by Sue Strause

As originally published in Needle Pointers, December '93/ January '94

The word "design" means different things to different people. Creating a design is synonymous to a deliberate planning as opposed to something arbitrary or accidental. I like to consider a design to be an orderly approach to a problem or a mental picture of a whole idea. Some people have an instinctive feeling for pattern and color or a "sense of design," but most stitchers panic when confronted with the task of creating their own original design. Very few have the slightest clue as to how to begin "thinking up" and drawing an original design. It is difficult enough just to draw an adaptation of an already existing design. Perhaps I can give you a few tips to make this task less formidable, and you may even have some fun along the way.

First of all let's consider what we mean by "original." The American Needlepoint Guild defines "original design" as one that is "entirely created in the mind and fingers of the stitcher. Inspiration for design is all around us. The interpretation in our stitching for what we see and feel creates an original design." When you make a study of very ancient civilizations such as the Greeks and Romans or even the pre-Columbian Indians in North America, you realize that the old saying, "There is nothing new under the sun," is really true. Some of the things we admire in nature and the many shapes and colors in our environment have been around for centuries. The key to originality then becomes interpretation. If the student is instructed to look at familiar objects and interpret how he feels about them, then the whole process becomes less frightening than if he were asked to conjure up an entirely new and never-before-observed object.

When you are working with the composition of a design, it is important to remember that it is made up of certain elements which must be manipulated in a pleasing and harmonious fashion. These include shape, color, tone and texture. When you are considering each of these individually, you should always keep in mind the importance of contrasts, for that is the one aspect of a design that gives it vitality. Examples of contrasts are large-small, light-dark, rough-smooth, wide-narrow, and so forth. It is far more exciting to have sharp and clear contrasts in a design than to have a sameness or bland quality about it.

Let's take shape as an example and apply the rule of contrasts to that part of the design. If you were designing a geometric, it would be much more interesting to include shapes that are round and angular, large and small, than to have all the objects the same size or shape. A field of circles that were all the same size would seem like monotonous polka dots, but a field of circles of different sizes would have movement and vitality. Perhaps some could even be layered one over another to add more interest and to "hide" part of the design from the viewer.

design fear pic

Now let's consider tone. Tonal value is sometimes referred to simply as "value." I like to make black and white photocopies of my designs to see if I have enough different tonal values. Sometimes the color can deceive the eye where darkness and lightness of value is concerned. Most designs are made up of dark, light, and middle values. It is best to consider the effect of the background on a design when selecting and arranging tonal values. For example, you might choose a light background, dark foreground, and medium middle for one effect. Another time you might choose a dark background, light foreground, and medium middle ground. 

The latter is sometimes a more dramatic effect. Consider a brilliant star burst on a blue-black sky or the palest of flowers against a deep green or rust background. Both have great drama and visual appeal. Too often off-white, beige or pale blue is chosen as a background for a design that is already made of up light to medium values and the resulting effect is rather blah and insipid.

When considering color choices for a design, it is important to keep in mind all the rules of good color usage that are explained in detail elsewhere in this article. I would like you also to consider, along with these suggestions, my rule of contrasts, and pay attention especially to your color values. By this I mean the lightness and darkness of a color. By choosing colors of different values, you will achieve contrast in your design. Chroma, which is the brightness or dullness of a color will also be useful in creating contrasting effects. Chroma is the intensity or strength of pigmentation. You can select colors from a neutral or gray position to one that is very intense with color.

The last part of the design to consider contrasting is texture. Fortunately for textile artists, it is very easy to attain contrasts in texture in several different ways. The most obvious is the selection of flat stitches or bumpy stitches, thereby giving you a rough-smooth contrast. Also you can pick different threads that will achieve the same effect, for some threads are smooth and shiny while others are rough and dull. It is very easy to make a piece of needlework a contrast in texture because of the nature of the stitches and threads that are available to choose from.

We have discussed how a design is made up of shape, tone, color, and texture. We have also seen how a good design with movement and vitality will have definite contrasts in each of these aspects. How do we decide how much contrast to include in a design and still render one that is pleasing? Good design principles have their origin in a few simple emotional demands.

  1. Limitation. Our tolerance for diversity is limited. The human eye and mind can absorb only so many shapes, colors, tones, and textures in one design. The stitcher must make choices and restrain the diversity, for unrestrained diversity will result in chaos and disorder.

  2. Balance. The human mind is easily bored by tedium. We demand that there be opposing forces to relieve the monotony. For example if one side of a design is very active with bright color and irregular shapes, it would be appropriate to balance the other side with some heavy texture or contrasting tones.

  3. Dominance. The balance cannot be perfect for we demand that a winner be declared. We want a resolution of the conflict so that one force will dominate and become central to the design.

  4. Rhythm. There should be an ease of passage throughout the whole presentation so that it appears as a consistent whole. Repetition of the elements (shapes, tones, colors, textures) is an important feature of a good design. In a successful pattern the eye will travel over the entire surface.

When approaching a design plan, it is important to remember that an intellectual approach and emotional approach must go hand in hand. Either one alone will produce a weak result. If you are serious about creating your own original design, begin by playing around with some shapes. Then add color and tones, remembering to satisfy the emotional demands of balance and dominance, but always keeping limitation in mind. Don't be tempted to make your design too many colors or tones. Finally add texture with your chosen stitches and threads, but be extremely careful here, for many a stitcher has failed to follow the "limitation" emotional demand and the result has been a cluttered and "busy" design that actually offends the viewer's sensitivity. It is so tempting to show off your expertise in 20 stitches by including all of them in one piece. Please keep it simple. Repeat some to the stitches in different places and your design will have more rhythm and balance. Now go ahead and start. Remember there will be some successes and some failures, but that is how you learn. Good luck.