Poetry and design: how constraints can help us

Online friends may have noticed I’m taking part in Blogging 101. One task has been perplexing me, as I seemed to have so many constraints to overcome. Today I’ve been thinking of William Shakespeare and his sonnets – my benchmark comparison when creative constraints appear particularly challenging. It can’t be as hard as a sonnet, right?

Perhaps, in some peculiar way, constraints can help us to get something more right creatively, provided we actively embrace them. 

I remember pointing this out to an extremely talented young assistant brand manager to inspire her to persevere when she complained about constraints being imposed by a customer on some new product packaging. I remember the look she gave me too!

A sonnet is basically a poetic straightjacket. Shakespeare wrote 154 of them, including some of the best-loved English poems of every generation since they were published in 1609. Heard of ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’? You probably know it’s a sonnet even if you don’t really like poetry much. Either the greatest Renaissance poets just got a kick out of making things difficult for themselves, or they celebrated the constraints this fashionable art form gave them.

Sonnets all have fourteen lines. The length of the lines is fixed, as is the rhythm, technically called iambic – a light stress, followed by heavier stress, which creates a skipping effect. Hear this for yourself by saying ‘So long lives this, and this gives life to thee’.

Any variation from the rhythm should be there for a purpose, so it seems natural, not as if the poet couldn’t think of the right words and just wanted to get it over with so he could do a bit more work on Hamlet.

Shakespeare used a fixed rhyming scheme, ABABCDCDEFEFGG (line 1 rhymes with line 3 etc). That’s not quite as complex as it sounds, but it is another constraint. His lines are arranged into three sets of four (quatrains) followed by a couplet, which sums up the idea of the poem or provides another twist on it.

It’s a bit like waltzing: you have to take certain steps, but it doesn’t prevent you from appearing to dance freely – to float on air even, if you’re skilful enough, provided you accept the constraints.

So if we can make perfect poetry in a straightjacket, and appear to float going 1,2,3; 1,2,3… surely I could do a bit better with my header image? Compared to writing poetry or waltzing, this should be child’s play.

If you’re not on Blogging 101, you probably want to turn away now and look at this post on poetry instead! For those who are, I’d just like to explain how I (hopefully) rose to the challenge of improving my header image and ask for a little more help.

I’ve been using a stock image as a header for my home page – the only stock image on my site. The text was not reading out well and it didn’t feel like me. And WordPress just used it on one of their new themes for 2015.

So I’ve been thinking about how to change this for days. Various kind bloggers have stopped by to help and advise me. CSS would help, but could I find something I can be happy with without an upgrade and custom CSS?

Constraints from my free theme, Edin without custom CSS:

  • The text on this part of the home page is white.
  • The image needs to be dark enough for the text to read out of it.
  • It needs to be able to be automatically cropped to suit different devices and resize smoothly between the crops.
  • It needs to look good very wide or cropped into a squarish, central portrait for a mobile.
  • The image should be sufficiently in focus to look decent on a very wide screen even cropped to 1230 pixels in size.
  • I can’t control exactly where the text is placed against the image when it’s re-sized for the different devices – it moves about more erratically than you’d think.

Self-imposed constraints:

  • I don’t like pattern repeats that don’t match up exactly.
  • I don’t want it too gloomy.
  • I’d like it to be garden related, perhaps slightly abstract.
  • I would like to use my own photograph.

Today’s solution:

  • Pick a nice wintry scene – plan to update this as seasons progress.
  • Ignore the first of my self-imposed constraints and celebrate the tile effect.
  • Tighten up line spacing on the intro text and keep it brief.
  • Add a darker band, tinted to 50%, matched by eye to the footer, wide enough to just cover the text as it jumps about for all formats, sizes and shapes.
  • Experiment using Canva till the image is about right.
  • Publish!

Flower bud tile effect

Phew! It’s not perfect, but a step in the right direction feels good! And it’s helped me overcome one cardinal sin I knew I was committing – text that barely reads out against a background.

Anyone who thinks design is either all right or all wrong probably hasn’t worked much with designs – though I accept designs can be essentially right or essentially wrong. Am I treading the right side of the line with this or not? Feel free to let me know what you think!

If anyone knows how to link a featured image to my blog, so that anyone clicking anywhere on it goes straight there, please let me know! Technically the header is a fixed image for my theme – otherwise there’s a big wide, solid blue band at the top of my home page.

10 Replies to “Poetry and design: how constraints can help us”

  1. Hi Susan, I can see your delema, all those constraints made it look very tricky to produce your header. I can see your delema . I am wondering if Edin is going to be good for me after all. It is a magazine style. I am plodding on learning sidebars and widgets now. Still not sure about categories. However I have lots and lots of pictures on each subject. to upload sometime which need to stay with their stories as I post them. Other posts can be scrolled down into oblivion , so to speak. Hence the idea of parent and child pages.
    On the subject of headers. In the box where you say read my blog.. How do you connect this to the blog page? I had an email from The Daily Post and it had some amazing examples of headers with titles…. Saying headers we like. Mine is just a pond picture as you know.

    1. When you’re writing a post and want to make a link, highlight the words you want to use for the link eg ‘my blog’. While they’re highlighted, click on the icon for ‘Add/edit link’. It looks a bit like a paperclip. It’s after the align buttons at the top of the window you’re typing the post in (on the same formatting line as B for bold, I for italic etc). If you hover your mouse over these icons, they’ll tell you what they do.

  2. One of the Blogging101 people gently broke the news to me that the image was a bit too dark, so I’ve lightened the tinted band to a 35% transparency and updated the home page and the post. Hopefully this helps a little and yet you can still read the text!

  3. As poetry goes, all I am able for is Haiku and I’d say I am at about the same basic level with my blog page customization knowledge. I have no knowledge with CSS, RSS, shortcodes, etc. yet. You have made some great changes here.

  4. I totally agree that constraints can make writing easier. I had a wonderful creative writing teacher for a couple of classes and when she gave us exercises with constraints, I came up with decent material.

    1. Thanks for adding a comment from a writer’s perspective. Graphic Designers and Marketeers are used to finding ingenious ways to work within and around boundaries too – communicating any constraints or guidelines up front helps them find a creative solution much more quickly.

      I love your blog by the way! There’s few greater luxuries than fresh-baked artisan bread.

      1. That makes sense. I work with a graphic designer and the more information we can give her, the easier I think it makes her job. And it doesn’t hamper her creativity one bit.

        Thanks for the comment about the blog. Glad you like it. Have a nice weekend 🙂

  5. An update: having tried various ways to get my home page on Edin to look like I wanted, I’ve changed theme to Sela which uses a white central box on the main image so the words read out. So it’s back to a cheery home page for me!

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