‘31 Planes of Existence’ diagram poster

completed Work

A thought-provoking limited-budget graphics commission for a piece with two essential functions somewhat in tension: on one hand, conveying the matrix of relationships in a sizable field of mixed text — it’s a chart first, in other words, with a lot of information — and, on the other, presenting itself as an organized whole and offering the eye a path into that text-information array, displayed as a poster at an intended print size of 48 x 24 in.

The finished design is a free download for users of the non-profit WisdomMe educational site.

1 .the diagram outline

The client supplied a chart representing aspects of Buddhist concept of the order of being, to be designed for print as one of an existing series of posters with a set common format. (The chart reproduces information in annotated outlines available from a variety of public sources.)

From the client’s site,

Scattered throughout the suttas are references to as many as thirty-one distinct “planes” or “realms” of existence into which beings can be reborn during their long wandering through samsara. These range from the extraordinarily grim and painful hell realms all the way up to the most exquisitely refined and blissful heaven realms.

2 .study sketch: spatial relationships, typographical constraints, &c.

The greater part of the text material to be presented is the 31-term series that is the backbone of the chart, together with explanatory notes attached to the terms. But with a thorough read, what emerges as the heart of the diagram isn’t in the series of 31 labels, despite its dominant position; rather, it’s in the two terse lists of kinds of behavior, ‘wholesome’ and ‘unwholesome,’ and their relationship to the human being’s unique standing at the fifth position in the series. I took it that hierarchy in the spatial arrangement should follow in some way from this reading.

A little background research leads to the idea that the titular ‘planes’ can be imagined as concentric spheres. Circles allude to that imagery and become, in this two-dimensional poster, a simple-shape basis for pulling the whole design together. They also do something to suggest cosmological or metaphysical abstraction at a glance.

This sketch and concept were approved by the client. Next: working out underlying regulation of space, giving the type a boost, and incorporating color.

3 .regulated space : the √2 rectangle

In hopes of sharpening structural clarity, I went to an ancient device, the root-2 proportion, 1 : √2 — the relation between the side of a square and the square’s diagonal.

I wasn’t certain I’d find this helpful. But since the space, the frame I had to work in, is itself two squares, finding some root-2-based partition to manage it by seemed worth a try.

The √2-rectangle has the recursive property of giving two rectangles of the same √2 proportion when bisected on the long (or √2) side. (There is much more to be said about this fascinating geometry.)

4 .regulated space : keeping it simple

The concept sketch showed me that, in a final design, position of the concentric circles was going to have to be shifted left and the angle of alignment of the ‘planes’ series turned from vertical to a right-leaning diagonal, to allow all the text in the right half of the design to be accommodated without compressing type to an impractical degree. The √2-rectangle approach to dividing the area did prove useful here, giving guidelines for positioning these primary elements of the layout in fairly uncomplicated manner.

A stepped-down √2 rectangle also gives the width of the column anchoring the design on its right edge. This may seem arbitrary. But that column feels right, in the end — and the role it plays in holding the whole together isn’t insignificant.

5 .unity and focus

The design attempts to balance the function of a schematic diagram and the function of a poster. As a poster, the piece needs unity, to read as a whole, and needs in some sense correspondingly to be organized or focused around a principal statement. Insofar as the design achieves this, it relies on a combination of shape and line, explicit and implicit, and contrasts — light / dark value, color, object / void, &c. — to establish a kind of center of gravity in the left-side wedge of space roughly isolated here, the human being’s place in the scheme at its vertex.

6 .finalized design

The completed poster incorporates the client’s logo and a provided border graphic.

The typographical scheme aims for variety and nuance working from a limited palette, combining several weights of standard-, condensed-, and expanded-width faces from one extensive family, used for the bulk of the diagram’s text, and an alternate, contrasting typeface for transliterated non-English elements, in italic only.

Color design likewise aims for restraint and readability but also, at the same time, for contrast-driven visual engagement. A version of Buddhist color symbolism informs the choices here in a loose way, but the basic color considerations are about attention and guiding the eye.