If you read Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, anomaly was used to describe the mysterious black monolith that is at the center of the story. The monolith appears on Earth at the dawn of man, and is later found on the moon. To the right is an image of the monolith from the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film.

In medical terms, an anomaly is something not normally present in the body, and it usually signifies a potential danger. In visual design, anomaly refers to an element or a relationship that differs from the other dominating features of the composition. When a pattern is broken by irregularity, anomaly emerges in the contrast and non-conformity.

Formal Definition

Anomaly is the presence of irregularity in a design in which regularity still prevails. It marks a certain degree of departure from the general conformity, resulting in slight or considerable interruption of the overall discipline.

Anomaly as a Design Objective

The image below is from a Dreamweaver tutorial. Can you spot the design anomaly?


In case you didn't, the anomaly is the color wheel. It doesn't fit with the overall pattern. However, it's really a distraction from the more organic anomaly of the seven gray globes. One globe has shading on a different side and does not conform to the rules of light. This anomaly is a lesson in design pitfalls that could muddle one's message. It's the design equivalent of the medical anomaly: a potential danger.

Anomaly that is intentionally and effectively incorporated in a design has a definite purpose, and is used only when necessary. Here are the most common purposes for anomaly:
  • capturing the viewer's attention
  • relieving monotony
  • transforming regularity
  • breaking up regularity

Anomalies and the Rhetoric of Design

The use of anomaly can become complex within the rhetoric of design. It may be subtle and barely noticeable, or it may be dramatic. Sometimes an anomaly can generate movement and vibration in an image, or it may be a singular feature of a uniform design.

The anomaly in the following video example is the text which runs down the wall like wet paint. Its organic shape distorts the geometric lines of the urban background creating an interesting visual contrast.

The anomaly in the next image -- not in the photographic composition, but in the juice carton itself -- shows a subtle transforming of regularity. It may be difficult to perceive in this picture, but the green wave up the left sides of the cartons emphasizes a beveled edge giving the cartons a unique shape. The fourth "edge" is an example of an anomaly that transforms the regularity of the expected conventional carton and the wavy edge fits with the fluidity and vibrance of the product. The anomaly is certainly eye-catching; what may seem to be an optical illusion created by the green swoosh turns out to be a design anomaly constructed into the carton.


This next example of anomaly is a different type of contrast. It consists of a black and white photograph with an illustration placed in the center. Though the image as a whole lacks color, the cartoon figure in the center is in direct contrast with the photographic background.


The simple two-dimensional schemes in this final image include anomalies that break down regularity with more violence than in the juice cartons. More importantly, the unity of the design is maintained.


The shapes show a certain discipline that may reflect similarity, repetition, or gradation. Note how anomalous units may appear in a restricted area; others are more widely spread. But the anomaly that is most concentrated usually becomes the center of interest in a design.

Anomalous figures are strongly used in the rhetoric of visual design; the most effective designs rely on it. I still wonder about the anomaly of the Space Odyssey theme. In Clarke's book, the monolith was the touchstone of communication with extraterrestrial intelligence. I imagine the best of artistic expression of any medium incorporates anomaly in some way to express the broadest range of feelings and themes -- including the awe and mystery that, for me, is so tightly wrapped up in the word.