I'm a graphic designer and writer in Northern Ireland. Welcome to my blog.

Patterns in design

A basic human skill is the ability to interpret patterns. We use them to gauge the past, present, and future in all kinds of things: the layers of earth that allow archaeologists to date their findings, or the movement of pressure systems that enable weather predictions.

tree trunk pattern
Dendrochronology can date the time at which tree rings were formed.

We also use patterns to articulate messages in design. Think about a few logos that are seen everyday, and how they use pattern to inform.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden logo
Brooklyn Botanic Garden logo by Carbone Smolan, 2004.

National Aquarium Baltimore logo
National Aquarium Baltimore logo by Tom Geismar, 1980.

Brooklyn Historical Society logo
Brooklyn Historical Society logo by Pentagram, 2005.

Patterns are at the very existence of life as we know it — the spiral of a hurricane, rippling sand dunes, waves in the ocean, circular volcanos, winding rivers, a plant flowering, the lines on the palms of our hands, the prints on our fingers, the crystals in snowflakes. But with so many distractions, so much worry about not enough time, we kind of blank them out, which can be a shame.

“As we develop ever more sophisticated technology, we become more disconnected from nature and less able to understand and appreciate its patterns. We forget that the human form itself is a construct of natural pattern — embedded in our DNA as the double helix of evolving life — and it is essential to everything related to our existence.”
— MAGGIE MACNAB

When I get creative block, I find it helps to return to design in its most natural form, and the video embedded below is one of the most mesmerising examples I’ve seen. Give yourself a break for 7 minutes, dim the lights (or close the blinds), hit play, switch to HD 1080p (button appears after clicking play), bump to full-screen, watch, listen.

On YouTube: Cosmic Journeys: What an Astronaut’s Camera Sees.

Beautiful. Just wanted to share that.

For further insight into how graphic designers use patterns, Maggie Macnab’s book is worth a look: Decoding Design: understanding and using symbols in visual communication.

My second book on Amazon

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17 comments about “Patterns in design”

  1. Great video and you are right it’s very mesmerizing. I too like to find inspiration in design in its natural form and my garden is my playground. The design and textures produced by nature are definitely something we can learn from and apply to our work.
    For example take a look at the call to action this flower creates
    Flower call to action

  2. Inspiring post, David. Always can count on that from you. Also a pleasure to see the words of Maggie Macnab

    I was reminded of a quote from Richard Feynman ‘ To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature’

    You must have seen this? – Nautre by Numbers: http://youtu.be/kkGeOWYOFoA

  3. Love the colour, Zoe. Here’s another flower with brilliant colour, captured on my phone.

    That’s a good one, Raja. I’m one of the two people who hadn’t seen it before. Thanks for that.

  4. A gent I’ve known for years turned his business (airbrushing) into an overnight success by returning to nature as his inspiration. He lived in a particularly beautiful part of the English countryside and he would go for walks with his dog, carefully studying the trees, the foliage and natural items most of us would walk past without a second glance.

    Using them as inspiration led to some amazing designs. Sadly he has had to hang up his spurs due to life throwing him a curve ball or I’d have been able to post a link to a gallery of his work.

    Off topic slightly, but my wife did buy me your book David (despite the holiday being cancelled), been reading it most of the day. A very good read and hard to put down.

  5. Hey David,
    I truly agree with you that nature is the best source of design inspiration and that was the reason i shifted from North India to South India (New Delhi to Bangalore). I always feel that the color & texture nature has you can’t get anywhere and one should always learn from them. & the video is superb.

  6. That Brooklyn Historical Society logo and the video reminded me of some amazing pictures of hurricanes, as seen from space. Get a load of these beauties, David:

    http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2008/09/hurricanes_as_seen_from_orbit.html

  7. I agree. It’s a ‘back to basics’ principle that I employ on many occasions. It never ceases to amaze me that nature has such power to inspire. Natural texture and form are two elements that I often record with my phone as I’m out and about.

  8. Wow, this is really beautiful. Inspiring and mesmerizing!
    I’ve been reading for a while, and I have to say this blog is really brilliant. Always something interesting and entertaining to read and learn!

  9. It’s funny how designs/patterns/textures in nature are a million times more interesting than anything a human could create on his own. And effortlessly so.

  10. Great post, if we could only fly!

  11. Nature is design perfection! The greater hands are very much creative hands! Thank you and kudos for your creative efforts across all mediums, you continue to inspire the creative community!

  12. Great post! That is a beautiful image and you have some wonderful examples. I find that most designs can be traced back to elements present in nature. It’s intricacies are inspiring!

  13. Love the video clip David – the earth looks so peaceful from space (even the hurricane).

  14. Great Post and I totally agree! I actually wrote and designed a booklet on this myself: http://chriscureton.com/NaturesIdea.html

    The mysteries of all these patterns are endless but extremely interesting – not to mention beautiful.

  15. Love it! You want inspiration, it’s right out your front door:)

  16. It’s difficult to find material about the use of patterns in graphic design. As a newly-graduated web designer it would be very useful if you could write more about the use of patterns and textures in graphic design / web design. Thanks and keep up the good work!

  17. Hi David, I was browsing through your blog when this post grabbed my attention. Very few people these days actually stop and observe what’s around them. Something as simple as a pattern is always taken for granted. Being a Graphic Design student in college has taught me to look at the world a little differently, and this post also helped me realize that patterns in their simplest, most raw and natural forms make up a large percentage of what we see in our everyday lives. Nature truly is the best form of inspiration for any designer.

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