Real-world abstraction

Real-world deconstruction is the process of separating the visual components that are perceived by an individual whilst they are focused on part of their environment. The separation involves defining the smallest visual graphemes. Graphemes are normally associated with language and are considered the smallest unit within a given language. In the context of industrial design, a visual grapheme is the smallest visual element that may carry meaning for a defined viewer.

Visual graphemes provide the coding (visual building blocks) from which a designer can construct meaning within their product or service. The coding is delivered via the mechanism of visual perception. Branding is one of the main areas where designers apply cultural coding to images, objects and associated services.

Artists have used this process for many centuries to help codify and interpret the world, leading to abstraction. Abstraction from the real world has been most notably used by Piet Mondiran and Theo van Doesburg as part of their theories of ‘plastic art’ and ‘Neo-plasticism’. Mondrian and van Doesburg were looking to find ‘absolute oppositions’ or ‘signifiers’ through horizontal and vertical planes, leading to van Doesburg’s ‘Elementarism’. However, Jacques Derrida suggests that there are no universal references or ‘signifiers’, but that everything is referenced to everything else.

There are more recent artists who have followed abstraction through to abstract expressionism. These artists include William de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock. Many of these abstract expressionist artists imply movement through their work.

For the purpose of commercial industrial design, the process of abstraction or visual deconstruction involves identifying the smallest visual grapheme that delivers meaning or coding to the target viewer, within their social and cultural context or environment.


  1. Define your market or target viewer who will experience your visual stimulus.
  2. Define keyword, series of keywords or a short description of what message or coding is to be delivered to the target viewer via the object or image to be designed.
  3. Use your past experience of the keyword; target user and their social context to collect images that appear to have a visual coding embed within it that matches the keyword.
  4. Define visual graphemes (lines, shapes, colour, and texture) within the visuals or objects that deliver the required coding for the defined keyword or short description. Many visual graphemes will be identified through the mechanism of foreground-background visual perception. Use highlighting to define visual graphemes within your reference material. This may be through a different colour or heavier line weight on an illustration /photograph; or, sketch of a section of a three-dimensional object.
  5. From the defined visual graphemes filter out those that are ambiguous in meaning or already communicate
  6. Separate and collect the highlighted visual graphemes onto a single sheet. Tracing film or a more transparent sheet can be helpful when tracing through lines and shapes.
  7. Use these lines and shapes in different orientations and scale within the constraints of your defined product or service’s physical requirements. For example, constraining requirements may include: ergonomic optimum size and proportion of a chair, mechanical mechanisms, internal component size, magazine, television screen or advertising board.
  8. Combine the different visual graphemes to deliver meaning or a message to the target viewer.
  9. Review effectiveness of the communication through: Ranking, paired comparison, interview, observation, eye tracking, questionnaire, applying a mixed-methods approach where financially, resource or time viable. 
  10. Further communication of the logic of design decision-making and audit trail may be achieved using presentation boards. These provide a summary of your research and design and link your final solution to source material.

Useful links

Contemporisticon, Online resrouce, Available at: (, Accessed:[10/10/2015]

MoMALearning, Online resrouce, Available at: (, Accessed: [10/10/2015]

Torrens, G., Badni, K., Hurn, K., Storer, I.J., 2015. An introduction to the development of a product Brand: an evidence-based template for use with first year undergraduate industrial designers. Engineering Design Graphics Journal, 79(2), pp. 24 -45.Available at: (, Accessed: [21/01/2021]

Wilson, J. R., and E. N. Corlett. 1995. Evaluation of human work: A practical ergonomics methodology. 2nd ed. London: Taylor & Francis.