A Visual Vocabulary

Whether you want to define how an environment or visual experience is impacting you, or you want to be conscious of what you are communicating in your office, business or home, this section provides descriptions of concepts and qualities that influence your visual experience.

While there is a cultural fascination with visual images of other people’s homes, it is striking how few homes are actually pleasing and nurturing environments, and how few offices are coherent work spaces.

Realtors often fail to take photos that represent properties in their best light. Most businesses, whether they are doctors’ offices, healers’ offices or local businesses, fail to provide clear, appealing, legible, and reassuring environments that reflect the service’s mission.

Only with words for your experience are you able to evaluate that experience and, where appropriate make changes to what you convey.

You can scroll down the extensive list of terms on the left side of the page or click on any word in this list of visual vocabulary.

Boundary

Boundaries separate themes and areas of activity, provide pauses, and create a sense of safety. Our biology predisposes us to value places with edges from which we can engage, or to which we can retreat. Visual boundaries limit the amount of visual stimulation to which we are exposed. Example: A hedgerow that divides a garden from a field allows visitors in the garden to feel held. When viewing the garden from inside the house, the visual boundary also helps the eye pause.

Clarity

Clarity is achieved through a clear mission statement, message, and intention. The greater your inner awareness and alignment, and the more thoughtful the editing and understanding of the material, the deeper the levels of clarity. When one walks in a space, arrives at a website, or reads printed material, the conveyed message should be understood. The unique essence in every home, room, communication, and service should be readily apparent. Example: Occasionally, one has the rare and delightful experience of encountering a business that offers clarity on every level of messaging. This clarity ranges from the signage – both the visibility of the sign and the clear graphics – to the obvious location of the entry and a door that opens as expected, to clarity about where to go to be greeted or helped, to the visual landscape that reflects the service offered.

Color

Color ranges in hue which determines how we distinguish one color from another. Color also has value which causes one color to be darker or lighter than another. Contrasting colors can be chosen for greater impact or emphasis. Colors of the same hue can be used for less contrast and a monochromatic, soothing experience. Example: Nature contains a variety of greens. These colors are all of the same hue.

Complexity

The complexity of visual information, whether it involves navigating a website or a physical space, should be a conscious choice, not an unintentional result. Different services and environments demand different levels of complexity. The more elements in an environment, and the greater the differences in those elements, the more complex the visual experience will be. Unexpected, incongruous, or mysterious elements all add complexity. Complexity can engage and intrigue. It can also cause a level of stimulation that is threatening or that prevents relaxation. Example: Museums attempt to limit the complexity of the physical space and its navigation so attention can be placed on the artwork.

Consistency

Consistency can be achieved by the repeated use of a font, tone in communication, or building materials in a physical setting. The predictability of an event, or a consistent experience of an environment, decreases levels of stress. In certain situations, consistency and knowing what to expect is valued; in other settings we find consistency boring. In many settings, loyalty to a business, satisfaction with an exchange, and trust in the business itself depends upon consistency. Example: When a practitioner consistently provides a clean, cheerful, and well maintained office, clients can calmly anticipate their impending visit because they carry a sense of the pleasant and predictable experience of that environment.

Constraint

In many cases, a service or quality of a message may be constrained by the limits of a space, a budget or other available resources. If you are aware of these constraints, and you work with them instead of trying to ignore them, they can shape the singular nature of your effective message. Example: A thoughtfully designed home on a narrow lot is designed in response to the constraint imposed by the site. This constraint causes the design to be creative or inspired in ways that would have not occurred if the lot was not unusually narrow.

Continuity

Continuity can be achieved through visual repetition of themes or objects. Example: In an office building continuity can be achieved by the repetition of similar plantings, benches, outdoor lamps, signage and architectural detail.

Contrast

The combination of dissimilar or opposite elements, whether colors, textures, objects or sounds, can add interest and variety to a sensory experience. Contrast awakens the senses and invites attention. This may or may not be desirable, and should be carefully considered before it is employed. Example: In a dentist’s office where people typically experience a great deal of sensory stimulation, and may experience physical and emotional stress, it is preferable to limit contrast.

Depth

Unless you are looking at clear blue sky, a sandy desert, or an ocean, when you are in nature you are usually looking at and through layers of visual information. This visual depth or layering is something that engages our interest. Whether this depth is achieved by color variation, patterns in wallpaper, or the arrangement of furniture, spaces with depth of field are more absorbing. Example: A hotel lobby with numerous seating areas accented with different color themes and divided by tall objects creates an experience of depth.

Emphasis

You can make conscious choices to emphasize specific visual experiences. You should always consider your message or space with fresh eyes and ask if anything is being emphasized that detracts from your intention. Examples: You can use a kinesthetic experience, such as walking up three steps, to emphasize the painting at the top of the steps. You may also unintentionally emphasize something like a bathroom if it is in direct line of sight from the front door.

Flow

Flow is our sensory experience of fluid movement. We experience flow when our eyes wander without encountering a distraction or when a scene provides an intuitive and comfortable visual path. We achieve and enhance flow in homes and offices by attending to the arrangement of windows, doors, furniture, objects, and the use of color. Example: When furniture is lower than a windowsill there is an unimpeded flow from the interior space to what lies beyond.

Focal Point

Focal points are places where our eye and attention lands. A focal point might be a splash of color, room, piece of furniture or art, view, chandelier, television, or tennis court. Example: In the lobby of many buildings there is a table with a floral arrangement. This focal point draws you into the building.

Formality

Modern culture places less and less emphasis upon formality. However, having an understanding of what feels formal can be useful when determining the feeling one wants to communicate. Part of what makes something formal is that the use or communication is predetermined. The person interacts with a choreographed expectation or function, rather than the interaction or service being about the needs of the person. Example: A formal entry does not embrace the visitor. Instead, the entry imposes its style or message upon the visitor.

Fractal

Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. In ways that are often unconscious, your attention can be drawn to objects and spaces that create patterns and mirror each other on smaller or larger scales of magnitude. Example: A table setting that layers a place mat and a series of increasingly large dishes that share the same design suggests a fractal.

Frequency

An aspect of rhythm, the frequency of the appearance of a color, object, or other visual event determines the user’s level of ease with the medium. By clustering many similar objects you can create emphasis and surprise. By repeating a theme you can create a sense of familiarity. Example: In a restaurant, a grid-like pattern of table locations, along with a consistent choice of potted plants and a pattern to their placement, can create a harmonious experience through frequency and repetition.

Golden Ratio/Mean

A specific ratio of two lengths that creates proportion that is pleasing to the eye. This ratio also applies to proportions of the human body. Without consciously knowing it, there are certain proportions that are visually pleasing. Example: The size of windows and their proportion to an entire house when viewing the house from the outside, or their size and proportion in relation to a room.

Harmony

The harmonious agreement of parts can occur by combining like items or information, or uniting different types of information with unifying themes. Example: Colors can unite disparate spaces, and similar surfaces can bring harmony to mismatched shapes.

Hierarchy

Organizing information by a pre-ordered relation allows for greater depth, interest, clarity and cohesion. Whether it is a hierarchy in how a home’s spaces reveal themselves, or a hierarchy to the layers of information in a website, when you have defined and organized the layers of experience, there is more congruence in the communication. Example: Traditional architecture begins with a hierarchy between the spaces and their uses.

Isomorphism

Isomorphism describes a correspondence between a visual stimulus and its effect—between our conscious experience of an object and how our cerebral activity interprets it. Example: When we look at the droop of a weeping willow’s branches, we actually register a sad state in our brain and our mood lowers.

Juxtaposition

By placing two similar or dissimilar objects, images or styles side by side, you can highlight their similarities or their differences and cause each to stand out more than they might on their own. Example: An antique desk in a modern home.

Layers & Layering

You can have layers of meaning in a visual message, layers of use in a particular space, layers of space from public to private or layers of visual texture or depth in an environment. You can layer how rooms reveal themselves, or layer with fabrics, prints, finishes, and objects. Example: A sumptuous room with layers of throw rugs or a couch with layers of different fabrics draped upon it.

Legibility

A place or environment that is easy to decipher is one where the nature and uses of the place are easily understood. This is often achieved by an uncluttered sense of depth. The concept of legibility allows you to distinguish from something merely being visible. You may see a door – it is visible, but it may not be clear how to open the door and that would make the door hard to read, or illegible. Example: An illegible environment is a strip mall where many businesses share driveways and compete for attention with their discordant signage. From a distance and from close up it is difficult to decipher the destination.

Manipulation

When a designer or business manages or influences a client or visitor’s visual experience, it can be called manipulation. It could be said that all successful design is successful manipulation. The manipulation can stem from the creator’s interest in serving the needs of the subject or user, or it can stem from an intention to meet the needs of the business by influencing the behavior of the customer. Example: A garden space in a hospital is intentionally designed to engender calm and encourage healing. This conscious choice to influence experience is also what a grocery store does when objects of certain colors and price points are placed at eye level, with the hope that consumers will buy them. Both these design choices are intended to influence behavior.

Mapping

Without realizing it, people very quickly create inner maps of places and spaces. When you change the location of your coffee cups or other item that you reach for on a daily basis, you may find it can take a long time to accustom yourself to its new location. The more ease and familiarity you want a visitor to have with your service and visual communication, the more important it is that you create and maintain maps of visual and kinesthetic experience. Examples: Maintaining the original navigation features when upgrading a website that has many return customers. Maintaining the waiting area of a restaurant, or the order of steps for fast food service, when remodeling a restaurant. Whenever you change the protocol, visual signage or kinesthetic experience of the service you offer, you are asking your repeat customers to reorganize internal maps they carry.

Movement

The greater the variety of materials, number of transitional spaces, objects, or changes in heights and dimensions – the more you experience a sense of movement. This sense of movement – or apparent movement – is achieved by what you see in your visual field and by what you anticipate your movement will be in the space, based on the space you view. Movement, or the anticipation of movement, can increase your level of engagement or interest. In certain situations where the goal is the greatest tranquility or calm, movement is used much more sparingly. Moving water, and pedestrian or vehicular traffic all add to an experience of movement. Example: A Japanese garden is an example of measured movement with winding paths and gentle transitions where the vista is controlled and does not extend far into the distance.

Novelty

Humans are stimulated by that which is new and unfamiliar. In different settings, and at different times, preferences for novelty may vary. Individual temperament and sensory experience determine how quickly you adjust to unfamiliar experiences and how long something remains novel. Example: Many city dwellers value the daily novelty of the cityscape. Other people may prefer living in a rural setting where the types of novelty are limited and more predictable.

Order

A fixed or definite plan or system can be a visual or kinesthetic experience. Example: A town laid out in a grid pattern provides a sense of both kinesthetic and visual order.

Organic Design

An unanticipated, unplanned, natural unfolding. There can be an organic aspect to the process of decorating a space or designing a home. The more you listen to your intuition and allow for the unexpected conclusion, result or variable, the more the process becomes organic. Rational and linear thinking can set the stage for the structure of what needs to be included, but this way of approaching a project may also kill the natural unfolding of a complex synergy between place and people. Example: Spending time learning about weather patterns and qualities of light on a property before designing the home.

Pattern

A pattern is a discernible regularity in nature or manmade design. Our biology predisposes us to make and recognize patterns and notice items or changes that disrupt a pattern. Patterns can be used to create harmony through repetition or to create interest through contrast. Whether a wallpaper pattern is chosen to blend with patterns of fabric or a dishware pattern is chosen because it contrasts with the pattern of a tablecloth, patterns can add depth and interest to an environment. Patterns can set the tone of a space causing the space to feel serious, playful, traditional or tropical. Example: A repetition of 3 vertical bars can be a pattern that is repeated in window dividers, the glass on doors, door panels, and house trim.

Placement

Placement of objects is informed by the space between the objects. Based on the size of the objects, there are right relationships, or spaces between those objects. When a plant outgrows its space and its leaves are bent against a wall, we can ourselves feel that cramped quality. When two objects are too close together, we can feel the uncomfortable sensation that occurs when someone stands too close to us on a bus. Proxemics is the study of personal space. Each culture has different rules about what is an intimate space between people, what constitutes personal space, and what is appropriate social space. The space between objects—placement—tends to be universal. Example: When chairs are arranged to create a gathering space, there is placement where we feel the chairs are “just right” in relation to each other.

Proportion

Proportion (or scale) is the comparative relationship between things. The relationship in size of furniture to a room, or the size of rooms to each other and the size of objects as they relate to the size of the furniture and the spaces, impacts the visual harmony of the environment. Different proportions can be used for emphasis or surprise. Pieces of furniture may appear in proportion when the visitor is sitting but not when the person is standing (and vice versa). Windows may be out of proportion to the size of a room, and landscaping is often out of proportion to the home or property. When designing, consideration should be given to the proportion of an object to a space, a room to a house, a house to the lot and the neighborhood. While this element is often poorly understood and rarely considered, it can cause a feeling of being ill at ease in a space or dissatisfied with an arrangement. Example: The trend towards oversized furniture has resulted in many previously perfectly-sized rooms now feeling too small because the furniture is so big. A massive desk that overtakes a room can be used to intentionally create a sense of dominance and power in an office space.

Promise

Promise exists when there is something that is expected or anticipated or something that causes a feeling of expectation or anticipation. Successful spaces often offer the promise of something around the corner. This theme and its appeal to the senses arises from human biology, which attunes us to attend to what is just around the bush or bend. Example: Entering a business lobby that offers a partial view through pillars to the spaces beyond.

Prospect

Prospect is an extensive or broad view. In design, it is helpful to understand the effect prospect has on one’s relationship to place. Being able to scan large vistas and track what is happening for great distances makes humans feel safer. Doing this from an edge, like the edge of a forest, provides the greatest sense of safety. Modern design offers a great deal of prospect but often fails to offer that sense of safety of the boundary or edge that holds us. Engaging design often alternates between experiences of (or promises of) prospect and experiences of (and promises of) refuge. Example: When you walk through a living room and exit French doors to behold a wonderful mountain view, you are experiencing prospect.

Proximity

Studies in the psychology of perception have discovered that we perceive objects that are close to each other as forming a group. You can use physical proximity to establish a relationship between objects. Objects that are closer together are also perceived as being more related than objects that are further apart. Example: A clustering of chairs symbolizes a place of gathering. If those chairs are too far apart, we don’t feel the sense of connection between them.

Refuge

An evolutionary term related to prospect is refuge. Humans are biologically structured to recognize and need places that promise refuge or safety. Refuge can be the ability to sit in an out of the way spot while an event unfolds, or it can be the potential refuge of an alcove across a room. It is not necessarily something that is actively experienced; it can be a promise of something available. Example: Porches are lovely examples of prospect and refuge. The configuration of the porch and its orientation to the street determine how much refuge and/or prospect it is perceived to offer.

Relationship

The notion of association — that everything is related to everything else — whether that be different fonts or various images, or different pieces of furniture or varied patterns in fabric, is one of the least considered variables when someone is creating a visual message. This is often because the person is caught up in the pieces and fails to continue to revisit the gestalt — the whole as the sum of its parts. Example: In many restaurants the bathrooms have no relationship to the visual theme of the restaurant. In many towns it has taken the revitalization of those towns to begin to define how storefronts and signage should evolve to define an overall message of the community.

Repetition

The repetition of ideas, visual images, and the presence of certain objects for emphasis can be used to engender calm and trust. The less the nervous system has to anticipate the unexpected, or process the unfamiliar, the more it settles into a state of ease. Example: The repetition of columns along a walkway creates a visual pattern that can be anticipated. This pattern is incorporated as part of the landscape being walked through.

Rhythm

Rhythm is achieved through periodic repetition. This repetition may be achieved using colors, light, ornamental detail, textures, objects, or the architectural qualities of spaces. Example: A repetitive pattern of windows on a structure creates a rhythm and also creates an expectation of what is inside.

Safety

Safety is created by predictability and the reduction of uncertainty. When what is going to happen is known, when the experience is one of habit, and when what is experienced is as expected, you are able to operate in a more relaxed state. Your level of stress is dependent upon how safe your nervous system feels in any setting or experience. Example: Many people would prefer to sit facing into a room so that they can see their surroundings. This ability to limit surprises allows for a greater sense of safety and relaxation.

Serenity

How rarely this word now appears. Serenity comes from that which is peaceful in its predictability and harmony. Example: A spa is usually considered to be a serene environment, commonly with a monochrome setting and a limited use of textures and materials. The furniture is neutral in color and design and there tends to be gentle transitions between spaces.

Simplicity

Whether it is the nature of your service, your goals or your space, the simpler the communication, the more powerful it can be. Example: A restaurant that serves five soups a day and calls itself “Just Soup,” and reiterates this simplicity in a barebones interior and a very simple graphic for the logo and the menu, is demonstrating the simplicity of their product in every aspect of their visual message.

Space

Space is the interval between points or objects viewed as having one, two or three dimensions. The nature of the space between objects, and the nature of the space surrounding objects can be the most profound element of successful design and visual effect. Example: When pieces of art are hung too close together the absence of the right relation in the space between the objects is noticeable.

Stillness

The less visual noise, the fewer objects of disparate size, shape or color, the greater the sense of stillness. Spaces that limit movement and the visual promise of movement add to an experience of stillness. Example: A mortuary cultivates a feeling of stillness in an attempt to create a feeling of solemnity and safety.

Style

Styles of design are informed by color palettes, furniture, building materials, finishes, fabrics, decorative elements, and qualities of light. Styles include Art Deco, Arts & Crafts, Asian, Coastal, Contemporary, Country, Mediterranean, Minimalist, Scandinavian, Shabby Chic, Southwestern, Traditional, and Victorian. Example: In tropical climates the style of design is likely to include bright house colors that would be inappropriate in the Pacific Northwest.

Symbol

Symbols in visual communication are objects that intentionally or unintentionally suggest something else. Example: A bench can symbolize welcome; a pair of ornate gates may symbolize wealth.

Theme

There are themes that can be emphasized by a collection of displayed objects, or the colors used. Other themes can be unintentional, such as clutter, chaos, or neglect. Example: A candy store may use neon oranges, greens, and pinks for wall colors and packaging to create a fanciful and playful theme.

Tone

The feeling tone or quality of visual communication can be: playful, ironic, serious, intimate, artificial, inviting, imposing, personal, impersonal, informal, formal, friendly, authentic, genuine, caring, thoughtful, natural, contrived, transparent, reserved, authoritative, understated, casual, warm, or mysterious. Example: A bench outside a business sets a friendly tone. Banks and libraries have been designed to feel imposing with enormous columns and high ceilings which cause visitors to feel small in comparison.

Transition

Visual movement, passageways, variations in materials used, and variety in space, sizes, and shapes can be effective elements in creating the character of a space. Thoughtless transitions such as dead hallways or graceless stairways can prevent the cohesion of a home. Example: The space inside an exterior door is a place of transition. In many homes there is not enough space in these locations to create an inviting or useful area of transition.

Unity

Unity is achieved by continuity and consistency. An eye to detail in all aspects of the visual message, and a review of the intended communication as it is experienced on all levels, are needed to create a unified message. Example: A cancer treatment program offered in a building that is well laid out, provides a visually calm environment, comfortable furniture, quiet atmosphere, friendly and helpful staff, and thoughtful attention to the patients’ needs provides a unified experience for the patients.

Variety

The level of variety that exists in a space or in any other visual communication should be a conscious choice. Variety can exist in styles, textures, fonts, tones, objects or intentions. Different services or communications call for different levels of homogeneity or variety. Many homes, stores, and restaurants suffer from an overload of variety, which detracts from a coherent theme or message. Example: When a space lacks pleasing architectural lines, or the windows are awkwardly placed, a practitioner may try to compensate for the absence of soul in the space by adding a great deal of visual variety in the décor.