Skip to content

The Elements and Principles of Three-Dimensional Design

November 12, 2013

The Elements and Principles of Three-Dimensional Design



v. to mark out, to plan, purpose, intend…

n. a plan conceived in the mind, of something to be done…

n. adaptation of means to end…

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary



Elements of 3-D Design


Space:  distance, area, volume; physical space independent of what occupies it; absolute space.


Line:  the edge or outline of a form, the meeting of planes; linear materials include: wire, wood, metal rod, string or any materials with a long thin shape.


Plane:  a flat or level surface –– planar materials include foam core, cardboard, sheet metal, plastic sheets, and plywood.


Mass/ Volume: closed, independent, three dimensional form ––interpenetrable, completely surrounded by space –– volumetric materials include blocks of plaster, wood or stone.  Sometimes mass refers to a positive solid and volume refers to a negative, open space surrounded by material, as in a bowl or other vessel.


Shape: positive and negative:  positive shape is the totality of the mass lying between its contours; in three-dimensional work, the visible shape or outer limit of a form changes as the viewer’s position is changed.  These outer limits are seen as shapes moving back and forth between major contours.  Negative space is empty space defined by positive shape.  Sometimes referred to as occupied and unoccupied space.


Value:  light and shadows on the surface of forms; quantity of light actually reflected by an object’s surface; value changes might be affected by the addition of color to the surface of a work.


Texture: the surface quality of a form –– rough, smooth, weathered and so on.


Color: in 3D design, the actual color of the material  being used.



Principles of 3-D Design


Harmony:  resolution of forces in opposition.


Contrast/ Variety:  different qualities or characteristics in a form; interest generated in a work by using a variety of shapes, forms, textures and so on.


Rhythm/ Repetition:  rhythm is the result of repetition; three rhythmic devices include:

1) the duplication of the same form

2) two forms used alternately; and

3)  the sequential change of a form (large to small, for example.)


Emphasis:   something in the work must dominate. A high point or climax occurring in the work, or the domination of a motif  or design element.


Continuity:  organized movement or rhythm (repetition, alteration and progression).


Balance:  ordered relationship of parts. whether symmetrical or asymmetrical; equilibrium.


          Symmetrical Balance: equal visual units right and left/ top to bottom of an imaginary center point.


         Asymmetrical Balance:  visual balance achieved by dissimilar visual units; for example, two or three small shapes on the right balancing one larger shape on the left.


Proportion: elements compared, one to another, in terms of their properties of size, quantity, and degree of emphasis.




Methods For Creating Three-Dimensional Forms


The four basic methods for creating three dimensional forms are as follows:


Subtraction:   the old cliché of the sculptor seeing his “ideal form” within a rock (or other mass of material) and carving or chipping away at the excess until he finds it, or “frees” it (in critic Rosalind Krauss’s words, “releas[ing] the sculptural object like surgeons assisting a birth.”)


Manipulation:  modeling malleable materials such as clay.


Addition: a sculptural method in which form is created by building up materials. This method encompasses many contemporary materials and techniques, such as the assemblage of objects from wood, metal, plastics, adhesives, fasteners, etc.  Objects which use techniques derived from the world of furniture construction and carpentry are included in this category, as are objects welded or riveted together, or made from found materials.


Substitution:  the creation of a duplicate of an object (either found or made) by making a mold of that object and casting another material into the mold to make the replica.




Vocabulary Commonly Used When Describing 3-D Design


Abstract:  (adjective) referring to art that simplifies, emphasizes, or distorts qualities of a real-life image rather than art that tries to represent its surface details accurately.  In some cases, the intent is to present the essence of an object rather than its outer form.


Abstract: (verb) to simplify, emphasize or distort qualities of a real-life image.


Amorphous: having a shape without clarity of definition/ formless, indistinct, and of uncertain dimension.


Anthropomorphic: Having qualities reminiscent of the human form; referring, however remotely, to the human form or human gestures.


Articulated: attached with a flexible or movable joint, as in the digits of a finger.


Assemblage:  a work generated from a variety of objects and/or forms originally intended for other purposes.


Attenuate: make thinner, more slender (e.g. Giacometti’s human figures are attenuated.)


Axis:  a line, real or imagined, around which the material that composes an object appears to be organized.


Cantilever:  a structural member, as in architecture, projecting from an upright, and unsupported at the opposite end.


Casting: a sculptural technique in which liquid materials are shaped by being poured into a mold.


Composition:  an ordered relationship among parts or elements of a design.


Concave:  a negative area in a plane or surface, a scooped out or indented form or area.


Content:  the substance of a work of art, including its emotional, intellectual, symbolic, thematic, and narrative connotations.


Contour: the outline of an object


Convex:  a protrusion, or outwardly pushing form like a nipple or breast.


Craftsmanship:  aptitude, skill, or quality workmanship in use of tools and materials.


Disparate:  separate, distinct, dissimilar (often applied to objects or elements placed together in a composition).


Dominant:  refers to elements in a composition; the dominant volume is the largest element in a group, the most interesting and dramatic in character.


Elegant:  with respect to design (or mathematics): ingeniously simple and effective, free of extraneous detail.


Elevation:  in orthographic projection, the front, back, and side views of an object or architectural structure.


Fabrication:  the action or process of manufacturing or constructing something.


Form: The organization or arrangement of all the visual elements which develop a unity in the total work of art; the totality of a work of art.


Found object:  any object incorporated into a piece of art but not actually “made” by the artist (e.g. Duchamp’s urinal— a thing from the “real” world transformed into a piece of art by the artist’s declaring it as art and placing it in a museum.)


Frontal/ frontality:  composition of volumes entirely from the front view.


Gesture:  a sense of direction or movement suggested by the arrangement of elements in a work of art


Geometric:  mechanical, human -made shapes (square, circle, triangle,) with regular edges.


In-the-round: the allusion to tri-dimensionality


Joinery: the system which connects two or more parts of a thing; usually refers to connections between pieces of wood.


Juxtaposition:  placement side by side; relationship of two or more elements. in a composition.


Kinetic:  construction that contains moving elements set in motion by air, motors or gravity.


Linear:  involving or consisting of lines, looking like a line, narrow and elongated.


Malleable, malleability:  the capability of being molded, taking shape or being made to receive desired form.


Maquette: a small, scale model for a work intended to be enlarged.


Medium, media (pl): The material(s) and tool(s) used by the artist to create the visual elements perceived by the viewer.


Minimal:  in art, characterized by the use of simple or primary forms, structures, etc., often geometric and massive.


Modular:  involving the systematic use of a single unit of design, repeated and varied in position, angle, or combinations creating larger forms or units.


Object: anything that is visible or tangible and stable in form. A thing.


Organic:  free forms representing living things that have irregular edges.  Also, biomorphic.


Perforated:  pierced with a hole or holes (like Swiss cheese, for example.)


Planar: made of, or dealing with, planes (as opposed to lines or volumes.)


Platonic solids:  each of the five regular polyhedra (tetrahedron, cube,  octahedron, dodecahedron, icosahedron).


Polyhedron:  a solid figure or object with many (usually more than six) plane faces.


Radial:  compositions that have the major images or design parts emanating from a central location.


Relief:  sculpture in which forms project from a background, usually mounted on a wall.  It is classified according to the degree to which it is raised from the surface: high relief, forms moving out from the surface; low relief, forms remaining close to the surface.


Representational: presenting a subject (a person or object) in such a way that the viewer is reminded of “real” people or objects.


Scale:  the relationship between the size of an object and the size of its surroundings.


Sculpture: the art of expressive shaping of three-dimensional materials.


Serial:  things in succession or installment, which vary from one another but belong together through form or content.


Subdominant, subordinate:  refers to the  “lesser” elements which complement or support the role of the “dominant” element in a composition.


Style:  the specific artistic character and dominant trends of form noted during periods of history and art movements.  Style may also refer to artists’ expressive use of media to give their works individual character.


Stylization:  The simplification of a form to emphasize its design qualities.  Also, referring to remembered “representations” of an object as opposed to what is actually present.


Symbol: something used for or regarded as representing something else, as in signs, emblems or tokens.


Tactile:  perceptible to toch; that which is tangible.


Three-dimensional: having height, width, and depth; a thing existing in space


Translucent:  allowing light to pass through, but not defined objects.


Transparent: a form or plane which can be seen through, such as glass.


Void: a hollow, concavity, or unoccupied space within a solid object or mass.


Comments are closed.