#55 Why themes are important

It’s important to understand what a theme is and why it is critical in design. 

I present a quote by Johannes Itten (1888 – 1967)and then a quote by Hillman Curtis (1961 – 2012):

ITTEN Wrote:

Decorators and designers sometimes tend to be guided by their own subjective color propensities. This may lead to misunderstandings and disputes, where
one subjective judgment collides with another. For the solution of many problems, however, there are objective considerations that outweigh subjective preferences. Thus a meat market may be decorated in light green and blue-green tones, so the various meats will appear fresher and redder. Confectionery shows to advantage in light orange, pink, white, and accents of black, stimulating an appetite for sweets. If a commercial artist were to design a package of coffee bearing yellow and white stripes, or one with blue polka-dots for spaghetti, he would be wrong because these forms and color features are in conflict with the theme.” (The Elements of Color by Johannes Itten. c1961)

According to Hillman Curtis, theme is central. Hillman draws three concentric circles on a piece of paper in the very first client meeting. As he jots down keywords during the meeting, he figures out how close to the center of the “target” each one fits. The words in the center become the theme. Theme can be the most difficult part of the creative process. An idea generated in collaboration with the client is more likely to express their story than one generated in isolation.

Hillman Curtis says: “It’s all about communicating the theme. You do it by combining color, type, layout, and motion in a way that supports an identified theme. You might not see the way these elements work to communicate theme, but you “feel” it. As a designer, I try to justify every element and to [consistently and clearly] support the theme.”

“Every product or brand has a theme and these products and brands exist because of their ability to tap into recognizable themes … and make people feel something. So I focus on the theme … on telling a story. If you look at that title “Commercial Artist” and deconstruct it, you can
look at it this way; you have a responsibility to your client and their brand … which is the “commercial” part of the title…but you also have a responsibility as an artist … and artists have always responded, reflected upon, and hopefully influenced the world.”

“Our challenge as designers is to target a given project’s theme and use it as a guide that will influence every design decision we make, from the initial concept to the final composition.”

Here’s are my observations about web theming. A project outline or text leads to the exploration of storytelling possibilities, imagining picture-and-word sequences, making discoveries, and uncovering unforeseen problems. Out of this design puzzle, is then formulated a “theme.” A theme grows out of the communication goal. It affects all design elements. It needs to be appropriate to the client and the audience. It’s frequently a metaphor, a stereotype, or a cliche as these accelerate understanding. Memories alter perception. The reader/viewer’s historical memory (emotions) helps them recognize and interpret “theme” (images, symbols, fonts, colors, etc). The theme alters their perception of reality.