Integrative Arts 10

Iconography: Graphic Design and Meaning

"Our attempts to define comics are an ongoing process which won't end anytime soon. A new generation will no doubt reject whatever this one finally decides to accept and try once more to re-invent comics. And so they should. Here's to the great debate."

-Scott McCloud

Basic Concepts of Graphic Design


This Is Not A PipeThe artist Magrite called this painting the Treachery of Images. The inscription says, "This is not a pipe" and indeed it is not. In actuality it is an electronic copy of a scan of a printing taken from a photograph of a painting of what may or may not have been an actual pipe. In any case, it is not a pipe. Rather it is a sign, a symbol that signifies our experience and draws on what we know of a real pipe. Graphic designers are a funny bunch. Plato in his allegory of the cave called artists knowledge second rate because they can only ever know the imitation of objects. It's funny that even thousands of years ago folks were perplexed by the treachery of images. It's even funnier that Plato chose to write a piece of fiction to decry art... you decide.

This is not MusicIn the same vein, here is another treacherous image.
This is not music. This is a graphic system of denoting musical compositions. As Robert Crumb wrote, "It's just lines on paper folks!"


If this is true, why do we get so passionate about these cheap imitations of reality? When we go to the cinema we are actually looking at an inanimate jumble of light, shadow and noise right?

The cognitive process the mind undertakes as we make sense out of the chaotic shapes and sounds we are exposed to is called closure.

Closure works on many different levels.

For example:

Roy Close-upJust as the pixels of this monitor make up this web page, the dots of this painting create solid colors when viewed from a distance. Roy Liechtenstein made a career out of appropriating images from cheap romance and adventure comic books and recreating the images dot by painted dot. This technique, aside from colliding high and low art, plays with the idea of paint recreating a mechanical process. What does this have to do with closure? As you get farther away from the pixels and from the halftone dots that make up the above detail, the dots become a solid color and are organized as components of a larger whole.

Another example of closure:

panel to panel transitionWhat happens between these frames?

Closure allows us to construct meaning from wildly diverse images. This process was pioneered by the Russian film makers at the beginning of the century. They realized they could take sequences of film and place them in an order beside chronological and the audience knew what was going on. In fact, these directors soon realized the audiences were having stronger emotional reactions to what they couldn't see than what they could see. As in the images above, our sick little minds fill in all of the gory details that are missing. The Russians called it Montage, (hey, that's a French word!?) this is the process of mounting images next to one another and letting the meaning arise from the juxtaposition. The cinematic equivalent of the two panels above would be a jump cut.

A final facet of this thing called closure:

OutletHave you seen the image of the face on the surface of Mars? There is a rock formation photographed in the 70s that when viewed from a certain angle looks like a startled Roman Centurion. ...Well, what do you see then?

Closure places order on objects and phenomena. It's a human drive to understand mysterious events by constructing meanings, be they right or wrong, right? When the Mars global surveyor took some images of the same sight early in 1998 those same rocks looked surprisingly like... well... rocks.

Representationalism / Iconic


Take a look at the continuum of faces above. From the left to the right you will notice these faces go from a higher degree of detail to a lower degree. The more realistic a drawing is, the higher the degree of verisimilitude.

Verisimilitude (a great word to throw around at parties) is a 50 cent way to say realistic. Thinks about what types of comic strips use more iconic characters and which strips use characters with a higher degree of graphic verisimilitude. And then figure out why.


Great Wave

Negative and Positive Space
Open / Closed form




Graphic Techniques

City in Linear Perspective

Linear Perspective
Aerial Perspective Phenomenon - color value and density fade with distance


Spawn Force and Counter ForceForce and Counter-force
Line Quality








Value ScaleValue - lightest colors have a higher value and vice versa.

Tints: Primary red mixed with White Grey and BlackHue / Density / Chroma - Hue/chroma is the basic primary or secondary color. Density is its purity. Look at the example below and follow the color mixing from left to right. Primary red mixed with white results in pink, its hue still belongs to red, the value has risen becasue of the addition of white and its density is lower because the red is more diffused.

Cast ShadowHigh Contrast Cast Shadows - In this frame from Terry and the Pirates notice how crisp and defined all the shadows are. It is as if the sun was unobscured by any atmosphere or clouds and the room reflected no light. The artist using this technique may choose to use it to show the severity of a situation or because it's a simple and direct way to keep your reader interested in the action of the story instead of focusing on the formalistic aspects of the strip.




Denotative - description of obvious visual elements
Connotative - constructing meaning of placement and other aspects of visual elements

Really interested in this kind of stuff?

Run, don't walk, to the local gigantic bookseller and pick up Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. (ISBN 0-06-097625-x) All of these concepts and many more are given a full treatment and it's fun too.


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