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Articles by Chris A. Paschke, CPF GCF

"The Essence of Design: Introduction"

February 2000

There is a very distinct difference between art and design, and yet the two seem nearly interchangeable. Art is original work that arouses an aesthetic response in the viewer. Design is usually thought of in term of objects, like a picture frame, this could also be known as functional design. The earliest decorations and embellishments were done on tools and weapons, items used for survival and day to day living. Hence design seemed to have a practical purpose. Yet any effective design also has an aesthetic side to it and could well be the whole purpose of the design, this then is called visual design.

Visual Design

When an artist creates a heavily textured, brightly colored painting he expects the viewer to react to the lines, colors and texture. A chair can also embody line, color and texture, but it too has a function. A badly designed chair will not hold us when we sit, but a bad painting may be seen as that only in the eyes of one viewer. The interrelationship between art and design is subtle. It can be a piece of needleart framed on the wall or a chair with a needleart cushion used to sit on every afternoon.

The relationship between art and design is an intimate one, for the same principles govern both a wall hanging or a framed limited edition. The elements of line, color, texture, shape, intensity and space are the building blocks that create both art and design. The factors of proportion, balance, emphasis, rhythm and ultimately unity are the mortar that hold the blocks together in an aesthetic way. Visual design is the organization of materials and forms in such a way as to fulfill a specific and aesthetic purpose. For framers, this purpose is to enhance and protect the art.

Determining a good design from a bad design when it comes to framing is actually quite simple. If the framing works well and enhances the art with smooth transitions from outer frame to inner artwork it is a good and unified design. If however the viewing is jarred, the eye is caught up in an area of decorative embellishment or color, then perhaps the design needs improvement.

The Design Process

The creation of a design is a matter of problem solving, consisting of five stages: definition, creativity, analysis, production and clarification. No surprise I keep saying that framers are problem solvers. Although most framing designs are intuitive, the formal progression is both conscious and unconscious.


All designs begin with a concept or definition of what is required. When a photograph is brought in to be framed we begin to pull mats and mouldings to work with the image. But first we need to determine what type of photo (color RC, B/W fiber-based, Ilfochrome Classic) only then have we truly defined what the project is. This helps determine what supplies are required, but still more evaluation is needed.


The creativity stage immediately follows defining the project and is when framer imagination kicks in. Will the framed presentation be traditional as an accent, or will it be the full focal point of the room? Is it to be understated or outspoken? What are the colors of the room, the styling, the period? This is the point when designing goes all the way, selling up, to the extreme. Remember if a triple mat is the desired end then at least a quadruple needs be shown to the customer. Consider deep bevels, fillets, wrapped mats, embossing, or stacked mouldings.


During analysis the limitations or rules are determined. This stage goes hand in hand with creativity and definition and should actually be actively and consciously considered during them. This is when time limitations, corporate budgets, or conservation requirements are brought into view. Is this photo a color RC that requires unbuffered materials; what is the required depth for a christening dress or bridal bouquet; or how is a pistol to be suspended in a shadowbox.


The actual production process is just that, execution of the designed project. The first three stages take place with the customer and front desk frame designer, the last two take place primarily in the back room. Sometimes the frame designer and production framer are the same person, sometimes not. If a project is well designed, the production stage is easy, if not this is when potential problems begin to show up.


During clarification the framing project is complete and ready to be reviewed. It could be appraised or critiqued as many as three times. First in the back work room at the completion of the project. This is when the piece is checked for glass smudges, fuzz or hairs in the it perfect? Second it is reviewed by the frame designer at the design counter who may verify the choice of colors or spacing used in his design. Third but no less important is when the framed design is finally presented to the customer for approval.

These five stages are rarely noted as individual stages, and are most often unconscious decisions. If during clarification in the front room the colors of the selected mat appear less than perfect or the moulding is slightly shallow for the number of mats perhaps additional design education is needed for the designer. In turn if the completed project consistently has fuzz or rough cut window openings perhaps the production framer could use a mat cutting brush up course.

Principles of Design

The principles or fundamentals of design are the sum of both the elements and factors. And it must be stressed that although all of them will be identified and discussed individually, no element or factor ever works alone. In order for there to be a truly unified design they must all meld into one cohesive well planned and perfectly executed presentation.

Elements and factors are individualized and categorized only for identification and analysis, in order to best understand them, their potential in framing, and their interaction with each other for a complete design. These principles are that same ones used by artists in the production of their artwork but they have been modified to translate into the world of picture framing. As an artist uses them to produce a masterpiece in pigment, so a framer will produce a masterpiece of framing design.

Elements of Framing Design

There are a number of individual elements that together comprise the whole of a well organized and controlled framing design. The elements are considered the psychological portion of a design. Those that an artist, designer, or framer has total control over. They are interpretive and the desire to use them in a particular way comes from within. This is often an unconscious knowledge, such as ' just knowing' when a particular moulding and mat combination 'looks right' or 'just works'. This is why designs created for the same art image may vary drastically when it comes to the layout and execution of framing. Individual framers all have individual tastes, and what works for one may never work for another.

The individual elements are line, color, texture, shape, intensity and space. These are the raw materials of any design equation which will be put together into a finished presentation. In framing these six elements are present in the appearance and visual feel of moulding, mat board, fabric, paint, pigment, decorative paper, deep bevels, fillets, glazing and artwork.

Factors of Framing Design

If the elements of design are the building blocks, I've already said the factors are the mortar that holds them together. These are integral to the use of the above elements. They are the physical organizers that hold the design together. Even if the perfect colors and textures have been selected to beautifully showcase a piece of art, if the balance or proportion of the presentation is off the design will not hold together, hence no unity.

As applied to framing the principles begin to be established as the initial questions are asked of the customer to help select the correct interpretive uses of the elements. These include noting artwork size, period styling, room placement, color, and decor. These facts all help establish the basic guidelines during the analysis portion of the original design process with the customer.

The basic factors are proportion, balance, emphasis, and rhythm. Although unity is considered a factor, when adapted into framing it works best to say if all of the elements and factors are implemented correctly for any given work of art or object, then unity will be achieved. Additional factors of style, scale, and placement are sometimes interchanged with the ones targeted here. They have not been dismissed but rather reestablished, and recognized under a different title. Style will be addressed as period when determining the correct direction to head during the definition/creativity stage; scale is taken care of under proportion; and placement is also known as emphasis.

Design Integrity (Unity)

The quality of a design that makes it a unique expression of its time, designer, or creator, is called its integrity. It is a quality or state of being complete, a whole, having unity. Understanding the advantages and limitations of selected materials to be used contributes to its integrity and effectiveness of design. In framing that includes knowing the predictability of mounting technique, characteristics of buffered boards, and what exactly the selected glazing may be expected to do.

Designer integrity, as a framer, comes from years of successful dynamic framing, from winning national competitions, or establishing a state-of-the-art facility that clients respect. It also stems from your desire to keep abreast of modern developments by knowing how best to enhance and protect artwork. Nonglare glass on a deep shadowbox would not be the best glazing choice. Reading trade publications, attending workshops, distributor open houses, and trade shows all add to framer knowledge and integrity.


In December I wrote an editorial about the freedoms and limitations of framing design with respect to the artist and his work. This month I embarked on a two year series of bimonthly articles (every other month) on just that topic. As a successful frame designer andartist I will be talking from both sides of the fence. Knowing what the design limitations are can be is every bit as vital to a successful design as knowing how to cut a mat or miter a frame.

Never invading the artist's space or extending their image beyond artist boundaries when preservationally designing is vital. Decorative framing is altogether another issue. As framers, we are enlisted to create an environment to house a piece of artwork, photo, or object collectible. As designers we must work to visually enhance, showcase, and work in a unified manner with the art, but never detract or draw the eye away from it.

Copyright © 2000 Chris A Paschke

For more articles on mounting basics look under the mounting section in Articles by Subject.
Additional information on all types of mounting is found in:
The Mounting and Laminating Handbook, Second Edition, 2002,
The Mounting And Laminating Handbook, Third Edition, 2008 and
Creative Mounting, Wrapping, And Laminating, 2000 will teach you everything you need to know about getting the most from your dry mount equipment and materials as an innovative frame designer.

All books are available from Designs Ink Publishing through this website.

Chris A Paschke, CPF GCF
Designs Ink
Designs Ink Publishing
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