Abstract Cities

“Create a series of 10 abstract designs in which you balance blocks of subordinate,
dominant and accent colours.
These designs are going to be used as covers for guidebooks to the following cities:
Madrid Malmo Managua Manchester Manhattan Marrakech
Marseilles Melbourne Montreal Mumbai”

I began by researching each of these cities online. It became obvious that if you simply google the name of a city, the images tend to be cityscapes which can end up looking a bit similar… So I had the idea of googling phrases like “madrid culture/events/marketplace”, which worked a lot better. Here are my reference pics:

Madrid (Spain)


Malmo (Sweden)

The screen shots are of Carl Larson painting, which I think of as typically Swedish colours.


Managua (Nicaragua)


Manchester (UK)

british dance music canal street manchester coronation street manchester unitedmanchester manchester2


Manhattan (USA)


Marrakech (Morocco)

berber carpets images (1) images (2) images morrocan slippers shoes

Sigh. Lovely colours.


Marseilles (France)

It turns out Marseilles is famous for soap making. Who knew.


Melbourne (Australia)


Montreal (Canada)

I get the feeling Montreal likes to hold a lot of arty events


Mumbai (India)

I think there are a few cities you might associate with certain colours, for example Mumbai above has the lovely saffron, pinks and blues that seem very common with Indian textiles. The more I looked the more I thought maybe you really can’t say any particular colours sum up a city, its very subjective…

I spent a few days experimenting with all this, its been a bit daunting keeping in mind so many covers, colours, shapes etc… I did refer to some books on colour to help inspire me. Some are uploaded in the Research and Reflection > Exhibitions and Books page. https://rutharnoldoca.wordpress.com/category/research-reflection/exhibitions-books/

I also find this website useful.


You can pick various combinations, in a very similar way to the Kuler.com

steves tetrad

I sampled some colours from the images I’ve collected as a starting point, then experimented with versions via the colour wheel, and also just by eye, to see what happens.

There seems to be a bit of variation in opinion, when it comes to discussing dominate, sub-dominate/subordinate, and accent colours according to which book, or website I was on.  Some quote the dominate colour by proportion, others by the intensity of the hue.

This is an extract from a blog post by  graphic designer Mark Boulton which represents one view:

  1. Subordinate, or Base colour. This is a visually weak, or subordinate, colour. It should contrast or compliment the dominant colour.
  2. Dominant. The main colour. It is this colour which defines the communicative values of the combination.
  3. Accent, or Highlight colour. The Accent colour can be two things: either sympathetic to the Subordinate or Dominant colour, or it can be visually strong and striking, therefore appear to be competing with the dominant colour. This can provide tension within a combination

Alternatively,  software developer and photographer Jason Roberts writes this:

  • The Dominant Colour: proportionally the largest expanse of colour, e.g. the ground
  • The Subdominant (or subordinate) Colour : the second largest expanse of colour after the dominant
  • The Accent Colour: the colour with the smallest relative area

image (1) image


Obviously these opinions come from individuals, but even when you factor in knowledgeable books, and websites like Pantone, it is still unclear if there is a “correct” answer to this one?!

I’m not sure if I have already referred to Joseph Albers book, and Betty Edwards book on colour, which is much more accessible!  I’ve done a few of the exercises, but it would be good to keep going and eventually do them all!

I was thinking about how to develop the covers into a set. These book covers have bands of colour, Mark Rothko style. Each layout is very similar.


Big thumbs up to my brother, John Arnold who wrote the bottom right one (I haven’t read the others!!!!) (Apologies for the shameless plug).

These books have become part of a series, several hundred now I think, so the designers have had to generate a baffling number of book covers. I wonder if they have lost the will to live?!


Right. The brief. Having experimented with colours, I looked at various patterns and styles. NB I currently work on a pc, the colours below are quite soft and creamy. Viewed on an ipad, or any apple device, they become much more saturated, especially yellows and greens. And frankly look a bit nasty! This colour shift is so annoying. I know designers work on macs. I am sulking.

malmo cover 2-01 malmo cover 3-01 Manhatten Abstract Cover Stripey-01Manhatten Cover

I thought the above ideas are either too static, or else the composition doesn’t work well. Though I do quite like the left hand Manhatten stripey one, and the spots below.

Madrid Abstract Cover circles-01 Madrid Abstract dots 4-01 Madrid Abstract dots 5-01 Madrid Abstract dots-01


The other head scratching part was the font. I’ve gone through the process of discovering fonts in the context of web design, and previously spent hours experimenting with them, so sometimes I feel I can make a decision quite quickly now…Not this time.

manhatten colours - a little pot manhatten colours 2 - clive barker manhatten colours 2 - daniel black manhatten colours 2 aka frivolity

If you’re wondering wny there isn’t a broad range of serif,  and sans-serif fonts here, its because I had a mood in mind – I wanted it to look relaxed and friendly! I settled on Dear Joe Italic.  I did briefly look at some “serious” sans-serif minimalist fonts but they looked rather stark, and not inviting enough to go with the rectangular blocks of colour.

Having experimented with patterns, colours and fonts, I decided I liked the colour blocks above the most.  The final change i made was to make every block very dark behind the lettering, to try and keep them consistant.

For example Spain started out like this

Madrid Abstract Cover 4-01

Anyway. Here are the  finished covers, made in Illustrator..

I was aware that each of these designs are identical, and that maybe I should try out some variations. Margaret, my “mum-in-law” found this pad of coloured paper, in Lidls a while ago, and kindly bought it for me,  which is perfect for this project!



It was fun arranging these! I then photographed them and adding the lettering.

green red pink

Here they are finished (I used the wording New York instead of Manhatten, just because I liked the shape of the letters!)

Final comments. I much preferred working with colour off the computer. There’s still a colour shift from real life, to photo, to different screens… But I’ve found using an eye dropper to sample colour, fiddling about, having endless options to refill in a slightly different colour gets obsessive! Being able to arrange existing colours felt much more peaceful and satisfying. I’d like to re-visit this sometime using paint.




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