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Japanese Design Concepts

 The design process can seem mysterious and overwhelming. How do we get from creative vision to finished design? It is one thing to have the idea in your head, another to get it successfully down on paper and then translated into cloth.

Everyone develops their own design style and there isn't a right or wrong way to approach designing. However, there are some rules of thumb and artistic principles that can help you along the way.

All effective art use the elements of line, direction, shape, color, value, texture, proportion and scale. If we consider each of these, we can strengthen our design and avoid some design pitfalls. We want a unified design with balance and focus. However, we don't want to be locked into design or color theory either and inhibit our creative energy. It is a right and left brain balance.

Remember, rules are meant to be broken!

Designing Line and Direction

Every design starts with a line.. Defining your line style will help your design. If a design pops into your head, grab paper and pencil and do a quick thumbnail sketch. Often these thumbnails are the kernel of your design. It is fun to go back after you have finished your quilt to see how close it represents your original thumbnail.

Line defines shape, promotes direction, movement and can create perspective.

Line can be well defined, blurred, implied, partially hidden. Usually line partners with other elements to create a design. Color often acts as the primary element to move the line in a direction.

Sashiko is a dashed line that can outline intricate shapes whether they are geometric, stylized or representing realistic foliage with perspective. Sashiko can be worked in one color, white is traditional, but a whole world of possibilities are open when using colored or variegated threads.

5 line groups:

  •  vertical
  • horizontal
  • diagonal
  • closed curve
  • open curve


Line with Vertical direction

  • Vertical line is the king of linear strength. If you want a powerful design use this!

Horizontal direction

  • good for landscapes, naturally calming and restful.
  • Vertical objects presented horizontally across the design surface usually call for a horizontal setting.

Diagonal and Oblique lines

  • Create visual excitement, intrigue and movement.
  • The line's angle can vary, but the result is the same-the line moves the eye through the design's surface.
  • Diagonal line can be dramatic and subtle.

Closed curves

  • Circular designs are controlled and well balanced. They are most comfortable in a square setting.


Open curves

  • The most free spirited of all line styles


If you include two or more different line styles in one design, one should be visually dominant. Use the secondary line to increase interest and add contrast.


Selecting your design's best format

The decision to place your design in a horizontal, vertical or square format depends on your design's direction of line . Select your design's format to reflect its overall linear direction.

Rule of thumb: Asymmetrical designs are hard to place within a square.



Line supplies your design with its foundation, shapes provide the means to create your design.. Most shapes fall into four categories:

  • representational
  • geometric
  • organic open-curve lines
  • nonobjective

Define your Design Style

Realistic: Must accurately represent the imagery and you cannot guess at the shapes. Work with photographs.

Impressionistic: Gives an impression or suggestion of the image instead of accurate realism.
Geometric shapes are the workhorses of quilt design
Nonobjective Abstract designs are usually more ambiguous than impressionistic ones . Shapes from every category can be used , abstracted, rearranged. reshaped, partially hidden, skewed, stretched compacted, cut apart, partially omitted, and repositioned.

An abstract design should give your viewer enough visual cues to allow them to interpret the design.

Cultural art tells a visual story based on the traditions of a specific country.



Take a photo and print it out 6-8 times.

To create an impressionistic image, cut the design apart and put it back together to create the impression of the original shape. Use the other copies as overlays and use colored pencils or pens.

To create an abstract: Cut or break apart the image, as if it were a puzzle. you can cut it into strips, geometric shapes, organic shapes. Create a design, playing abstractly with the pieces.


The challenge of asymmetry is to create balance and movement. Repeating an object or shape across the design surface creates unity and will carry the viewers eyes through the design.

Visual weight can be manipulated by changing color and value, varying sizes of shapes, varying detail and complexity of shapes, varying the number of shapes. Usually Light objects and dark colors are placed in the design's lower section, lighter in the upper. However this rule can be effectively be broken!

 Uneven number rule

 Placing objects in 1,3, 5 etc. creates movement and also give your eyes a place to rest rather than an even group of objects with no focal point.

 To determine balance:

 1. Divide your design in half with an imaginary vertical center line. Is there enough interest on both sides of the line to draw your eyes across the vertical line at least once? Visual weight should be on left side as well as the right side.

2. Draw an imaginary horizontal line to see how each quadrant is holding its own weight. If a quadrant has considerable open space, but little interest, think about graduating values or colors to create interest needed for the ye to visit that quadrant.


If a quadrant doesn't have enough visual interest, consider changing the scale o f the overall design. Scale is the total design surface and how the components fit into the space provided. Scale can make the difference between a beautiful design and a uncomfortable one. If a design is too tight in its boundaries or overwhelmed by the space that surrounds it, the scale is wrong.

When doing sashiko or appliqué, it always pays to allow much larger background measurements so you can adjust them ; you can always cut fabric away!

Selecting your design's ratio:

I tend to choose my design's ratio as the design progresses, but there is a more scientific and accurate way to do it.

First, observe your design's directional flow and focus.

1:1 ratio the square. Perfect for radiating symmetry

1:2, 1:3 1:4 three ratios For elongated designs

Golden Mean: It is believed that the most beautiful pleasing dimension for art and architecture is based on a ratio of 8:13. I f your design has good directional movement and doesn't need to be exaggerated, the golden mean ratio can enhance you design.

Making the design surface smaller or larger (changing the scale) can be a simple solution to a design problem. Changing the dimensional ratio can work wonders too.

Exercise: Cut paper borders to manipulate around a design using photographs and observe how different ratios change the design.


The area you want your eyes to gravitate to first should be the most defined area of your design. Focus is established by differentiating the featured shape from its setting. by size, different color, shape, texture, and value. If the focus is too similar to its surroundings, in color or value, our eyes won't see it.

Focus structure

Rule of thirds is an easy way to find a focus range.

Divide your design into thirds, horizontally and vertically. Four intersecting points appear. Place your featured focus in the vicinity of the most appropriate intersecting point.

Different structures:

  • Circular
  • Triangular Very effective; vary the angles of the triangle to accommodate your design
  • L structure provides great movement
  • Horizontal/vertical structure


 The purpose of a border is to provide visual closure for your quilt, however, it is not essential to have borders! Design elements that go over the edge of the quilt offers visual excitement; this is particularly relevant in Japanese asymmetrical designs. Having parts of your design flow into the border brings added interest, extends the design surface, and is visually intriguing.

Faced quilts eliminate a binding that adds another framed design element to the quilt. .

A plain border using the quilt's main color is a safe bet.

The border should include only colors, values and shapes from the design. Any new idea will attract the eye and may take away from the focus of the quilt itself.

Avoid out of proportion borders .


 Choosing colors is one of the most exciting aspects of quilt design. The color values in a design affect us more than the subject matter. Color can make the same design appear flat, bold, delicate, mysterious, or straightforward. It isn't necessary to delve deep into theory to use color effectively in your quilts, especially if you are an intuitive designer .If you are less than confident in your color choices, a few basic concepts can help get you started.

  • Take color schemes from the world around you. Study landscapes, photographs, greeting cards, botanical gardens or your garden out the back door.
  • You don't have to love or use every color, but colors need to work well together.
  • audition colors from a distance to see if they read well.
  • If your quilt is lifeless, it probably doesn't have enough contrast add a color that is lighter or darker
  • Select one color scale (pure, tint, shade or tone) to be visually dominant in your design. All four color scales can be included, but one should dominate.
  • Always select colors that you really like for your design's major feature; then choose companion colors.
  • Warm colors advance visually while cool colors recede.
  • High contrast black white and pure colors create luminosity and energy in you design
  • To make a color appear brighter, surround it with shades and tones

 The ultimate source for color is nature and every color in the world can be placed in four groups or color scales that correspond to the four seasons.

  • pure color (summer and tropics)
  • tints( spring)
  • shades ( autumn)
  • tones (winter).

Each color scale has its own personality and use in design.

 Pure colors include primary colors and all colors are created by blending any two primary colors. They have not been diluted in any way and are as brilliant as they can possibly be. It is often best to use pure color in small amounts so that it doesn't overwhelm the design.

Complementary colors

Colors that lie opposite each other on the color wheel are especially beautiful together. However, one complementary color family should be visually dominant. If both colors have equal weight, it gives the viewers eyes no place to rest.

Analogous colors

These are closely related colors that create beautiful visual harmony and are often the basis for realistic floral appliqué design.

For best results, use 3, 5 or 7 analogous colors. In analogous color schemes, vary the color values and hues

Split- complementary color

Combines analogous and complimentary color plans. One color dominates with a small complimentary color shift that can add sparkle.

Triadic Color

This color plan is seen in the vibrant tropical flower and birds. The triadic plan uses 3 colors that are equal distance from each other on the color wheel. Choose one color family to be dominant, another secondary, and the third minor. Some samples of triadic combinations:

  • Yellow, cyan, magenta
  • Chartreuse, cerulean blue, blue-red
  • yellow-green, blue ,red
  • green violet, orange
A few design concepts can help you on your way to creating a unique innovative quilt. Have Fun!