Magazine article Technology and Children

Of Beaches and Fans

Magazine article Technology and Children

Of Beaches and Fans

Article excerpt

Leo Lionni, a highly respected graphic designer and author of intriguing books for children, presented some thought-stimulating ideas on pattern vs. randomness at a lecture given at Yale University some years ago.

Briefly, his thesis was that humans have great difficulty in dealing with randomness, especially visual randomness. He observed that designers walking along a rocky beach often stop and try to make sense of the seemingly random organization of the stones that have washed up on the shore. Even non-designers tend to do the same. The mind's eye will begin looking at relationships between the stones, thereby attempting to discern a pattern. This is even more evident when people photograph the pebbles at their feet. By placing the frame imposed by the camera around some portion of the beach, they look for relationships of wet and dry, dark and light, big and small, gradation of size, etc., that are established within the confines of the frame. Thus, they try to resolve the random into order or pattern. Even in daily life, quite aside from visual matters, most of us seek the comfort of organization and generally attempt to minimize the random.

With Lionni's thesis in mind, consider also scale and viewing distance. If one walks across the surface of an alluvial fan, it is almost impossible to discern a pattern. Rather, there is a seemingly random collection of rocks and debris flowing from the glacier toward the water. Quite another view is experienced from the air as one flies over the same area. The fan can appear quite like the leaf of a ginkgo tree and be equally stunning. There are, of course, many events in life that, when seen from an alternate perspective, change into an understandable pattern. In the same vein, seeing a sea or lake shore from the air allows the viewer to better understand the patterns imposed on the shoreline by wind and wave action as well as water drainage from the land. Thus we have macro views and micro views that inform us and help us understand patterns of nature. A highly recommended short film (now on DVD) produced by the industrial designers Ray and Charles Eames titled Power of Ten is enjoyable for students of all ages and very instructive. It demonstrates the changes of patterns in the macro and micro worlds as scale shifts in a rapid and massive way.

Pattern is tightly integrated with the concept surrounding the organization of like and unlike elements. This is true in weather patterns, fabric patterns, leaf patterns, highway patterns, and communication patterns as well as social interaction patterns, from the playground to the corporate boardroom. To begin understanding visual (or any other) patterns, the elements must be examined and evaluated. For example, are some of the elements dark and others light? Are some large and some small? Are some intensely colored while others are neutral? Are some soft and amorphous while others are sharp and geometric? On and on go similar questions. If such disparate elements are to be combined to make a comprehensible pattern, the designer must make a series of decisions regarding all of the elements, and how they are to be used.

When the word pattern is used without context, we might immediately think of fabric with a woven pattern or a printed pattern or the pattern of wet footprints coming off of the playground onto a walk and into the building. In order to establish the concept of discussing pattern, it would be useful to have your students suggest what comes to their minds when the word is mentioned. …

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