Design Demystified: Circles

This is the third in a new series which covers the exploration and application of design elements and principles. Each column will cover one basic design element and/or principle, and will contain descriptions, examples, tools and techniques, and exercises that can be used for art journaling, photography, collage, book arts and other creative disciplines.


It is one of my favorite shapes and the easiest one to create. I remember the middle school days when I was solving mathematical problems that involve the circumferences, areas, and volumes of objects like pies and cylinders. And I remember using Venn diagrams that use circles to representing sets – I was taking a college level discrete mathematics course that includes set theory. Despite the academic overtones of my past experiences with circles, I was enthralled & fascinated with their visual beauty. After many years of drawing & sketching, I have found that flat circles were easier to draw than circles in perspective. In college as an industrial design major, I learned how to draw correctly the top and bottom of any circular drinking glass using ovals, however, in this column, let’s focus mainly on circles. Before we start a scavenger hunt for examples of the circles and their parts out in the physical world, let’s define what a circle is from my own perspective, visually speaking.

Even though I love mathematics, I don’t want to get technical with the precise & academic definition of a circle. Instead, I like to think of a circle as a “straight” line bent around an imaginary center point with its ends that touch each other, forming a “hole”.  Even though both the spirals and circles shared the same curved property, I have excluded the spirals from this category. The terms “circle” and “round” are often used interchangeably to describe the same shape or area, but for the sake of simplicity, I like to think of round as a flat, solid circular shape. Spheres are also round and circle, but to me they represent to me more of a volume (3D) than a shape (2D), but when one cuts a sphere straight through, one would get a circular shape.  I have created a diagram shown below which reflects my current visual thinking. Although this diagram is not technically, mathematically or academically correct, it does help keep my own visual language simple.

01 CircleRoundSphere

As shown below, I have come up with these four circular images in increasing thickness to make them represent various objects in three different sizes each.

02 Circles

For me, the first image on the far left (1) reminds me of the following items: jump rings (small), juggling rings (medium), and hula hoop (large). The second one (2) looks like rubber rings (small), sewing hoops (medium), or bicycle tire tube (large). The third one (3) gives impressions of a washer (small), a juggling ring (medium), and a truck tire tube (large). The last one (4) reminds me of flat sequin (small), clock face (medium), and record (large).  The above diagram alone would make an excellent exercise in making your observational or visual thinking skill stronger.

The same element can be used to represent various images by creating a group of circles of same or varying size. I have provided a few examples to illustrate my point.
03 Groups of Circles

The first one utilizes concentric circles to mimic the ripple effect on the water surface. The second one utilizes circles of varying sizes and touching each other to create soap bubble or foam effect. The third one utilizes overlapping circles of same size – using the similar arrangements often used in color theory or color mixing books. There are many different ways of arranging the circles, and the above three examples only show a few of numerous possibilities.

Hunt for the Circle

Let’s start our scavenger hunt in our own homes and see which objects fit in the circle category. Inside of my own house, I find grommets, washers, sink drains, containers, onion rings, knobs, keyholes, cans, combination locks, bowls, cups, plates, candle rings, flashlights, shower heads, dart board, and game board spins.

04 Examples Group A

 1. Foldable ladder. 2. Sketchbook ring binder.  3. Grommet on a tarp

4. Flashlight.


Let’s go outside to our yard, into the woods, or to a city park where we can find above ground swimming pools, floating tubes, drain pipes, waste receptacles, benches, wheelbarrows, lawn mowers, trimmers, sprinklers, and discarded bottles or cans. And further out in the automotive world, we find fire hydrants, traffic circles or roundabouts, wheels, knobs (in our cars & trucks), round signs, manholes, traffic lights and cones.

05 Examples Group B

1. Receptacle for recyclables. 2. Fire hydrant. 3. Drainpipe.

4. Metal plate glued on the concrete curb.


On a personal level, accessories and possessions that may be found in our pockets or pocketbooks include coins, facial powder containers, pens, pencils, breath refreshers (the ones with holes), and key rings to name a few.

In the art journaling & mixed media world, freehand drawn circles are often used to represent, emphasize, highlight, or focus on some specific elements. I have used them in my journal pages, as you will see a few examples in the exercise section below.

In various printed media (magazines, advertising, packaging, newspapers – both printed and electronic), logos are frequently found as rounds or circles depending on the services or products that the companies provide. Typographically speaking, we often find circles in our Roman or Latin alphabets and numbers.

Bases on my own personal observations, I find that, generally, circles are likely to be found more readily in the urban & suburban environment than in natural environment.

Visual Explorations

Now that we have seen many examples of the circles found in our physical or natural world, let’s go back to our homes or studios, and start using the exercises provided.

Listed below are the several suggestions for your visual exploration projects. Depending on the exercise selected, gather your favorite mark-making tools or camera, and your favorite digital photo-editing software.

Photography & digital processing:  backgrounds for collage/mixed media

Technique #1: With notepaper in hand, walk through your home, studio or any physical environment, and write a list of any objects that fit in the circle/round category. Using your favorite word-processing software and font, type up several rows of objects listed on the paper that you wrote. Or you can use your handwriting and create rows of words.  This makes an interesting theme-based background for your artwork.

06 List of circle related words

Technique #2:  Gather several round objects (either similar or different), and use them as a cover or background for your projects. In the example below, I happened to have a jar of washers, and I just dumped it onto a board and took a photo of it. I then uploaded the photo to my laptop and processed it in my photo-editing software. I then printed it out on a laser printer and adhered it to the cover of a board book. It makes an excellent reference book for my own projects.

07 Washer cover

Art Journaling

In my journal pages shown below, I have utilized three techniques: circles drawn freehand (left), concentric circles painted (center), and bubbles drawn with stencil improvised from laundry basket (right).

08 Art Journal Pages

Technique #1: In your existing journal pages (or create new ones): draw several circles freehand over the written text, and then fill in some of the circles with lines, additional text, or semi-transparent paint. This technique provides some privacy for your personal writings. See example on the left of the photo below.

Technique #2: With a paint brush and any fluid medium in various colors, paint concentric circles as a background.  See example in the middle of the photo above.

Technique #3: Create a makeshift stencil by cutting one side off a plastic laundry basket or storage container with holes of varying sizes. Use any markers to draw the circles in various colors to create a bubbling effect for the background.  See example on the right of the photo above.

I hope you have enjoyed the visual journey & exercises, and I also hope that I have provided you with enough examples to give you a good jumpstart in creating your own personal collection of circles.


Andrew Borloz_200Andrew Borloz

If you’d like to learn a thing or two from Andrew in person, check out his Experimental Pochoir and Printing class at Art Is You in Stamford, CT this October.

Ever since when Andrew Borloz was a kid, he has been exploring and hunting for color, texture and design wherever he goes. After his training in industrial design at University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, in computer science at Montclair State College in New Jersey, and in book arts at Center for Book Arts in New York City, he has developed a lifetime collection of creative works from the various creative disciplines such as fine art, origami, mixed media, exhibit design, product design, book arts, letterpress printing and printmaking. Over the past several years he has attended various mixed media retreats such as Art-Is You Retreats, Squam-Art-Workshops, Artiscape, ArtFest, Art Unravelled, and Creative Palette. He is currently self-employed as an artist/designer/instructor, and is currently involved in stencil design and book arts projects.

32845_120px_72dpi(2)For more about design elements, try Design Basics Index by Jim Krause.






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