jan 10

John Post wrote:
"I think an important but sometimes overlooked aspect in design classes is
the discussion and analysis of some of the basic principles of design.
Balance, proportion, rhythm, movement, emphasis, unity, variety, repetition=
contrast and scale."

John -
That may well be true, and it is a sad commentary on the subversion of
foundation design in art curricula. Generally students are required to tak=
2-D and 3-D design. Needless to say, the two share a lot of elements and
principles of design, but there are many considerations that are different.
I have taught 3-D design off and on for 25 years, and taught two sections
per quarter, four quarters per year for three years at Northeastern
University in Boston. Now I teach it every spring semester at the Craft
Center (in another post I mistakenly said that I teach it every semester).
I no longer use a textbook, because there isn't one I like. Zelansky and
Fisher's "Shaping Space" comes the closest, but still has shortcomings.

Any art department that has not completely given in to the
"concept-is-everything" bastardization of art in academia will make sure
that the students receive a strong foundation in DESIGN, which requires an
exploration of formal issues (line, plane, volume, shape, perspective,
orientation, pattern, texture, color, value, etc.) on a flat plane or in 3-=
space. Without such an exploration, it's not a foundation design class.
There is so much important stuff to cover in the elements and principles of
design, that I think it is a mistake to make it a directed exploration of
materials with material-specific assignments.

The only material-specific assignment in my 3-D class is the first one,
where the students are required to use cardboard and/or matboard in an
exploration of positive and negative space in both 2-D and 3-D, in order to
understand the difference. The reason I specify the materials is because I
don't want them to use any solid or solid-appearing volumetric form - just

In all other assignments I encourage them to be innovative in locating good
materials and appropriate found objects, and if they find a good stash of
something they bring it in and share it with the class. They scour all the
building materials places and construction sites for all sorts of materials
including rigid insulating foam, which is an excellent material for 3-D
design projects. They bring in all sorts of found objects to share. There
are a bunch of 3-D handouts on my website at,
including one on mixed media materials.

There are seven assignments through the semester. The first five are
"positive and negative space," "repetition and rhythm as unifying elements,=
"radiation and gesture," "mass, balance, and gravity," and "real and
perceived movement" (including kinetics). These really cover the elements
and principles - the building blocks. After that, I want the students to
utilize all these principles in assignments that stretch their potential.

The last two assignments are "narrative collections," and
"installation/final project." The narrative collections assignment has to
do with the human inclination to collect, categorize, organize, store, and
display multiples. The best-known artist who fits this category is Joseph

The last assignment is a sculptural installation that can be done anywhere
inside (with permission) or outside on the grounds of the Craft Center,
which is in a wilderness location. These students generally really push
themselves in the narrative collections and sculptural installation, and I
have seen these assignments have a major impact on the student's choice of
direction in subsequent years.

It is important to point out that it is not the objective of foundation
design classes to teach aesthetics, because that's an outdated concept. Fo=
one person (no matter how experienced) to try to implant their own notions
of what is beautiful on another person limits what art can be, and subverts
the objectives of individual artistic expression. Foundation design classe=
are all about how the artist/designer can manipulate the elements and
principles of design in order to achieve their desired outcome in visual

For anyone interested in this line of inquiry, go to my website and read
some of the 3-D design handouts.
- Vince

Vince Pitelka
Appalachian Center for Craft
Tennessee Tech University;

Snail Scott on sat 9 jan 10

On Jan 8, 2010, at 11:27 PM, John Post wrote:

> I think an important but sometimes overlooked aspect in design classes
> is the discussion and analysis of some of the basic principles of
> design. Balance, proportion, rhythm, movement, emphasis, unity,
> variety, repetition, contrast and scale...
> Instead of just making objects in a 3-D design class, I think a
> discussion of how artists use the elements and principles of design in
> an art work to convey their ideas is important.

I sent a long (very long) response to Kelly already, and
I won't reiterate it here, but John makes what I think is
a very important distinction. 3-D Design is NOT a sculpture
class, nor should it be taught like one. It is a design class.

The point of a design class (this goes back to the Bauhaus)
is the notion that the visual principles of art are broadly
applicable, and not tied to any one process or technique.
Technique is important in making sculpture and so is meaning,
but though all these CAN be taught in one course, a design
course is intended to focus on the 'visual toolbox' of art, not
the physical one. Technique (use of tools and materials) and
meaning/content aren't abandoned, just placed elsewhere in
the curriculum.

I use the analogy of English classes. English Composition 101 is
supposed to teach and enhance the student's ability to use grammar,
vocabulary, sentence structure, and all those fundamentals of
written English. It's not a creative writing class, and a student
who wishes that is was is bound to be disappointed. There will
be exercises which (even in the hands of an excellent student)
are not likely to result in literature. But learning those lessons
well will assuredly result in better literature later on.

Piano lessons don't start with tunes, but with scales and finger
exercises which lay the groundwork for better tunes later on.

Projects which require students to spend a lot of time and effort
mastering particular tools or processes don't allow students much
chance to explore the implications of their basic design decisions.
The 'Modify a 2x4' assignment (a classic) is a great assignment
for beginning sculpture classes, but less suitable for design. A
similar assignment executed in paper, styrofoam, or some such
allows the student to make false starts, compare multiple versions
of the idea, and explore design without simultaneously figuring
out the woodshop or the unique properties of wood. When the 2x4
assignment is used as a design assignment, most of the learning
happens after the fact, during critique, when the various student
projects are compared with one another. It works best when the
students already have a grounding in design, and can approach
the assignment by applying that prior knowledge to the specific
challenges of process and material.

When I was a snot-nosed undergrad faced with selecting between
two sections of 3-D Design taught by different faculty, I called the
art department office and asked for advice in choosing. The office
person told me that one professor was very much about teaching
the fundamentals of design, with lots of exercises to explore design
issues using simple materials, while the other professor preferred
to have students make things more freely, more like actual sculpture
projects, and to pick up design principles in the doing. The office
person gave a very balanced and (I think) accurate analysis of the
courses, but I instantly thought - "Making actual stuff? That's for
me! I'll pick up theory (if it really matters anyway) on the fly." Well,
we worked in the wood shop, the metal shop, the plaster shop and
the ceramics studio, and used a lot of materials and tools, but any
learning of design was basically just an intuitive augmentation to
stuff I'd sort of figured out for myself along the way already. Probably
loads more fun than that other professor's course, but really it was
'Sculpture 101', not 3-D Design. I had to become a bit more mature
about my work to realize what I'd missed, and had to pick it up for
myself later on. That's not what I was paying my tuition dollars for;
I just didn't know it at the time.

A separate course for design isn't the only way to learn this stuff,
but if the curriculum is structured so as to address it specially, then
that course ought to focus on that. We all wanna make stuff, but it
does a disservice to the students to not give them the mental
tooolbox which will help them get better use out of the physical
one, even if it's not as much fun as just making stuff.

Another note: some people suspect that design courses are a
way to make everyone think the same way. In my mind, what
design courses do is take what we instinctively know when
looking at a work of art, and convert that gut-level psychology
into something apparent and usable in a conscious way.
Contrast, emphasis, unity, color relationships, line quality - we
all know, innately, what these do for a work of art, but we don't
always realize it in an analytical way. As viewers, that may be
enough, but for practitioners, we benefit from a more conscious
understanding of our trade. Many people have an excellent
grasp of design without formal art education (just as some
people acquire excellent grammar just from reading, or play
brilliant piano by listening and doing), and for them a design
course may be unneeded, but for others a design course offers
the means for better understanding and command over their
work. For every idiot-savant or natural genius, there are a
whole lot of people who just think they know everything but
who could benefit from a little education. Learning the codified
system of current design theory in a college classroom isn't the
only way to approach it, but it's not a bad one. It's not a set of
rules, but an explanation of certain basic visual effects, and once
these are understood, it's the artist's prerogative to utilize
those effects to better convey their intent. I'm not suggesting that
everyone should take a design course, but anyone who signs
up for one should get exactly that, and not a craft or sculpture
class under a different name.


Vince Pitelka on sat 9 jan 10

Snail Scott wrote:
> I think an important but sometimes overlooked aspect in design classes
> is the discussion and analysis of some of the basic principles of
> design. Balance, proportion, rhythm, movement, emphasis, unity,
> variety, repetition, contrast and scale...
> Instead of just making objects in a 3-D design class, I think a
> discussion of how artists use the elements and principles of design in
> an art work to convey their ideas is important.

Hi Snail -
A lot of good information, but I have always taught foundation 3-D design a=
a beginning sculpture class centered around the elements and principles of
form in three-dimensional space, which is what sculpture is all about from =
formal standpoint. Essential, it is much of what designing anything is like
- the desire to control the formal elements to steer outcome and effect. I
already talked about that in another email message.

In my 3-D class, almost all of the studio work is done outside of class, an=
we spend the in-class time on critiques, slide shows, and discussions. Tha=
sounds like a lot of talking, but it is very productive. We critique every
project separately, and in these critiques I do not talk at all until all
the students have thoroughly discussed the piece, and then there is often
little that I need to say. I don't know if this is the best way to do it,
but I have been pleased with the results. It places a lot of responsibilit=
on the students, and makes it easier for the students to apply this
knowledge to whatever sort of work they now are doing and will do in the

I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around the concept of a 3-D design
class that is not essentially a beginning sculpture class. A beginning clas=
in a sculpture curriculum would be much more materials intensive, and would
spend more time addressing content and narrative. It's possible to still
deal with those issues in a 3-D design class, but with the understanding an=
use of the formal elements of design being the primary criteria.

For those who have not taught or taken 3-D design, it is important to point
out that the formal elements and principles of design are based on
perceptual response that we all experience, whether or not we have ever mad=
a piece of art or had any art training. In negotiating our way through tim=
and space, we intuitively deal with these principles and elements all the
time. Either by making a lot of art/craft outside academia, or faster
during a good course of study inside academia, we learn to manipulate these
elements and principles in order to steer perceptual response, aside from
whatever narrative/conceptual content in the work.
- Vince

Vince Pitelka
Appalachian Center for Craft
Tennessee Tech University;