Form, Color and the Utopian Idea of a Universal Visual Language

It’s in my nature to try and understand the basics when learning something. Knowing the beginning, the fundamentals, the infrastructure , etc. of any thing — a process, an idea, a system — is key to being able to efficiently use it or build from it. The Bauhaus understood that which is why the masters tried to unteach their students what they knew about art and tried to revert them back to the basics.

Wassily Kandinsky, a master at the Bauhaus, believed there was a universal visual language that connected the primary colors — red, blue and yellow — with the three basic shapes: circle, square and triangle. He surveyed his students to assign a color that best matched the shape, his end result was that triangle was yellow due to it’s dynamic nature, the static square was red and the serene circle was blue.

The idea has long been dropped — artists have criticized Kandinsky’s utopian theories including this idea of a universal visual language. In “The ABC’s of Bauhaus, the Bauhaus and Design Theory,” Rosemarie Bletter comments on Kandinsky’s survey, “Kandinsky’s specific reduction of forms to triangle, square, and circle and to the three primary colors, can be understood in terms of an older Western tradition in geometry and color studies… Kandinsky’s form and colors do not have universal meaning or correspondences.”

The explanation for the meanings Kandinsky attributed to the forms are based on cultural understandings — a bias in knowledge is what Kandinsky is claiming without acknowledging it. However, because color and forms are found in nature, there has to be some universality that can be explained through another means rather than just feeling or emotion.

Sacred geometry is, in part, mathematically perfected shapes, forms, patterns, fractals, etc. produced from nature. These shapes and patterns are created effortlessly by plants, animals, natural phenomena, the human body and even in the proportion and composition of things, e.g. rule of thirds and golden ratio. These truths exist without human need, they are discoveries rather than inventions by man. Therefore, their purpose excludes man’s intervention.

Color is also seen in nature. Light is what gives objects their color, without light everything is black. Isaac Newton discovered that white light breaks into a rainbow of seven colors when entered through a glass prism. The seven colors from warm to cool are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. However, there’s an entire spectrum of colors that exist.

Civilizations and cultures around the world, from beginning of time to the present day, have associated colors with meanings that sometimes may seem arbitrary and other times have some form of logic to them: White represents purity, yellow represents good luck, etc.

Kandinsky tried to find the connection between these two — forms and colors — that were a universally understood language. The critics that said he was being too culturally biased with his meanings were right. As much as Kandinsky believed in the international style and minimalism, his meanings for the forms and shapes couldn’t hold true in other cultures around the world.

Math’s universality offers gravitas to geometry and its shapes. Color, however, is more subjective in that it can be perceived differently by different people, both visually and their symbolic representations. The physics of wavelengths could lend a hand in Kandinsky’s utopian visual language when applying color meaning and connecting them to forms.

Wavelength science tells us faster moving wave lengths are cooler in color. Which means the hotter something is, the closer its color becomes blue starting from red. Therefore, a universally accepted color for hot should be blue. But that isn’t the case — warm colors, so they are named, are what we use to determine heat.

Color theory explains the temperature of colors split between warm (red, yellow, orange) and cool (blue, green, purple) and are generally accepted as that. But once we add more complex meanings we get in trouble. Red can express extreme passionate emotions of love and hate. Blue can be interpreted as awake-ness while also meaning depressive sleepiness. Neither of these are wrong nor right. They are all objectively true.

I started this blog post offering up the idea of trying to come up with my own connection between forms and colors. Instead it has intrigued me into studying color a little more closely. Color theory is a thing that’s already been done. And master artists have explored color in their paintings. But I want to see how these colors can play out in their symbolic interpretations against their own meanings.

The Process of Decluttering and Organizing

As the name points out, minimalism is about having less in your life, materially. The outcome, in theory, is an easier, relaxed, happy living. Reducing the amount of things you own to only the necessities is what’s meant to be achieved. Lots of traditional minimalist come up with their own versions of what they’d consider as necessities based on what they need in their lives. These necessities answer to the main factors of their life such as job, health, social life, etc. 

Once the necessities have been defined, decluttering and organizing, in that order, can begin. There’s different ways to go about doing these steps. The Konmari method, by Marie Kondo, recommends decluttering the home in four phases: Clothes, Miscellaneous (everything else), paper and sentiments — if I remember that correctly. Another method is cleaning each room at a time. As long as there’s a system: Categories of things are to be cleaned out until only the essentials are left, or the items that “spark joy,” as the Konmari method would refer to it, are left. 

I recommend beginning with obvious trash. Go around with a trash bag and collect all the trash in the space. Next, begin placing foreign objects (items that belong in another room such as dishes) back to the room they belong in. Afterwards, the real decluttering of useless and/or sentimental-less items begins. 


Different items have different values placed on them. I’ve tried narrowing down the top two reasons people keep things: they’re useful or they have sentimental value. Questions have to be answered to fully decide if a practical or sentimental item has to/can be kept. Before I continue, sentiment doesn’t just mean it makes you sad or nostalgic, it could also means it brings you joy, like a pin trading collection. 

  • Is it useful immediately? How often is it used?

  • Does it spark some kind of joy or excitement? Does it bring back memories or make you feel nostalgic?

  • Does it hold the value of someone’s memory (late grandparent)?

  • Can it be scanned and saved digitally?

  • Can it benefit someone else in the household? In the world? 

  • Was it useful at one point and is it still useful today (self-help, tutorial or guide books)?

Most of these questions answer questions towards sentimental items compared to practical ones because it’s more difficult to make the decision of keeping or tossing sentimental items compared to useful ones. It’s quick to know if something is useful or if it’s just collecting dust. Sentimental items take harder thinking. 

The point of this step isn’t just to get rid of stuff to have bare rooms, specially if clean walls aren’t your thing or empty bookshelves. It’s about keeping things that you value more. Decluttering is about turning your spaces into clean and well-functioning environments. 


After the decluttering has happened and the minimums for comfortable living are left, the next step would be to organize things — every item needs to have a place where it’ll always be. This process needs to be tackled with efficiency in mind. When organizing keep in mind a few things: where will it be used majority of the time so if someone were looking for it they’d know where to look, how many times will this item be used to determine its accessibility, are the surrounding objects in the same/similar category, etc. 

There’s great enjoyment in organizing your items. If possible, rearrange furniture so that its layout make sense in terms of what they hold, how big they are, should some stuff be closer to the door, etc. Take advantage of the higher wall spaces by installing shelves that attach to the wall. High shelves could be used for knick knacks that were kept.

These two processes together are the first steps I took in an attempting to become more minimalist in my lifestyle. I’m not finished with decluttering completely because as an artist I have a lot of art supplies. But I’m beginning to wonder how many of those supplies I really need. 

Anyway, here’s my bit on decluttering and organizing.

Becoming a Minimalist

The philosophy of a minimalist lifestyle is about leading a meaningful life with the mentality of living with less. This meaning can be interpreted or depicted in many different ways but it’s all about the end result: what makes you happy.

The Minimalists and Marie Kondo are great examples of how minimalism can be different in the details but aim for the same results.

The Minimalists are about living with the bare essentials in life. They also call to attention the noise of our capitalist society with advertisements everywhere telling you buy this product to be a better version of yourself. Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, is all about living organizational living to achieve a stress-free life.

There are other ways people have taken their minimalist approach into their lives. Courtney started Project 333 where she only own 33 articles of clothing. This shows that no matter what your interests are in life, there’s always a way to incorporate this ‘less stuff is more meaningful’ life choice.

I’ve attempted at trying to incorporate minimalism into my life but there’s always something holding me back: I own too much memorabilia, lots of my stuff add to my character, blank walls give me anxiety, I can’t live off of ten underwear, etc. Obviously I didn’t fully understand what it actually meant to live on the minimal side because I was making all these assumptions and tried to do what other minimalists were doing.

Thanks to the growing popularity there’s more people sharing their experiences and how they tackle some of the reservations I had years ago. So it’s official: I have chosen to be a minimalist.

To clarify, I’m not becoming a minimalist because it’s trendy. I’m becoming a minimalist because I’ve been living a certain way for a while and I’ve been unhappy. I buy things to feel that rush of excitement of something new but it just meant spending money I don’t have. I feel like minimalism makes sense, not just as an aesthetic or a schtick but logistically.

In this series I’ll be posting updates on how things are going during transitioning, some tips I've read, experiences I encounter and general talks. My goal for following this lifestyle is that my health and spirituality will balance out, I can focus on my projects and I’ll start having a direction for my future. 

Adding Purpose to Abstract Art

The concept of symbolism in religious paintings during the Renaissance has always amazed me — layers and layers of metaphors depicting biblical scenes with scientific and philosophical advancements, I would argue, were a godsend. Meaning in art makes the art have a purpose in its existence. As a firm believer of free speech, art for art’s sake is fine but it isn’t for me in the sense that something can just be looked at.

Hidden messages in paintings, almost esoteric, were like a game during my art history classes. My favorite being the cloak encasing God in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. It’s been theorized that the cloak is in the shape of a brain because Michelangelo was, against the church, studying the anatomy humans and included the brain in this painting. It raises a question — what’s Michelangelo trying to say putting God inside the brain?

But I must admit that representational art is also my least favorite form of art. Although as a history-buff I enjoy the recording of ancient times in representational means, once the photograph was invented, it became a matter of skill rather than purpose. Do I think recreating what’s in front of you onto a flat surface is obsolete? No, but I think it’s a matter of skill to try and achieve such a feat; the best place to use such skill is when beginning to learn art — drawing what’s in front of you is a 101 class, drawing from the mind is more advanced.

When I say drawing from the mind I don’t mean trying to draw, let’s say a leopard, from memory rather than from one in front of you. I mean more like drawing the essence, the idea of a leopard. The location of the leopard is arbitrary compared to what is being depicted on the canvas. Unless, of course, the location serves a purpose to the why of the reason it is being depicted in the way it is.

It might be fair to say I enjoy abstract art, instead, because it can be nonobjective, however, abstraction can be useless without meaning or purpose just the same. So far what I’ve seen, most abstract art has to be used as teaching examples to give them purpose. Art teachers enjoy displaying Pablo Picasso’s work when talking about the elements but that’s as far as it goes, generally. Because I ask less of what’s being depicted and more of why’s it being depicted, enjoying these kinds of works is difficult me.

There’s much enjoyment in abstract art, geometric abstraction, to be specific. One of my first truly religious experiences with non-objective art was when I discovered Kazimir Malevich’s, suprematism painting, White on White. The painting is a white square tilted and off-center on a white canvas. Malevich’s philosophy was that pure forms and colors held true feelings that could be depicted.

At the time I was also learning about the greatest art school, The Bauhaus in Germany. I’ve written and rewritten posts about this amazing school and I’ll continue to write and rewrite them because of how influential their ideas are on me. One of their many legacies was that form follows function. Those three words alone can be unpacked in a later post but in short: Form follows function means the way something looks (the materials used, the way it works, the way exists, it’s shape, etc.) is determined by the way it is meant to be used.

As a consequence of being a follower of this philosophy, everything I do, create, see, say…every decision I’ve had to make or decisions someone else had to make I questioned why. I needed to know the purpose. Or maybe I just needed to know that there was a purpose. Intention and purpose help make good designs. Because of this, the beauty of Malevich’s supreme shapes wasn't entirely fulfilling.

Although I agree with the supremacy of pure shapes and color and execution of them following the principles of design, mere feelings weren’t enough for me. I want to be able to depict a scene using non-objective art. Esoteric and occult secrets could be hidden in simple circles and squares.

That is why I’ve been working on a new series of paintings. The idea is to illustrate Biblical scenes and themes using non-objective, geometric abstraction. I want to take Malevich’s theory further into incorporating recognizable symbolism into pure forms and colors. I will use basic design principles and composition decisions to illustrate these religious ideas into the modern, abstract world. The unconventionality of abstraction as a means to describe real-world things will be aided by using universally understood visual communication.

The Know-How of Basic Design

A design is a collection of conscious decisions made when creating a man-made product — this is the best way I can explain design. Design is also about how something works rather than just how it looks — design is trying to answer a question, solve a problem or reach a goal. A product of design can be anything and is everything. Design is the process of bringing something inanimate into existence, although there’s genetic engineering but I’ll ignore that for now.

Designers need to know  a lot of different fields of study to create good design. Design needs knowledge in psychology, anatomy, engineering, the arts, trends, etc. Knowing a little about as many things as possible helps designs be effective. Bauhaus is a great example of this; they designed using psychology and kinesiology to create universally understood furniture and appliances.

Knowing the right things to research can be very helpful when designing a product because it helps the end result be helpful. A quick example is designing a switch blade: to save someone time on creating multiple prototypes, researching past mechanical designs can help a designer eliminate ideas that have already been done and didn’t work.

But before talking about the end results, it’s best to discuss the beginning. There are three basic things about design that need to be understood before starting a project: The elements of design, the principles of design and the design process. Knowing and understanding these are the first steps to reaching good design.

These topics can be talked about extensively, which I will do in separate blog posts; this post I will simply include the basics.

The elements of design in motion.

The elements of design in motion.

The Elements of Design

There are seven elements of design — space, point, line, shape, form, texture and color. The order I put them in describe, in my opinion, how to bring a mark into existence on a blank piece of paper, it’s how I remember them.

In order to create any intentional mark on a paper you start with the empty space of the paper; next is putting the pen down which starts with a point; then you drag your pen to extend the point into a line; connecting that line’s ends together makes a shape; connecting more ends creates a three-dimensional form; the surface of the form can stay smooth or change, that’s its texture; lastly color can be added to the drawing.


is the empty parts where the background can be seen on a drawing. Empty and negative space are important as positive space when can affect a two-dimensional design.


is the first mark made on a blank canvas and as such, it is the first thing a viewer’s eyes will look at.


on a paper holds the power of visual movement. A viewer’s gaze normally follows the line from one end to the next.


is when a line closes and creates a two-dimensional figure. The shape can be a uniformed ellipse/polygon or it can be a wacky shape with its sides being different sizes.


is when more closed lines are added to a shape to create the illusion of the shape being three-dimensional. There are other techniques for making a shape three-dimensional but adding lines is the most basic way.


is when things get slightly more tricky because texture in the real world is only seen when light can cause a surface’s shadow to see the texture. Therefore, the markings used to make texture on paper have to pretend to be shadows from the real world.


the most obvious but arguably the most complex of the elements. Many books and studies and lectures have been made about color and apparently we don’t even see every color that exists. One bit of truth, color is created by light.

The Principles of Design

The principles are: Contrast, balance, movement, rhythm, pattern, emphasis, and unity/variety. If this were a cookbook, the elements of design would be food ingredients (e.g. pasta, meatballs, water, parmesan cheese, etc.) and the principles of design would be the cooking tools (e.g. a stove, a pot, wooden spoons, etc.). The principles tell the elements how to act so that the two-dimensional product can do something. Similarly to the elements, the principles can also have more in-depth conversations, but here’s the basics.

Principles of design portrayed in a teaser poster that I made.

Principles of design portrayed in a teaser poster that I made.


is opposing elements that enhance each other’s presence to the viewer. A common idea is putting red and blue next to each other.  


is when the elements are evenly distributed across the canvas; the visual weight of each element does on over power the other. 


is when the viewer’s eyes are guided through the design. It’s usually in the form of a line of some kind. 


is the illusion of movement on the canvas.


is the religion of motifs whether it’s something complicated like Victorian wallpaper or something simple like dots. 


determines what’s most important on the page. This is what the viewer should notice first before anything else. 


are opposites. Unity is uniforming a design with predictable patterns. Variety is more playful, moving around.  

The Design Process

This process has many variations but this is the one I use. It’s the method of planning out a project from beginning to end. Organizing a project into steps can help a designer manage time and work more efficiently by knowing what is the next step. Designers should plan accordingly following these steps:

  1. Identify the problem: identifying the problem, obstacle or question is important in order to give the design a goal and/or purpose.

  2. Research: looking up how things were done previously, alternate designs and learning how something is made can help make some design decisions.

  3. Create solutions: planning, sketching, measuring etc. - figure out some design solutions and understand why these decisions were made.

  4. Build, test and improve prototypes: create mock trials to see how the product will exist; notice any problems and fix the prototype until it’s exactly how it’s meant to be.

  5. Original, mass production: depending what the final product is, this step is about deciding on only having one product or mass producing it.


These three design basics are the first steps at understanding what design is all about; not a physical product but the theory and philosophy of design. When people put passion into their work it shows, and design is no exception. Visual communication through great is a testament to putting passion into work and it started with these design basics.

Defining Art & Design

There’s a thin line between art and design along with both terms carrying a subjectivity to their meaning. I sought out to use those terms as classifications to distinguish different kinds of art and design so giving them definitions was the first step. Having them distinguished can help when studying, critiquing and/or using an item made by humans. I say “made by humans” because the kind of objects that can be distinguished between these categories are intentionally conscious, human-made things of any scale.

The first problem I came across was what do I call a finished design project? We use the term ‘design’ to mean a process of planning. Once the design is finished we call it whatever the design is, (e.g. a building, a car, a backpack) they aren’t called design pieces the way a finished art project is called an art piece. I settled on calling a general finished design a product. Having a term for a finished design helps to not confuse when I say design as a verb and a noun.

A design is a product made up of conscious decisions created to achieve a reaction or an understanding from an audience. Although sometimes a design choice can come about as an accident, majority of the time things are planned out using the design process. Anything and everything created or invented by humans is considered to be a product of design.

The purpose of a finished product is determined at the beginning of the design process, it is the reason to design the product. This reason is the answer to a problem. Once the product is finalized it can be critiqued as a good or bad design depending on how well it answers the problem.

The Design Process

  1. Identify the problem: identifying the problem, obstacle or question is important in order to give the design a goal and/or purpose.

  2. Research: looking up how things were done previously, alternate designs and learning how something is made can help make some design decisions.

  3. Create solutions: planning, sketching, measuring etc. - figure out some design solutions and understand why these decisions were made.

  4. Build, test and improve prototypes: create mock trials to see how the product will exist; notice any problems and fix the prototype until it’s exactly how it’s meant to be.

  5. Original, mass production: depending what the final product is, this step is about deciding on only having one product or mass producing it.

  • After finalization, the design can be judged as good or bad design by how well it answered the problem or question in step one.

There are two kinds of art: Expression and Appreciation Art. When a product’s main function is to entice the senses for aesthetic purposes or for expression only, the product is an example of Expression art. This also includes art that tries to communicate something to the audience such as a depiction of hell. Appreciation art can be anything created by humans or nature. Most commonly referred to as The Art of _______. This kind of art can be anything: The art of cars, the art of running, the art of flowers, etc.

Depicted:  Sign, 1925 — Wassily Kandinsky at LACMA.  This is an example of expression art.  Tony Flores .

Depicted: Sign, 1925 — Wassily Kandinsky at LACMA. This is an example of expression art. Tony Flores.

Expression art is used for decorative purposes, mainly, and can be any form of art (painting, sculpting, dance, etc.). It can also have a meaning meant to communicate something to the viewer such as a criticism on politics or story-telling. It is from the idea that the artist is trying to express themselves, or express something out into the world, putting intangible ideas or truths into 2D or 3D.

Appreciation art comes from the idea that art is beauty, anything can be art since anything can have beauty. It’s from the appreciation of anything and everything in the world. The reason for having the distinction is because designs can be appreciated art.

Although both design and expression art need conscious decision making to create something, it’s the intention of the creator’s final product use that determines which category it belongs in.

For example, a painting has many uses and can be profitable either way it’s used. A painting meant to be hung on a wall or placed in a frame to be looked at as decoration, with no utility use, is expression art. If the painting was made to be used as a book cover, it is a design.

Since multiple copies can be created of some products and expression art pieces, it’s the individual product that determines its label. Let’s say a foot-high statue was 3D printed to be used as a decorative piece in a vestibule, this is an expression art piece. Now a second statue was printed, exactly the same but is instead used as a paperweight, it is now a design. Same product, but different uses. It is also possible for an expression art piece to become a product and vice versa. Both designs and expression art pieces can be appreciation art.

The importance of having these three distinctions is to aid in forming strong opinions and intelligible criticisms. The best way to critique something is by knowing its process of creation, the creator’s intention  of use/purpose and by rating the product on skill and technique.

It’s an instinct of mine to try and organize anything I see — the designer part of me tries to organize it strategically. I felt the need to organize these as categories so that it’s easier when I begin discussing other art pieces and design products. If they help anyone else then by all means, feel free to use them.