The formline design system can be thought of as a visual grammar, a formal language with its own rules which can be used to create variations and innovations. Animals are shown laid flat by marking out body parts and details with formlines of various widths which join up into a grid, and the design is built up from ovoid shapes and U-forms. Artist Robert Davidson describes these as parts of an alphabet that can be stretched, pulled, made positive or negative and manipulated. The formlines are the skeleton of the composition; there is the space within a shape, space surrounding it and also the space/culture in which it was made and has meaning.
- Bi-lateral symmetry.
- Two–dimensional images, as if the subject were laid out flat. Historically, when the style was used on three-dimensional objects (eg poles), it appeared as if a flat design had been mentally wrapped around the object.
- Split representation of animals; they are viewed simultaneously from the front and in profile and are also shown as separate body parts (beak, fin, ears etc).
- Different thicknesses of lines, usually the primary lines are black, secondary in red and tertiary in black. Blue/green may also be added.
- Layers within the image, for example an eye may contain another head, one creature appears within another.
- Use of symbolism.
In these cultures, there is no concept of ‘art’ as such. Dr Max Carocci refers to these objects as being part of an expressive culture. They may express the owner’s status and geneology, they carry the oral tradition, telling the stories associated with the animals represented. These stories belong to families or clans, they can only be told by them and often belong to a particular time of year or day, and are not necessarily shared outside the family. In the same way, motifs such as a whale fin or a beak belong to families and may not be used by anyone else.
More generally, the designs incorporate symbols and themes from shamanism. One is the repeated use of eyes, which may refer the ability to look through or into people (so images of human figures show a visible rib cage). Another theme is transformation - a shaman may change into an animal, so designs illustrate this with composite beings. Knowledge and power are passed through the tongue, so animals may be shown with their tongue out representing a shamanic kiss.
Because of the importance of the symbolism represented by particular motifs, rights are a very sensitive issue when looking at NWC art. Any use by non-Indians is controversial and native artists will only use those for which they have permission. Contemporary artists push and bend the traditional rules for example by using asymmetry, changing proportions, using new materials, leaving gaps in the grid (which would usually be closed) while still maintaining the characteristic overall style.