In writing, an ‘abstract’ is a brief, self-contained summary of a research article, thesis, review, conference proceeding, or in-depth analysis piece. In design and art, ‘abstract’ is a sub-category of alternative ways for communicating visual messages, often free from objective content, context, and meaning.

Abstraction itself can be symbolic, imaginary, interpretive, impressionistic, non-object, nonfigurative, or nonrepresentational.

Before Jackson Pollock redefined art principles with the development of ‘abstract expressionism’, abstraction had already existed. Just look at cave painting, ancient hieroglyphics, or medieval graphic emblems. All these visual communications create imagery through simplifying and distilling both form and content.

Abstraction is closely tied to glyphs and people’s ability to register and decipher them. Glyphs are graphic symbols that demonstrate the appearance or form of a character – whether that be an alphanumeric symbol or other unique marks that form a character for conveying certain messages or meanings.

The little icons you see on bathroom doors and street signs are abstractions, and the emojis we use every day are technically glyphs – they all simplify a message through visual language.

Degrees of Abstraction

The beauty of abstraction is the degrees of variance within the idea. At one end you have something that has a low degree of abstraction, like an illustration that simply replicates the content/meaning.

Next are things like infographics, which condense information and imagery into something more digestible.

Further on, you’ve got things like glyphs, pictograms, and symbols. These image forms are closer to pure abstraction than signs as they’re not realistic graphic forms. Therefore meaning is dependent on the viewer’s personal experiences.

Total abstraction has no recognisable visual references and are thus free from objective representation.

You can find the abstract listening to hip hop…

Gifted hip hop emcee and producer, Q-Tip used the moniker Abstract during his days with A Tribe Called Quest and as part of the title for his third solo album, Kamaal the Abstract. His first two solo efforts were considered straightforward hip hop albums, with Q-Tip still trying to find his voice without the support of his fellow Tribesmen.

Kamaal the Abstract was an eclectic album that featured Q-Tip rapping, singing, and exploring his jazz influences. The album saw him depart from previous styles and musical efforts.

The use of jazz was deliberate because no other music genre has better conveyed complete stories without lyrics. Jazz, better than any other style, expresses ideas and elicits feeling through the audience’s experiences. Even the album title is a contradiction as Q-Tip introduces his Islamic name, ‘Kamaal’, with a nickname he’s been using since the early 1990s – a marriage of faith and artistry.

“Back in the days when I was a teenager. Before I had status and before I had a pager.
You could find the Abstract listening to hip hop. My pops used to say it reminded him of be-bop.”
Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest)

Abstraction is a fun yet precarious way to convey message since meaning is dependent of the viewer’s experiences and understanding. With no key visual references, using abstract imagery will depend on ideas such as colour, scale, movement, or contrast.

There is really no need to always confine artistic expression through traditional means and methods. Being creative with how you interpret and use imagery can be much more fun.

“Abstraction can provide stumbling blocks for people of strange intelligence.”
Gustave Flaubert

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