Feature image by the talented Cyril Rolando. Check out his Tumblr here.
Lines have been used by artists and designers to convey mood since the first drawings in cave walls. Through repeated use, certain patterns and lines have gained universally recognized meanings. These were documented in Landscape Architecture, by John Ormsbee Simonds, who put together a diagram of 48 Mood Lines. Whether this was the first place they were documented, I have no idea, but it is the diagram I’m using for this article.
Despite the fact that mood lines are ubiquitous in art and design, there are few references or resources on them as a subject.
For this reason, I’ve put together this article, where I’ve taken each mood line and shown it in use. Hopefully you’ll find this helpful in understanding the various mood lines and seeing how you can use them in your own designs.
The Mood Lines
This is the most complete list of mood lines I’ve come across, which comes from Landscape Architecture, by John Ormsbee Simonds. I’ve put it together in a single diagram so that it can be easily assimilated. You can download the diagram at the bottom of this article.
In going through the list, you will find some that are repetitive. You will also run across some that are almost too specific to use in any setting except the most obvious. That said, it’s a very good reference and the most complete list I’ve been able to find.
Using Mood Lines
You can use mood lines in virtually every element of your design. Or you can contrast different mood lines in different parts of your design to create a more layered design. Take, for example, the “STABLE” mood line. You can use this in creating your layout. You can use it in your photography. And you can use it in your font selection.
The most common mood lines can be easily seen in practice—the vertical line indicating “noble, dramatic, inspirational, aspiring” is a good example. This mood line is very common in movie posters. A good recent example is the Interstellar poster, but if you’re looking, it’s very easy to find.
Because they are easy to see in design and art, certain mood lines are used much more commonly than others. They are also the most common moods one would want to express. Optimism, happiness, sadness, nervousness—when you’re familiar with mood lines you will be able to picture the lines that go with these moods instinctively. And you will use them almost subconsciously.
My personal experience through some 15 years of graphic design is that mood lines are an underlying guide, much like a grid in layout design. In most cases you stick to them, but violating them can also create some interesting designs. So that’s my caveat—use mood lines as a guide to help create the mood you want for your design, but know that they are but one tool in a larger box.
- Structural, Solid, Strong
- Nonstructural, Fluid, Soft
- Stable (2)
- Unstable (2)
- Positive, Bold, Forceful
- Tenuous, Uncertain, Wavering
- The Vertical—Noble, Dramatic, Inspirational, Aspiring
- The Horizontal—Earthly, Calm, Mundane, Satisfied
- Primitive, Simple, Bold
- Jagged, Brutal, Hard, Vigurous, Masculine, Picturesque
- Curvilinear, Tender, Soft, Pleasant, Feminine, Beautiful
- Rough, Rasping, Grating
- Smooth, Swelling, Sliding
- Decreasing, Contracting
- Increasing, Expanding
- Static, Focal, Fixed
- In motion
- Meandering, Casual, Relaxed, Interesting, Human
- Erratic, Bumbling, Chaotic, Confused
- Logical, Planned, Orderly
- Flowing, Rolling
- Formal, Priestly, Imperious, Dogmatic
- Rising, Optimistic, Successful, Happy
- Falling, Pessimistic, Defeated, Depressed
- Indecisive, Weak
- Rise—Attainment with Effort, Improvement // Fall—Sinking without Effort, Improvement
- Indirect, Plodding
- Concentrating, Assembling
- Dispersing, Fleeing
- Broken, Interrupted, Severed
- Direct, Sure, Forceful, with Purpose
- Connecting, Crossing
- Parallel, Opposing with Harmony
- Excited, Nervous, Jittery
- Opposing with Friction
- Diverging, Dividing
- Growing, Developing