Design Series: Unity/Harmony

Look for Sandy‘s podcast, which was posted on 1/12/2012. This post is a companion to the podcast and we discuss many examples and I provide a lot of explanations about the information below.

The Design Definition we are using in this series is:  Design is a problem solving activity within all the arts, placing or creating subject matter so it is of visual significance and interesting to the artist. (from The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d ed)

Unity/Harmony are Principles of Design. Unity and Harmony are often combined as one principle. Harmony is used here as another word for Unity.


  1. the presentation of an integrated image (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.20)
  2. a design in which “congruity or agreement exists among the elements in a design; they look as though they belong together” (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.20)
  3. some visual connection beyond mere chance has caused elements to come together. (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.20)

According to Adventures in Design by Joen Wolfrom, “the backbone of any design is unity,” because it provides stability and control in a design as well as visual comfort. It also clarifies the design (Wolfrom, Adventures in Design, pg.97)

“The strength of the composition is that the parts are not there by chance, but that they appear to belong together… The parts don’t have to be the same or have to touch each other; rather, they must make sense together.” (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d ed, pg.13)

Creating Unity (aka Unity with Variety  (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.19) )

Unity cannot exist without other closely related elements and principles (Wolfrom, Adventures in Design, pg.97), which means that this is probably the principle where we will discuss the most other elements and principles.

“Unity of design is achieved by the arrangement of the lines, shapes, colors, values textures and patterns that are used.” (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d ed, pg.13)

Methods of creating Unity are below:

  • The Grid
    • a checkerboard pattern using only black and white fabrics has complete unity. There is a “constant repetition of shape and obvious continuation of lined-up edges.” This design, however, can be a bit boring. (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.34)
    • Many, many quilts have an underlying checkerboard pattern (blocks)
    • a checkerboard pattern using black, white and two kinds of grey adds in some variety to the basic checkerboard theme
    • a checkerboard pattern using black, white and two kinds of grey where rectangles are added to,” OR replace some of, “the squares creates even more variety while still using a basic grid. There is an “obvious, underlying feeling of unity, yet variations enliven the pattern.” (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.34)
    • “shapes may repeat, but perhaps in different sizes; colors may repeat, but perhaps in different values.” (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.34)
  • Unity through Repetition
    • “Repetition is another way to create unity in a quilt design. The repetition of an element in a composition can tie the whole together, creating a relationship among the elements.” (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d ed, pg.15)
      • “…repetition of an element creates visual rhythm.” (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d ed, pg.15) Static rhythm, alternating rhythm and progressive rhythm have an effect on unity through repetition, but we will cover that when we cover the Principle of Rhythm.
      • Examples:
        • (also shows pattern interruption)
  • Varied Repetition
    • Variety is achieved by  position (straight set or on point), size and difference in proportion (e.g. all star blocks, but not the same size star blocks) of the features. (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.36)
    • “Variation or contrast with unity creates a stronger design than unity alone.” (Wolfrom, Adventures in Design, pg.99)
    • “Variety creates increased interest in a design.” (Wolfrom, Adventures in Design, pg.99)
    • porch posts or stair rails are another example. Certain standard measurements repeat while a variety of carving vary the sections of each column. (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.36)
    • “Repetition in design is simply repeating one or more elements. Every element does not need to be repeated. If too many elements are repeated, predictability, visual monotony, and disinterest can result.” (Wolfrom, Adventures in Design, pg.97)
    • “When elements of a design have a similar shape, we automatically create a visual relationship among them.” (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d ed, pg.14)
    • “Variation is added through the shifting of motif shapes;” “our eyes are most interested in the place where the pattern is interrupted.” (Wolfrom, Adventures in Design, pg.99)
      • Example:
  • Emphasis on Unity
    • “To say a design must contain both the ordered quality of unity and the lively quality of variety does not limit or inhibit the artist. The principle can encompass a wide variety of extremely different visual images and can even be contradicted for expressive purposes.” (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.38)
    • Subtle repetition can enhance the unity of composition. By using subtle repetition, the artist draws the viewer in to look more carefully for differences. (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.38)
      • consider identical twins. When looking at a photo of identical twins, the eye seeks out the differences. The same can be said for a one block quilt. If the quiltmaker chooses subtle variations in color, the viewer will seek out the differences even if the block is the same.
    • “Unity without variety can evoke our worst feelings about assembly lines and institutions.” (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.38)
  • Emphasis on Variety (difficult to explain in words, because it is easier to see a visual example!)
    • Star quilt where none of the star patterns are the same.
    • Quilt where none of the blocks are the same, but the colors unify the piece
  • Chaos & Control
    • “without some aspect of unity, an image or design becomes chaotic and quickly ‘unreadable’. (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.42)
    • design can also become lifeless or dull (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.42)
    • “neither utter confusion nor utter regularity are satisfying” (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.42)
    • housing subdivisions often start out boringly the same, but as years pass elements of personal variations crop up (landscaping, paint color, fence style, etc) (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.42)
  • Bridging
    • Bridging is used to gently move the eye from one extreme to another. (Wolfrom, Adventures in Design, pg.103)
    • considered a ‘principle’ by Joen Wolfrom, but is more of an element under unity for our purposes.
      • Color is often used for bridging. (Wolfrom, Adventures in Design, pg.103) Color gradation often shows up in quilts (consider my Fabric of the Year series).  Moving from light to dark can add great drama to a design. (Wolfrom, Adventures in Design, pg.103)
      • Size gradation is also compelling. Moving across your quilt from a large shape to a small shape can create variety and interest. (Wolfrom, Adventures in Design, pg.104). It kinds of looks like this series of rectangles
      • A quiltmaker can also change the configuration of shapes such as going from a vertical thin rectangle through a square to a thin, horizontal rectangle. (Wolfrom, Adventures in Design, pg.105)
  • Unity through Proximity
    • “One of the easiest ways to tie elements of a design together is to place them close to each other.” (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d ed, pg.13)
    • “Make sure the objects in your design are close enough that they have a visual bond – a visual relationship. Objects need to be in close proximity for unity” (Wolfrom, Adventures in Design, pg.105)
    • Different shapes can be placed in such a way that they have no unity, but shapes can also be placed in such a way that suggests a meaning. (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d ed, pg.14)
    • Tidal Flat by Inge Mardal and Steen Hougs uses proximity well.
    • Bagpipes by Judy Simmons
    • “Our eyes also organize the empty spaces in a design. The foreground or positive shapes are surrounded by the background, also called negative space.” (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d ed, pg.15)
      • “…the artist has to be aware that the shapes in the foreground create shapes in the background that can confuse the viewer, or dominate the positive shapes. Traditional pieced quilts often use this principle to add complexity to a design.” (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d ed, pg.15)
  • Movement
    • Repeating an object’s shape across the design creates movement when the repetition gives the eye the opportunity to move across the design. (Wolfrom, Adventures in Design, pg.106)
  • Unity  through Continuation
    • “…the arrangement of various elements in the composition so that their edges create a visual line. (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d ed, pg.18)
    • “Quilts often employ a grid as an underlying structure that gives the blocks unity through the principle of continuation.” (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d ed, pg.18)

Achieving Unity

  • “One way to tie the foreground and background together is to repeat a color in both the positive and negative spaces.”  (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d ed, pg.20)
    • This means that perhaps you have a batik with gold running through the predominantly black fabric. By appliqueing gold leaves to the background fabric, you have moved in the direction of creating unity. (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d ed, pg.20)
    • If your quilt has large yellow areas, you can quilt with yellow Perl cotton to help achieve unity. In this example, there must be contrast as well.  (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d ed, pg.20)
  • The balance of positive and negative space can also work to your advantage in creating unity. (The Quilter’s Book of Design, 2d ed, pg.21-22)

 Un-unified or Un-harmonious Designs

  • the whole design or the group elements appear separate or unrelated.
  • A viewer will ignore a chaotic design (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.24)
  • “lack of unity is one of the major reasons a design is unsuccessful. Too much variety creates visual chaos. If not repetition exists, there is nothing to hold the design together.” (Wolfrom, Adventures in Design, pg.98)
    • this quote brings orphan block quilts to mind. These are difficult quilts to design, because of the variety included. The artist must create something to hold the group together such as unified sashing, a color that flows throughout the piece, etc.


  • “in the application of any art principle, wide flexibility is possible within the general framework of the guideline” (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.38)
  • “To say a design must contain both the ordered quality of unity and the lively quality of variety does not limit or inhibit the artist. The principle can encompass a wide variety of extremely different visual images and can even be contradicted for expressive purposes.” (Pentak & Lauer, 5th ed. pg.38)
Stars for San Bruno #1
Stars for San Bruno #1

A kind of Star Sampler is my Stars for San Bruno #1 quilt.

Unity/Harmony Resources:

Art Institute of Chicago’s Art Explorer (the Millinery Shop):
Design Basics, 5th ed. by David A. Lauer and Stephen Pentak, pg. 19-43
NPR blog post on Unity:
Setting Solutions by Sharyn Craig

You can see the last Design class, which was on Balance on the November 29 post.

Author: Jaye

Quiltmaker who enjoys writing and frozen chocolate covered bananas.

8 thoughts on “Design Series: Unity/Harmony”

  1. Great post! This is one the things that I wrestle with most in quilt designs – how to get enough unity when trying to be “liberated” and “modern” with the designs. I didn’t know that this was my issue until reading this post. Thanks for the great info and all the work you put into this post. This is going in my reference bookmarks, for sure.

  2. DID you and Sandy make a DESIGN FLICKER GROUP? I looked for a link but could not find one. Sandy had invited commentators to post pictures but I do not know where to post it… your group, Sandy’s group, the donation group or somewhere else… Just wondering as I have a quilt I thought I could add.



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