Design Demystified: Squares

A guest blog by Andrew Borloz

This is the fourth in a new series that 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.


I see this shape just about every day. There are squares in paper with grid lines that I often used in creating designs. Whenever I am folding with papers, I often use colored squares. And I see them every day in the bathroom, kitchen and public restrooms that have square tiles. Many of my shirts have squares – plaid, gingham, grids, or checks. And some of my dishware are checkered. In the wintertime I sometimes use one crocheted blanket for warmth – a humongous granny square.

Square is an interesting word with both negative and positive connotations. It has multiple definitions – many of them has nothing to do with the shape. One example – a square person is someone who is not cool.

Many draftsmen, architects, graphic artists, and engineers use T-square as a tool to draw straight lines.

A perfect square has four sides of equal length and four right angles (90 degrees). It is also a rectangle, a rhombus, and a parallelogram.

City or town squares are not always “square”. One of the definitions state that a square is a spot where people meet at the intersection of two streets. Like Times Square in NYC, for example. It has long “island” in the middle that is about 4 blocks long. Usually in other cities, a public square is an open plaza surrounded by shops & offices. Sometimes it’s a park filled with trees. Abingdon Square and Jackson Square are beautiful garden parks within one of NYC’s residential neighborhoods, but both of them are not shaped as squares – Abingdon is like an hour glass and Jackson is triangular. The street layout design in one of the city sections of Savannah, GA forms the green blocks surrounded by houses or buildings – they are really square or rectangular.

Let’s see what this shape looks like. It can be viewed as a solid shape (1), or drawn with lines alone (2). It can be subtle – the corners (3) and the dots (4) give you visual hints of this shape.

01 Squares - four examples

There are other ways that a square can be defined – either obviously or subtly. I have created a few examples shown below – the first one (1) was done with dotted lines, the next one (2) was done with lines of varying thickness and length, and the last one (3) with squares of varying sizes. The last one – if you look at carefully enough, you will see a large square in the middle. All of them are really squares – their sides are all of equal lengths.

02 Squares dot line solid

Construction of a Cube with Squares

One of my favorite polygons is a cube that has six squares. I often encountered this polygon in many of the wooden or plastic toy puzzles. Alphabet blocks are another example. I enjoy creating visual illusion of three-dimensional cubes on paper with stencils or on computer screen. Here’s how I create “cubes”:

03 cube construction

I converted three squares (1) into slanted parallelograms (2). I then arranged these three parallelograms in such a way that they give an appearance of a cube (3) – as long as all of them are different shades or colors. Otherwise, if all of them is of same color, you would give a hexagon instead.  But the funny thing is that whenever I see a hexagon, I think of a cube, and whenever I see a cube, I think of squares.

I also have created another visual illusion. The photo on the left side (1) below gives you an illusion of squares with shadows, or cubes with their topsides the same color as the background. If all you see is arrows or letter Ls, stare at them for a couple of seconds, and they may gradually emerge as squares or cubes.

04 pseudo cubes

The photo on the right side (2) above shows the origami model that I created with many pieces of square paper. What is interesting with this cubic model is that I had to use diagonal folds in order to create cubes. If you look at it, it looks like only the triangles are used, but the squares are actually folded diagonally in half to form the edges of the individual cubes.

Traffic Signs

Now, let’s look at the traffic signs that we see anytime we’re on the roads. White squares (top row in below photo) are usually used to indicate restrictions such as “No Right Turns”,  “Do Not Enter”, “No Crossings”, to name a few.

05 traffic signs

The yellow square, well, actually a diamond when turned 45 degrees.  It is used to give advance information about the roads (narrowing or slippery) or advance warning like pedestrian crossing or traffic lights ahead.

Let’s look at these two shapes on the left side – they’re both of the same size. But the bottom one (diamond) looks larger than the top one (white square). Its orientation allows many of the images fit in to be larger than in the white square.

Let’s also look at the stop sign below. I love this shape because I can see a small square inside of this octagon (1), or a larger square (2) with the corners cut off.

06 Stop Sign - two squares


Squares in the City

Let’s go to New York City to find a few examples. As we are walking on its sidewalks, we find that many of the trees have square areas covered with greens or metal grates. We also find that some of the steps in many of the subway stations have gridlines on the cast metal. These stations also have tiles with raised dots on the platforms to aid the visual-impaired subway riders. Some of them have station names spelled out in mostly square tiles. A good number of residential or office buildings have the square shape incorporated in the architectural elements such as façade, railings, and floorings – even the decorative elements are within the constraint of a square. Thick wooden doors that have square paneling or moldings that formed squares are found in many of the churches or old public buildings such as armory or library.

07 City ExamplesSuburban Squares

Let’s get out of the city and go into one of the suburban towns in its metropolitan area. Many of the driveways have paving blocks – one of the most common shapes is square. Even the sidewalks are paved with red bricks that were arranged in such a way they resembled square patterns. Some of the homes have lattice that covers the porch bottoms – either as diamonds or squares. A good number of properties are fenced with metal chain link type – some with webbings for privacy. Many of the windows in train stations, apartment buildings or houses have artificial panes that create illusion of square glass pieces. We can see that some of the storm drains have square holes, and the bases of many of the traffic light poles are often square.

08 Suburban Examples

In case you are wondering about that lower right corner photo above, it was a wooden timer used to track the tennis time in a former courts converted into parking lots.

Visual Explorations

Now that we have seen many examples of the squares found in the city or suburban, let’s get ourselves inspired to create our own designs or patterns.  Listed below are the several suggestions for your visual exploration projects.

Photo-hunting and Digital Quilting: 

I would like to encourage you to go outside and hunt for examples yourself. If for some reason, you are not able to do so, you can use your favorite search engines to find the images. Inspired by the patterns found on driveways, interior vinyl tiles, and sidewalks, I have digitally created my own pseudo-quilt design.

09 Paving patterns

10 Quilt-pavingsquares

With the photos or images selected by you, look at them and create your own design with photo-editing software. I pulled out some of the characteristics in the above three photos, and incorporated them in a grid pattern, and randomly selected some of the shapes to be colored.


1. One of the excellent ways of sharpening my pattern creation & digital processing skills is to create my own designs within a square tile, and then repeat it – either as is, flipped or rotated. Inspired by structures that I saw in the city (scaffolding, architectural elements, and streets), I created one tile (1), and then used four of the same to create another pattern (2). I decided to flip one tile in the last pattern to make it more visually interesting (3).


11 Repeating Square AAlternately, you can carve your own square stamps, and create the tiles in the same manner as above.

2. I have practiced origami for many years, and one of my favorite origami activity is to unfold any model, and see the crease patterns from the flattened out paper. Inspired by one of the many crease patterns, I came up with one tile (1), and used it repeatedly.

Go to your local bookstore and get yourself an origami book if you don’t have one. Fold one or two models, and then unfold to find a simple crease pattern that you can use to create one tile (1). I rotated the same tile three times using 90 degrees turns to create a larger tile (2). I also created another one (3) by flipping the large tile (2).

12 Repeating Square B

If you look at the first pattern (left side above) carefully, you will see pinwheels. That’s how they are created – with square paper and diagonal cuts. You’ll be amazed how big the impact a small tile can create as repetitions.

Stencil making and Stenciling

1. I love to look at the tiles (both ceramic and glass) in the subway stations while waiting for the train to arrive.  In the photo below, I have created my own stencil by cutting out the squares in various locations, and randomly stenciled squares on the paper with different colors to mimic the mosaic effect.


13 Subway Tile Stencil

Subway Tile Stencil

You can either create your own stencil by cutting these squares from Mylar or acetate film (I used stencil paper). Or you can instead order my stencil design (#L058) from Stencil Girl Products‘ website. With no more than three colors, randomly create a banner of tiles with acrylic paints or any medium of your choice. I usually make photocopies of the originals for making artist’s book pages as shown below.

14 Subway tiles

Subway tiles

2. Another interesting way to make stenciled squares is to use the shapes that are rectangular or L-shaped. Take a look at the stencil design (#L044) that I created for Stencil Girl Products that contains no squares, but you can create them by rotating and overlaying with several different colors to create the square tile effects.  This exercise will help you to see beyond the existing shapes to create other shapes. I have used only three colors in the below artwork that I created with one stencil (#L044).


15 Pseudo-squares


In the above stenciling section, you can see that I have created the squares in both obvious and subtle manners.

I hope you have enjoyed learning new ways of looking at or using this shape in your creative work.  I look forward to sharing with you on the next visual journey with another shape, a triangle.

Andrew Borloz

Read Andrew’s previous Design Demystified Blogs:




Mosaic Renaissance_160If you like working with squares, you might enjoy Mosaic Renaissance by Laurel Skye.







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