Graphic designer is a “middle man” or a messenger who conveys a message to the world.
“If ‘religion’ is seen in terms of inherited structures and institutional externals . . . spirituality has become a term that firmly engages with the feminine, with green issues, with ideas of wholeness, creativity, and interdependence, with the interfusion of the spiritual, the aesthetic and the moral” 9.
Many people today strive to find balance in their lives. We try to balance work and family, tradition and modernity, the digital realm and the “real world,” spiritualism and rationality, femininity and masculinity, and respect for the environment with the demands of the manmade world. As most of the world moves further away from nature, it becomes increasingly hard to keep a balance between man and nature. This paper seeks to look at the areas of human existence where finding a balance seems to be problematic and determine the areas and symbols of art and design, where a balance was found. Also I will look at the possible ways of applying and using balance in design and art as communication and knowledge transference within communities of women through the example of Henna traditions.
Balance is defined as a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions, a stability of one’s mind or feelings, or artistic harmony of design and proportion forming a pleasing and consistent whole.
When I was 14 years old I went to Siberia to visit my grandmother who lives in Khakassia, a republic in South Siberia, located between the Altai Mountains to the west and the Tuvan Sayan Mountains to the east and south. Natives Khakassians are the descendants of the Kyrgyz people who remained in Siberia after the Mongolians conquered the area and the majority of Kyrgyz people migrated to Central Asia. They speak the Khakassian language that belongs to the Turkic language group. Russia later took over the Siberian area along with Mongolia, Buryatia, Tuva and converted the ethnic groups living in these areas to Christianity; however, many of the native people retained elements of their earlier shamanistic religions along with their new Christian beliefs.
During my visit, my grandmother took me to the lake. There I witnessed her throwing pieces of bread and little coins into the lake. When I asked her what she was doing, my grandmother said that she was feeding the spirits. The people of Khakassia remained in close contact and harmony with nature. I became very curious about this culture and started researching my heritage and my Dad’s culture. I learned that the traditional religion of Khakassians is Shamanism. “Shamanism is an anthropological term for a range of beliefs and practices relating to communication with the spirit world.A shaman is a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of benevolent and malevolent spirits, who typically enters a trance state during a ritual, and practices divination and healing.” 3
Even though my grandmother was an orthodox Christian, she still fed the spirits of nature like there was no conflict between the practices of such different religions as Shamanism and Christianity. Even though Khakassians were converted by Russians into Christianity (Russian Orthodox is the traditional religion of Russia) a lot of representatives of the older generations of Khakassians combine two religions—Christianity and Shamanism. “Siberia is regarded as the locus classicus of shamanism. It is inhabited by many different ethnic groups. Many of its peoples observe shamanistic practices even in modern times. Many classical ethnographic sources of “shamanism” were recorded among Siberian people.”3
Khakassians believe that there are three worlds: the Upper World, where good spirits live; the Lower World, where dark spirits live; and finally the Middle World, where all people live. A shaman serves the community as a healing man, having knowledge of healing herbs. The shaman also is a “middle man” who provides a communication between the world of humans and other worlds. Shamans transport to other worlds while in a trance condition to communicate and negotiate with spirits and ancestors. “Shamanism is a psycho-spiritual technique that usually uses drumming or other sounds to access altered states of consciousness in order to gather knowledge, power, and healing for use in ordinary, waking consciousness.” 3 After returning from the trance, the shamans would tell people what they saw or heard, what spirits told them, etc. The shamans keep the people closely connected with nature. “Shamanic practice makes very good community glue indeed. There is the mindfulness … one doesn’t cut a tree or gather an apple or snare a rabbit without honoring the beings involved, asking permission, and giving thanks. Living with a shamanic consciousness process slows one down, focuses attention, expands awareness, makes action personal, and limits the ‘take.’” 3
Part 1: Environmental balance – Harmony of man and nature
In Western philosophy and science, man is often at odds with the natural world where nature is something that must be conquered or subdued; whereas—in Eastern philosophies, greater emphasis is placed on maintaining the balance between man and nature. Balance and Harmony is emphasized in Chinese philosophy where the human is an integral part of nature. There are three commonly known philosophies from Ancient China that refer to a relationship between human and nature: “Zhuangzi‘s theory of conforming to nature, Xunzi‘s theory of transforming nature, and the harmonious relationship between humans and nature advocated in Yijing.” Unity and balance is an important part of ancient Chinese family traditions also, where a human has a harmonic relationship with family, community and the world in general, where the Western world usually presents a more individualistic, independent life style.
In design, Chinese tea sets can be a demonstration of balance: According to a famous scholar, Ji Xianlin “each of the four Chinese characters (tian, ren, he, yi) respectively means nature, human beings, mutual understanding and friendship, and oneness.” Interestingly, Chinese tea sets have three parts: the lid, cup, and tray, which symbolize heaven, people, and earth. 7
Another Eastern design concept is the mandala. A mandala is a symbol of piece and wholeness and comes from Indian Sanskrit. Its meaning is related to the word circle and is a symbol of wholeness, peace and unity. It represents a structural model of life, “a cosmic diagram that reminds us of our relation to the infinite” 20 This symbol can be found in a lot of Asian art in Tibet and India. The word mandala originated from the root manda, which means essence, and the suffix la for a container. 10
The mid center dot is an origin of mandala and means “seed”, “drop”, “starting point” or “gathering center in which the outside energies are drawn, and in the act of drawing the forces, the devotee’s own energies unfold and are also drawn. Thus it represents the outer and inner spaces.”10 All lines are drawn out of dots. All the lines in the mandala are drawn until they intersect, creating geometrical patterns. The inner circle symbolizes “the dynamic consciousness of the initiated.” The square symbolizes four gates in which the physical world is bound. The central area is “the residence of the deity.” As a graphic designer I see Mandala as a great example of a perfectly balanced and visually appealing graphic.
Many cultures in Central Asia and Siberia utilize symbolic design showing a close connection to nature. This connection can be seen in the patterns, designs and materials of the living spaces, handicrafts, and, of course, in traditional and ceremonial costumes. For example, the traditional shaman’s costume, even with variations in some areas was created to look like a bird. When I researched Khakassian tradition, I found some legends about shamans. One of them tells about a shaman who woke up from a dream described being a big bird flying across the fields with bells on his wings. The herdsmen who were in the field that night also confirmed that they saw a huge bird with the bells on the wings. In many cultures, the shaman’s hat was often made of leather with feathers stitched to it. Often feathers would cover a shaman’s eyes and ears.
Feathers were used in regalia not only for decoration but also as representation of a main function of shaman since bird is an internationally symbol of messenger between heaven and earth 1.
Connecting the shaman with a bird or other animal (bears, wolves, etc.) through costume created a bridge to nature and the spirit world. The harmony with nature was important for balance in the human community, and was encouraged by the shaman and naturally maintained by natives who interacted with nature in compatible ways.
We can see the similarity with Native American culture. “While customs and rituals vary widely throughout North and South America, a common thread of most Native religions is respect for nature and an emphasis on living in harmony with plants, animals and forces of the natural world. According to Joseph Epes Brown, author of “Teaching Spirits,” many Native peoples see themselves as integrally connected with the land, which holds a “moral force” over its people.” 14
Another religion that engages communication and interdependence with nature calls totemism.
“Totemism is a complex of varied ideas and ways of behavior based on a worldview drawn from nature. There are ideological, mystical, emotional, reverential, and genealogical relationships of social groups or specific persons with animals or natural objects, the so-called totems. 18
Western thinking, in contrast to ancient Eastern and Native philosophies is characterized by emphasis on “conquering nature,” which may also lead to jeopardizing nature and destroying basic living conditions for human beings. To prevent the destruction of nature and ecological crisis, people have to find a balanced coordination with nature. Richard Jurin in his book The Last Human Spring: A Complete Philosophy of the Nature-Human World talks about civilization as a reason that caused the disconnection human and nature. He points out: “What is needed is not a connection as such, but a reconnection with nature that is typical of many indigenous and primitive peoples.” 8
The imbalance between man and nature brought about by civilization can be partly attributed to a shift from visual to verbal communication. Early civilizations, such as the Sumerians, developed written communication and the word as a unit of communication between people. “The Old Testament was the first alphabetic written work to influence future ages…The words on its pages anchor three powerful religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each is an example of patriarchy. Each monotheistic religion features an imageless father deity whose authority shines through His revealed word, sanctified in its written form. Conceiving of a deity who has no concrete image prepares the way for the kind of abstract thinking that inevitably leads to law codes, dualistic philosophy, and objective science, the signature of Western culture.” 16 The civilized Western world’s adoption of foundational written works led to a shifting of balance between humans and nature and also between males and females in society.
Part 2: Societal balance
Image/word and Non-verbal/ verbal
The two most important parts of visual communication are word and image. The equating of word and image with male and has been attributed to mental and visual anatomical differences between the sexes that, according to some scholars like Leonard Shlain, had a huge impact on a switching a social balance between sexes.
A simplification of the famous right brain/left brain theory says that men use more of the logical left-brain side and think more abstractive, logically and analytically. The left side of the brain is concerned with doing rather than being; it is concerned with action, doing tasks one at a time, developing strategy, and the processing of numerals and arithmetic. Women use more of the right side of the brain that is responsible for making “judgments about balance, harmony, and the composition of gestalt, from which we make aesthetic distinctions between ugly and beautiful…. The right brain’s principal attributes concern being rather than doing; it is focused on images, creativity, and holism. “Word and image, like masculine and feminine, are complimentary opposites. Whenever a culture elevates the written word at the expense of the image, patriarchy dominates. When the importance of the image supersedes the written word, feminine values and egalitarianism flourish.”16 It is important to notice that each hemisphere can perform the other sides’ functions. “ So, too, can each sex of the human species assume the other’s principal labors.” 16 This capacity of a human’s brain can be referred to a Yin and Yang concept that is a combination of two opposite forces.
In addition to brain functions, men and women have some differences in an eye anatomy: Because of the differences between the number of rods and cones, men and women each see the world a little differently. “Women have more rods in their retinas than men, and as a result, have better peripheral vision. Men have more cones than women, allowing them to see one segment of the visual field in greater detail and with better depth perception than women.” More detailed vision and ability to focus on a small area helps for reading. So abstract thinking, the ability to receive detailed information step by step was one of the reasons that led to development of a patriarchate, according to Leonard Shlain. Religions like Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam were developed with a male God who has given people his Word. Word and law rule the world, so the balance was switched to favor the male. Creation of alphabet led to a development of religions, where God is a male. Goddess-based religions lost popularity, while God-based religions gained its popularity and spread around the world. Although with women’s rights in more contemporary times, the dominance of one sex over another is not as dramatic and some switching of traditional gender roles has occurred. Left-brain / right-brain dominance and eye anatomy differences loses it’s significance. Both sexes can perform mixed type of thinking and behavior that can be found in design as well. With the digital revolution, the development of technologies led to a rapid development of 2d and 3d image-based technologies. We are surrounded by images in different applications like advertising, video games, phones, pads and tablets, apps, etc. This is a possible indicator of switching a balance to a more equal stage between Word and Image, left brain and right brain, male and female.
Yin/Yang or female/male
The balance in any human society is impossible without a harmony between sexes. History shows that the dominance of one sex over another (patriarchy and matriarchy) cannot be considered as the most efficient and successful model of social communication. Yin and Yang is a philosophical concept originated by a group of thinkers who “wanted to figure out how creation worked and what was the source of life and death. They came up with two forces they believed were at the center of life: yin, which literally means the shady side of the hill; and yang, which means the sunny side of the hill.” Yin and Yang also refers to the complementary nature of the two sexes. The well-known emblem for yin and yang is designed to demonstrate equality and balance.
The design is evenly divided, with yin representing the feminine and yang representing the masculine, but in human nature, things are not usually that black and white. Both men and women can show attributes of the other. “Women are considered yin because of their tolerance and softness, while men are considered yang because of their strong and progressive spirit. But women with a high degree of yang “chi (life force)” are more likely to look on the bright side of problems and deal with them very positively. Men full of yin chi are relatively tolerant, open-minded and are more likely to listen attentively to others. “16
Body art: Henna and Tattoo
Body art is a primarily image based media used by both men and women, often reflecting the different social roles, models of behavior and social changes. Traditionally men have used tattoo to express meanings; the decorative role of tattoo was secondary to the visual communication. For example, historically warriors world-wide used tattoos as a tribe or blood line identification, a mark of hierarchy or social status, or even to look fearsome, like for example in Polynesia.
In comparison to men, women’s body art like Henna had the main purpose of being decorative, being a part of preparation for a wedding or an event, and secondarily, to show status change when a women was getting married, showing that she is somebody’s wife.
Henna is a perfumed scrub made of natural components that originated in India and spread out to Persia, Arab countries, Asia and North Africa. Originally it had a medical purpose, it was more commonly used for cosmetic purposes to make a dye for the skin and hair, and it took on some magical or superstitious meanings as a protection from the devil. It gained wider ceremonial acceptance as people started to use it for skin decoration for weddings, festivals, birthdays and other celebrations. It particularly played an important role in wedding ceremonies symbolizing an event of changing from young girl to a man’s wife. According to Yemen wedding henna traditions, the artist first dyed the bride’s hands up to the wrist, and then her feet up to the ankle. Designs were a combination of circles, lines, and dots, and, on the hands, oblong shapes that represent grains.
“These drawings had an accepted order and were based on patterns used in Yemenite women’s embroidery, including gendered fertility symbols familiar from other societies. The main patterns were a triangle, a grain shape, and three dots in different compositions and colors: black, brown, and red. In some districts in northern Yemen, it was customary to draw rows of five dots on the bride’s hands, giving them the significance of an amulet against the evil eye and also symbolizing that the number of her children should be as that of the dots on her hands.” 2
Henna designs were specific to each family and passed down from generation to generation. It served as important part of traditional wedding ceremony, including bridal decoration, magical protection, and symbolically denoting the woman’s change of status from unmarried to married. Henna is a part of wedding games. For example, there is an Indian wedding game where a husband’s name is written as a design element on a bride’s left hand (this according to Indian believes means close to heart) and husband has to find it. This tradition has a double meaning: First, if a husband recognizes a design as his name on a bride’s hand, that is a sign of a long and successful life together. Another meaning in the case when a husband does find his name is that he will have a dominating role in a family; if he does not, his wife will be a leader.
Therefore, it seems that the ancient body arts of tattoo and henna demonstrate the difference between the two types of thinking associated with males and females: abstract/communicative (men) and visual/decorative (women). The arts also represent different models of human behavior: doing (masculine role) and being (feminine role). The traditional patriarchal male role associated with law, leadership, and aggression is illustrated by males’ use of visible body art to show hierarchy, achievement, status, or warlike nature; whereas, women used henna to signify their acceptance of a more subordinate social role of wife while carrying on family traditions. Male’s body art designs are very functional, more practical and less aesthetic, while women’s body art is firstly about decorating, then practicality.
Socially, “[henna wedding markings] expressed a rigid gender separation and a non-egalitarian system in which femininity was shackled in structural inferiority” 2. As women in India and other parts of Asia and the Middle East have gained more rights, independence and social equality, the symbolic meanings of henna designs are becoming more symbolic of empowered cultural self-identity rather than gender differences and status change.15 Today, women around the world have adopted the use of body decoration with henna as well as tattooing for both declarative and decorative purposes, blurring the distinction between the gender-based uses of body art.
Part 3: Communication – Seeking a balance in art
Finally, as a part of human existence, we examine art as a communication because art and design as any kind of communication is supposed to convey a message, express feelings or elicit an emotional reaction. Communication can be verbal and non-verbal. Poetry is a verbal application of art because it uses written/typed word to express/cause feelings. A non-verbal application of art is any visual-based design or art. For example fine arts (painting, sculpture, etc), architecture, industrial design, photography and graphic design are visual types of communication. Finding a balance for an artist is a key for creating a successful piece. There are many artists and art movements through out art history found an inspiration from nature while seeking a perfect balance and harmony.
Some great examples of using art to achieve a balance between human society and nature can be found applied in architecture. One of the greatest architects of the 20th century is Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed the house called Fallingwater 50 years ago. Fallingwater “has been described as the clearest expression of Wright’s ideal that man can live in harmony with nature.” 5
Edgar J. Kaufmann Jr., son of the original owner, wrote, “When Wright came to the site he appreciated the powerful sound of the falls, the vitality of the young forest, the dramatic rock ledges and boulders. But Wright’s insight penetrated more deeply. He understood that people were creatures of nature, hence an architecture which conformed to nature would conform to what was basic in people.”5 Wright used the natural elements of stone, water, and sound to build a modern home which fit into its natural surroundings rather than standing apart from it.
Another great example of the incorporation of nature as an element in design is the art movement called Biomorphism. The main focus of Biomorphism was “ to delineate an underlying organic order in nature that intimated the possibility of social harmony and unity of purpose.” 4
Biomorphic art is abstract art that uses organic and geometric elements, where organic shapes are borrowed from living or animate forms in nature. 4
The influence of nature is also clearly can be seen in a work of American Glass sculptor Dale Chihuly.
Antoni Gaudi, the Spanish Architect and author of Sagrada Família, was a part of Modernisme movement, whose organic style was inspired by nature. He said, “Originality consists in returning to the origin.” Very organic shapes, patterns and materials abstracted from nature, characterize his work. For example Such Gaudi’s masterpiece as Sagrada Familia was inspired by tree
The fine art photographers who were famous for using organic shapes as a source of inspiration were John Vanderpant and Karl Blossfeldt. Vanderpant who was seeking a new aesthetic, found it through rhythm. Blossfeldt’s close-up photographs of plants demonstrate connection between natural and architectural forms. He “proposed that modern technology would lead to a new harmony between humanity and nature” 13
Verbal: Poetry and literature
A focus on finding a balance in verbal media and art and a juxtaposition of the human and natural worlds can be found in the Japanese poetry known as haiku. Haiku is a great example of harmony between words, meaning and observation of nature. Naomi Wakan, a writer/artist who is best known for her haiku, explains:
I’ve thought about this question for many years, during which I read countless haiku written by students. In Japan, the traditional rules for writing haiku are firmly and rigidly spelled out-nature theme (a seasonal word will indicate the season), one event occurring in the here and now, the five-seven-five-syllable format, the presence of a cutting word (indicating a sigh, a pause, the importance of the previous word), and most important, lots left out, for the Japanese reader will readily understand and fill in all that a word left hanging suggests. 19
Unlike non-verbal forms of art where the image creates an emotion, haiku is a written form that by creativity of an author creates powerful connections to nature. Successful haiku is not only “expression of an event”, it is a piece of art that captures a moment from nature, causes deep emotion and conveys a strong message. 19
Non-Verbal. Fashion, Design
Fashion is another aesthetics-based medium where finding a balance is really important to convey a message. Designers balance form and function to create aesthetically pleasing designs, as well as balancing the man-made and natural world with designs and materials. Clothing was a strictly functional necessity, but people started to decorate clothing, trying to make it not only comfortable and functional, but more visually appealing. People started to use clothing to show their social importance or hierarchy, to be more socially acceptable and later for self-expression. Fashion evolved into a huge industry where sometimes luxury haute-couture garments represent more of a fine art than a function and promote the aesthetics of a couturier rather than being designed to be worn casually. Those garments being created for runways are pieces or art and often disappear into museums or galleries. They are representation of aesthetics and style of a particular couturier. Fashion is an industry whose target audience is women mostly. Fashion advertising that uses women’s natural desire to be more appealing and natural appreciation of the aesthetic qualities (word vs. image) that can be explained by the right brain domination theory helped fashion to grow in size and its importance internationally. It’s pretty common when fashion and jewelry designers create nature- and ethnic- inspired collections. For example KENZO, who is famous for the organic sensibility of his collections, clearly found his source of inspiration in nature.
Other world famous fashion designers such as Alexander McQueen have created collections that make a bold statement by juxtaposing nature with avant-garde forms, often exaggerating organic shapes.
The Dior house has also produced nature-inspired collection in the past as well.
Dandi Maestre is a Colombia- born jewelry designer who started as a graphic designer and created her jewerly collection from driftwood and died exotic nuts:
“Edgy and bold, the organic accessories revel in their raw and exotic splendor, inspired no doubt, by Maestres’s childhood in her native Colombia. Although she’s now based in Toronto, Maestre’s frequent travels, along with her respect of indigenous and tribal cultures, color much of her ethnic-inspired aesthetic. “
Graphic Design is a visual language where designers are seeking to create a balance using a “vocabulary” of design elements like dots, lines, shapes, textures and colors. 8 Buddhist monks build a Mandala which is one of the greatest example of great harmony and balance because of the greater understanding of a necessity of a balance, putting a lot of meaning to each element of this graphic.
According to Georgy Kepes, who was teaching at the New Bauhaus in Chicago in the 1940s, “Just as the letters of the alphabet can be put together in innumerable ways to form words to convey meanings, so the optical measures and qualities can be brought together…and each particular relationship generates a different sensation of space.” 12 By distributing visual weight on the plane, between figure and ground through the positive/negative space, a designer solves a problem of balance. A balance can be symmetrical or asymmetrical. Designers can bring a tension to a page by using asymmetrical balance, which is an arrangement of unlike objects of equal weight on each side of the page. Tension brings energy to a layout.
As discussed earlier the main design elements are line, shape, texture, space, size, value, and color. The main principles of graphic design are proximity, visual hierarchy, balance, alignment, repetition, unity, emphasis, contrast, and dynamics. Those are the tools that help to create a structure of design and achieve harmony on a page. Designers work mostly with such element as copy and visual elements or words and images. Herb Lubalin, who is famous for destroying the barrier between visual and verbal communication, uses words as pictures and pictures as words. It demonstrates that the ability to think abstractly helps in achieving a balance in design.
Another great designer is Stefan Sagmeister, who uses experimental type as a visual element and finds creative, non-standard ways to convey a message sometimes incorporate elements of nature with typography.
So as we can see, the afore mentioned graphic designers are characterized by a more abstract craftsmanship approach than is normally usual for women who prefer aesthetic qualities to practical use. A woman, like a designer, naturally appreciates aesthetic and craftsmanship qualities, but for some reason in such industries like art, architecture, and fashion, key roles belong to men. Most famous current photographers are men (Mario Testino and Steven Meisel) as well as majority of the biggest fashion designers being men. It seems women still accept the supporting role of a worker bee (like seamstress, model, assistant, etc) rather than more important role of designer or creator, even though creative industries like fashion and graphic design naturally are comfortable areas for women, who naturally have the ability to think and create visually. I think right now is a time for women to step up and start playing a more important role in creative industries and become more influential, especially in fashion, the industry that earned its importance mostly because of women and where the main consumer is a woman, and graphic design, which is often targeted at the woman consumer.
Now, when computer technologies have brought a lot of innovations and new possibilities into creative industries, it is crucially important to pay attention to creating harmony while working on branding, or fashion spreads, or layout. When technological innovations dominate the design aesthetics versus the finding a right concept and harmony, it decreases quality of design. Sometimes finding the roots of a brand, finding a balance with contemporary trends, and “returning to the origin” helps to create a unique design and make a statement or deliver a message that strike a perfect balance.
According to Anna S. King “If ‘religion’ is seen in terms of inherited structures and institutional externals . . . spirituality has become a term that firmly engages with the feminine, with green issues, with ideas of wholeness, creativity, and interdependence, with the interfusion of the spiritual, the aesthetic and the moral.” 9 A graphic designer is a messenger, who conveys a message to his/her audience via visual aesthetics. The designer’s main skill should be the ability to communicate. To make a communication more successful a designer has to be able find a balance. So, the Graphic Designer is a seeking a graphic balance between a Word and Image, between the feminine and the masculine, the verbal and the visual. Finding or creating a balance requires sometimes “returning to the original” or finding new experimental ways like juxtaposition of nature and human-made or applying organic elements into a layout. Natural and organic shapes can be a great resource of inspiration for a designer who seeks to find a balance on a spread or page and create a visual wholeness. So maybe a Graphic Designer is like a shaman whose ability is to travel between worlds, go back to the roots and bring a balance to community; the graphic designer can be a middle man who takes inspiration from nature and communicates a message to and from a society in the most efficient way with a deep appreciation for the original and the organic and with an effort to create harmony and balance through design.
Nowadays, when male/female differences in society is becoming less and less significant, modern graphic designer has to be able to perform different type of thinking (abstract and non-abstract or muscular and feminine) depending on a design problem and can appreciate both functional and aesthetic sides of design.
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