Most of you may not know this, but before I started writing full-time I was a designer.
And not just any kind of designer… I was a toy designer. (Yes, it was fun. No, it was nothing like the movie Big.)
In art school, I studied everything from color theory and typography to plush toys and model-building. I became obsessed with clean lines and balanced designs, and I developed a love for visual problem-solving. Even now, nothing makes my day like discovering a design where form and function work seamlessly together.
And believe it or not, many of the things I learned as a designer ended up making me a better writer.
I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, in addition to all the writing I have to learn, now I have to learn design as well?”
Fear not: you don’t have to be trained as a designer to make the most of these visual techniques in your writing. Here are some ways you can use design to inform and inspire your writing.
Set the Mood for Your Story with a Mood Collage
Remember back in grade school when we used to cut up magazines and glue the pictures on a board to make beautiful artwork? Believe it or not, collage is a great way for writers to explore and express the mood of their project.
I learned the benefits of this technique when I was in design school studying toy design. “Mood boards”–where we captured the mood and overall look of a design project–were an integral part of each portfolio presentation. In these focused collages, we learned the importance of communicating the essence of a product or brand through imagery.
How do you make a mood collage?
There are no rules. You can clip pictures from magazines or cut out letters and words in different fonts. You don’t even need to use concrete objects or words but can make a cool background by using printed fabrics or textured papers. Use whatever inspires you, as long as it fits the mood of your project.
Idea: Think beyond the flat page and create a three-dimensional collage by gluing down trinkets or 3D objects. Flat canvas not your style? Glue your collage to the outside of a round metal canister or the inside surface of shoebox.
Once you’ve collected your materials, lay out the pieces in a way that inspires you and move things around until you’ve got a design that you like. Finally, break out the glue-stick or glue-gun and start sticking the pieces down.
Sometimes I use Photoshop to create mood collages because it’s easy to download pictures from the web, clip them and compile the images in one digital file. A bonus of making collages digitally is that it’s easy to print them out in different sizes, email them to people or even post them on websites or blogs. Other times, though, I prefer making my collages the old-fashioned way with scissors and glue. Whatever your preferred method, the goal is the same: to capture the mood of your work-in-progress with your collage.
Here are a few mood collages I’ve made:
Try This: Set aside one hour to make a mood collage for your work-in-progress.
Tip: The one-hour time limit is crucial. After all, you don’t want to invest so much time making a mood collage that you sacrifice your valuable writing time. Force yourself to work quickly so you stay within this time limit so you avoid tinkering with the collage for too long.
Clip pictures from magazines or print images you find online and cut them up. If you like, while you’re clipping pictures and gluing, listen to some mood music that inspires your story. The idea with this project is to get completely immersed in the mood of your work-in-progress.
True Colors: Using Color Theory to Get to the Heart of Your Story
One of the areas that fascinates me in design is color theory and color symbolism. I find it remarkable that certain colors seem almost to have certain personalities or identities, much like characters in a story. There are three basic principles to consider when using color theory as a writer.
1) Certain colors have intrinsic meaning. Red means “stop” or “and orange is an attention-grabbing color so it’s often used for warnings. Green suggests growth and life, and blue generally has a calming influence. Even before we add the layers of other influences, these colors already have a certain symbolism inherent in the color itself. Traditions and cultures help shape symbolism. In Western culture, the color white implies innocence and purity while in other cultures it is actually the color of mourning. The phrase “green with envy” has added a different layer of meaning to the color.
2) Combining colors lends nuance to their meanings. Blue alone might symbolize peace and calm, but add red and yellow, and you get the primary colors which imply youth. Replace the yellow with white and you get a patriotic color combination. When you pair colors together, their meanings can change or acquire nuance.
3) Using color theory, we can select color combinations that communicate a specific meaning. Pairing complementary colors together leads to contrast and creates tension, while combining colors that are adjacent on the color wheel leads to less tension.
Introduction to Color Theory
Red, Yellow and Blue are the primary colors. They are called primary colors because you cannot mix any other colors together to get these three. Note: red, yellow and blue are primary colors for pigment. When you’re talking about color and light, the primaries are actually red, green and blue but that gets us into the differences between the color of light and the color of pigment and that’s the subject of another article.
Orange, Green and Purple are secondary colors. They are called secondary because you can make them by mixing only two primaries. See the color wheel below for primary and secondary colors. Primaries are marked with a 1 and secondaries are marked with a 2.
Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel are complementary colors. These colors have a strong contrast and you have to be careful about using these combinations in large doses or the design may be jarring. Each of the primary colors has a secondary color as its complement.
Colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel are analogous colors. These colors blend easily and are more harmonious. At the same time, combinations of colors that are too similar with no contrasting shades can be monotonous.
But, what does this have to do with writing? Color can set a mood. It can inspire a feeling or set the tone for a piece of writing. You can use individual colors or a color scheme to capture the essence of your story without words. Think of it as a wordless summary.
Characters are like colors. When I develop a new character with a rough biography, I staple or glue a paint chip to the bio. The color becomes like a wordless bio for the character, telling me almost as much as the written details.
Color combinations get to the heart of character relationships. When it comes to relationships between characters, color theory can also be useful. For instance, one of the best ways to draw a character out is to pair him or her with someone completely opposite. If your character is best represented by a shade of purple, try pairing her with someone who’s a yellow and watch the sparks fly. If you want a relationship to be more harmonious, pair the purple character with characters who have colors adjacent on the color wheel, like fuchsia or indigo.
You can also think of colors as a way of expressing the mood of a social environment or group. The same way that schools and sports teams may have colors that represent their spirit, you can think of trademark colors for families or groups of characters. Put a character in a social environment where her color clashes and you’re sure to have conflict.
Why use color? It all comes down to how our brains are wired. The right side of the brain generally focuses on creativity and visual-spatial skills while the left side is where the analytical and language skills reside. This means that colors tend to resonate more with the right side of the brain and can capture ideas that our logical left brain might not be able to put into words. Colors and pictures give you a way to tap into that creative right brain and express those ideas without having to translate them into left brain lingo.
Put Color Theory Into Action
Take a field trip to a hardware store and browse the paint aisle. Most stores give out free paint chip samples so grab a few. No wait, grab a bunch. Try to find the perfect paint color to represent your main character or the mood of your story. If you’re really ambitious, pick out colors for each of your important characters. See where the contrasts are, as well as the harmonious combinations.
If you’re ambitious, skip the paint store and browse a fabric store instead (where you can play with color as well as pattern and texture). If you don’t have time to browse the stores, break out the markers, colored pencils or better yet, paints. Mix and match and play with color. The point here is to have fun and to use colors to capture the essence of your story.
Dig deep and find out your story’s true colors.