Intuitive design connects with the viewer

By Shane Durnford

Posted on Thursday, June 9th, 2022

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“Design is intuitive, but intuition follows natural laws. To design intuitively is not to lose control but to guide unconsciously.” Jonathan Hale, The Old Way of Seeing

“Nature is the model, variable and infinite, which contains all styles.” Auguste Rodin

The primary goal of sign design is to connect with the viewer. But given the array of advanced technology available to designers, we sometimes wonder if our communication is becoming more effective or not.

Is the public more receptive, or have they collectively reached saturation? To be noticed, we go bigger, much bigger, brighter, louder or racier. Does this help us get through to them? How do we engage an increasingly disconnected audience? Have we clearly relayed the message we’ve been paid to send? It may be a mass market, but the designer remembers that we can still only connect with one person at a time. We do this through intuitive design using proportion and storytelling.

Learn to use intuitive design

We can all design intuitively if we remove our self-consciousness and let the design process happen. One exercise in intuitive design is sketching—pick up your pencil and start designing by sketching. Now you are one unit: mind and body. As you sketch things by hand, you naturally keep proportions and arrangements within the order of nature. The motion that is created by movement between our elbow and wrist in flourishes and shapes is natural.

We all resonate with patterns that are the natural shapes—the shapes of our own bodies and the shapes of plants and animals around us. The egg, seed and fish are the shapes of life and flowing energy. The goal of design is to express life and our connection with it.

Good design is the play of patterns derived from nature, and we are a part of that. The principle of intuitive design is to be aware of these connections. Good design reflects the naturally occurring proportions of nature. Intellect calculates effect, whereas intuition organizes shapes.

Intuition makes contact with nature, without sentimentality or understanding, without praise or worry. If a design makes us light up, it isn’t because we see order—a row of cabinets has order—what we recognize are the patterns of the natural world.

Why is this important? Design that has these qualities makes people feel connected instantly. Subconsciously, the viewers instantly recognize themselves in the design, and that makes them feel they belong. This is a powerful marketing tool and, from a sign maker’s perspective, a great selling point.

Once you’ve sketched out your design by hand, it’s okay to bring in the machines. If you design on a computer, you lose that mind/body connection and the element of natural body movement that becomes part of a hand-rendered sketch. You also lose the possibility of happy coincidences or intuitive accidents.

Some Japanese car manufacturers use the ancient art of Japanese calligraphy to design car forms. The distance from the elbow to the wrist to the hand and how the brush interacts with that—there is a particularly human quality to that. The more you bring in the human body, the more you connect. Go and sit in a Toyota and you’ll see what I mean. It fits. It feels good to sit in there, and we resonate with that.

Proportion is critical

Cities overwhelm us and make us feel small. The scale of buildings is beyond our human scale. They dwarf us. The result of living out of scale is that we become disconnected. People are trying to escape cities by flocking to small towns—if only for a day or a weekend. Whether or not they understand it consciously, they are largely drawn by the scale of these places. The movement out of the city brings us closer to nature. We connect with nature because we are a part of that picture.

Outside of big cities, people connect with the proportions of the buildings, and the slower pace of life. In older towns and villages, the buildings were designed intuitively and are thus composed of arrangements that are proportionate to the human form. They resonate with us because of this.

Designer as storyteller

Just as the recognition of proportion is innate in all of us, there are symbols that are tied to knowledge, history and emotions. Storytelling runs through every culture. It uses symbols and archetypal images that are based on our collective history/knowledge. The power of storytelling is staggering. Stories engage us deep within, much in the way that we intuitively resonate with proportion.

Our job as a designer is to be a storyteller. We tell everyone’s story, whether it’s an historical monument sign or a sign for a cafe that makes the best cheesecake. As communicators, our sign designs have to project these stories in a distilled, clean manner so that viewers understand the story at a glance. Any element of a design that is not serving a purpose becomes clutter. The more clutter, the less clear the story.

One of the tools of storytelling is archetypes. In psychoanalysis, archetypes are a primitive mental image inherited from our earliest human ancestors and are believed to be present in the collective unconscious. I used the archetypal image of the fish in the sign for Mad & Noisy Gallery.

When you look at the gallery sign you see the colors, the carving, the fish—but that is not what resonates with you. It’s the combination of intuitive design and storytelling, and how they interact and harmonize.

A case study: The Mad & Noisy Gallery

This art gallery represents a group of artists running a not-for-profit endeavor whose common thread is the influence of nature and the surrounding environment. The gallery’s name, in fact, refers to the confluence of two nearby rivers. It is a supportive environment created to nurture artists and add art to the life of the community. The gallery is situated in a demographic of upper income, middle-aged professionals.

After meeting with the artists, it became clear that the gallery needed more than just a sign—it needed an identity that would represent the work, environment, influences and cooperative efforts of the artists. Locals understood the double entendre of the gallery’s name, so the sign needed to retain the playfulness and soften it in a way that would connect it back to the gentle flow of nature. The final piece would have to strike a balance between art and an effective sign.

How we told their story in their sign

Water is particularly relevant to this design—after all, the gallery is named after two nearby rivers. Showing the water as flowing and layered represents the different individual artists coming together collectively and flowing as one constantly renewing source, echoing the change and flow of creativity.

The fish adds the element of an ecosystem, which infers balance and harmony, mirroring the supportive ecosystem of the gallery. There is a certain conservative appeal to address the market. The layout uses a conservative sign shape, a classic Roman typestyle (which, by the way, was designed to human proportions) and a quiet background color.

The natural and deep colors are contemplative and introspective. The sign clearly speaks to art through its interpretive sculptural quality, loose flowing lines and color interpretation. The colors go from warm to cold, symbolizing the life and death of a river’s ecosystem. This, in turn, is symbolic of the creative process. As a design it’s got nice contrast, with loose, asymmetrical water against a symmetrical sign shape and hanger.

Overall it’s very balanced. As in nature, a designer strives for balance. With a sign, if people look at it and feel good, they’re sold on the spot. They want to go in; they are compelled to go in. Their expectations have been set. This is the type of intrinsic value that makes an investment in a well-designed, well-executed sign beneficial.

A word on proportion: The sign must be fitted to the building. The size of the sign in relation to the building is very important. The height it’s installed at can also make or break it. If the designer gets this wrong, it shows. By fitting the sign to the building and installing it at the right height, the sign looks like it belongs. It feels right and gives the business an established, reputable image.

Over the years we have had people call, write or e-mail us to tell us about their strong emotional reactions to our signs. It’s not because the signs are glitzy, huge or have all the bells and whistles. It’s not about technique at all. It’s because people have made a visceral connection to what they’ve seen. I believe that by doing this we make people feel a little less disconnected from the world around them.

You can see more of Shane Durnford’s work at Jayce Fox Studios.

This appeared in the January/February 2008 issue of SignCraft.


The three layers of 2-in., 18-lb. high-density urethane [HDU] board  were cut to shape on a bandsaw, then laminated using West System epoxy.

Once the glue was dry, the material was attached to an easel and rough-shaped using a variety of tools: an Arbortech wheel on a hand grinder, which is a great tool for hogging out HDU and wood, a belt sander and large flexible rasps.

The guidelines were drawn on the panel, then carved with a chisel and knife and finish-shaped with rasps and sandpaper. The challenge was to keep all of the lines flowing smoothly. Next, the fish was carved and the stepped lines of the water were added.

The separate carved panels, one for each side, were then laminated to the main sign body. Two rough end pieces were added to fill the gap of the overhang, then shaped.

Once the carving was complete, the project moved into another room to get two coats of primer and three coats of acrylic latex paint, applied with a roller and brush.

The sign is now ready for the top cap and projecting flat-cut metal letters. Once the 5⁄8-in. notched metal rods for the hanger were epoxied into 3⁄4-in. holes drilled 10-in. into the body, the sign was ready for installation.

Sized in proportion and set at the same height as the existing fascia, the sign was designed to harmonize with the building itself. The overall dimensions of the 14-in.-thick sign are 68-by-30-in. The sign hanger was designed to be simple, strong and in keeping with the building. It’s a good idea to design a sign hanger at the same time as the sign itself, so it is an integral part of the overall design.

The dark neutral colors of the sign body and hanger also provided contrast for the more vibrant and intense colors of the image to play against. The gold and silver metal letters maintain an earthy and elemental feeling. The two tones help break the text up and differentiate the word “Gallery.”