10 rules of composition all designers live by

10 rules of composition all designers live by

Even if your graphic design elements are stunning, they won’t be effective if they aren’t put together properly.

Therefore, it is reasonable to assert that composition is crucial. Just what is a composition, then? The point at which the various parts come together to form a unified whole. When your fonts, images, graphics, and colours all work together to create a unified whole.

It’s important to arrange, distribute, align, and compile your design elements in a way that not only looks good, but also serves its purpose. So, let’s go over some advice that will have you writing like a pro in no time.

01. Find Your Focus

The importance of concentration was hammered into our heads throughout our educational careers. Establishing a focal point is essential to creating a well-balanced composition by directing the viewer’s attention to the most important aspects of the design first.

The main purpose of any design is communication, so keep that in mind as you make your selection. Whether you’re communicating an idea, some information, or simply a feeling or emotion, your design is telling a specific story, so be sure to choose a focal point that helps this story get told in the strongest, most effective way.

We’ll go over several methods for attracting attention, including the use of scale, contrast, and leading lines. But for now, let’s analyse an example.

Since Matthew Metz’s work for Nordstrom is a fashion advertisement, the focus here is on the model and her wardrobe. Therefore, she is front and centre, with type and a block of colour placed so as to highlight and draw attention toward her face and then to her outfit, and leading lines directing the eye down her frame and gradually toward more information.

Similarly, Shauna Lynn Panczyszyn’s poster design highlights the man in the photo. By positioning him front and centre and framing him with the graphics, the design directs attention to the photograph.

02. Direct the Eye With Leading Lines

Like directing someone’s gaze by pointing, you can direct the focus of a design by strategically placing lines and shapes.

You’ve probably seen leading lines before in the form of flowcharts. By using lines, flowcharts make it easy to follow the progression of an idea from one step to the next. Paper and Parcel has created a fun and unusual save-the-date card by employing the leading lines of a flowchart to convey the important details.

The use of leading lines can also direct you to additional levels or specific pieces of data. We’ve established that the attention should initially be drawn to the central point of interest; the question now is where the viewer’s gaze should travel after that. Leading lines, when strategically placed and adjusted, can be used to guide the viewer’s gaze not just to the design’s focal point but also around it.

Consider this poster by Design By Day, which employs strong leading lines to direct the viewer’s attention first to the title, and then to the subsequent levels of detail.

Of course, not every design you make will have such blatant lines that you can simply shift to accommodate a direct viewpoint. However, that doesn’t leave you high and dry. Look for lines and shapes in your graphics to guide the viewer’s gaze.

To illustrate, consider this poster for 1 Trick Pony, which employs the line along the man’s left arm to direct the viewer’s gaze first to the logo and then down the rest of the image. The image’s shapes serve to guide the viewer’s gaze in this way.

03. Scale and Hierarchy

Understanding the relationship between scale and visual hierarchy is one of the fundamentals of design that can make or break a composition.

In a nutshell, hierarchy is the practise of positioning and styling elements to convey relative importance. It’s common practise to emphasise something that’s more crucial by making it bigger and bolder, while downplaying something that’s less crucial.

When discussing types, hierarchical organisation is crucial. See why every design needs three levels of typographic hierarchy for a far more in-depth analysis of this topic.

Scale is a powerful tool for conveying hierarchy because it can be used to focus on (or hide) specific details, thereby emphasising their significance.

This poster by Jessica Svendsen, for instance, features a blown-up image as the primary focus to draw in viewers. In this particular piece of written communication, the title is the biggest and boldest piece of type, while the body copy is much smaller. Therefore, the emphasis has been signalled and the hierarchy of the type maintained through the use of scale.

Adding a sense of proportion and scale to your design is another great use for scale. One can make things appear small, intricate, and detailed or large and sweeping.

Scott Hansen’s poster design is illustrative; it features a shrunken silhouette of two people standing in front of a vast landscape. One can immediately appreciate the scale and grandeur of the setting.

You can achieve a variety of effects in your composition by juxtaposing a small scale element with a large scale element.

04. Balance Out Your Elements

Maintaining a sense of equilibrium is crucial in many contexts, and this is certainly not the case with your designs.

Yet, how do we achieve that equilibrium in our plans? So, let’s talk about the two most common kinds of equilibrium and how to achieve them.

One example of balance is symmetry. The term “symmetrical balance” describes exactly what it does: creates symmetry-based equilibrium in your design. The visual weight of an arrangement can be shifted toward harmony by reflecting elements from left to right or top to bottom.

Notice the symmetry at work here. Jennifer Wick employs a symmetrical composition in her wedding invitation design by mirroring the placement of the type and graphic elements. Symmetry is used to create an aesthetically pleasing and sophisticated layout.

Asymmetrical balance is another kind of equilibrium that is relatively common. Another term that needs little explanation is “asymmetrical balance,” which refers to striking a stable equilibrium without resorting to symmetry.

Take a look at this illustration of a well-balanced asymmetry. Munchy Potato uses asymmetrical balance in this poster design by deliberately dispersing and scaling elements.

The three large circles in the middle of the design are balanced by the type, the thin line graphics, and the small, heavily textured circle in the bottom corner.

An effective strategy for learning to maintain asymmetrical equilibrium is to visualise each component as if it had a weight. It’s possible that smaller objects have a lower ‘weight’ than bigger ones, and that elements with more texture have a higher ‘weight’ than those with a flatter colour scheme. Whatever the case may be, your design will benefit from adjusting the relative weights of these components until a stable equilibrium is achieved.

05. Use Elements That Complement Each Other

You may be familiar with the concept of “complementary colours,” but what about “complementary design elements?” Making sure that every part of your design serves the whole is essential to creating a successful and effective composition.

Mistakes in composition often result from using images that don’t go together. If you must use more than one image in your composition, make sure they work well together as a whole. There are numerous approaches to this goal; the following are a few suggestions.

Make sure all the images are from the same shoot. This is a simple method for making sure all of your photographs have a unified aesthetic, as they were probably shot using the same art direction and technique. For an example of how this can be done tastefully, take a look at this magazine spread by Jekyll & Hyde and Elena Bonanomi.

Apply uniform colouring to your images. Filters and other image editing tools have made it easier than ever to colour correct and adjust photos so that they have harmonious colour schemes. Take a look at this poster layout by A is a Name, which uses a monochromatic filter on each photo for a more seamless look.

Pick images that were taken in a similar fashion. If one image is very minimal, you might want to find some others that are minimalist inspired to go along with it. Check out this sample of Feint’s web design, which makes use of images with a lot of texture, wood grain, and cool tones.

Coordinating the layout also involves matching text with appropriate images. An elaborate, cursive typeface with lots of swashes and curls, for example, may convey elegance and sophistication when used in the right context. Thus, be deliberate in your selection of a typeface.

This poster, designed by Adam Hill, promotes an event “celebrating the inextricable link between tattoos and good old fashioned rock ‘n roll.” A bold cursive title and bold slab serif body copy complement the use of traditional vintage-inspired imagery. The imagery and concept have evolved into something rougher and more rock and roll, so a clean, thin, and minimal sans-serif typeface wouldn’t work.

06. Boost (or Reduce) Your Contrast

Contrast is a fantastic tool for drawing attention to or hiding details in your design. You can make something more noticeable by increasing the contrast or giving it a high contrast feature colour. Similarly, you can make something disappear into the background by reducing the contrast.

The images in this example by Thebault Julien are framed and highlighted with high contrast colours, and the most important information is presented in larger, bolder typefaces. However, it also makes use of lighter, thinner type to cast a slightly less prominent shadow on the other features.

In the first instance, the vivid colour served to draw attention to the design, but in the second instance, the vivid colour served to conceal a part of the design.

Melanie Scott’s artwork for a poster When Vincent uses a yellow paperclip against a yellow background, there isn’t much of a contrast between the two. While we would normally advise against it, in this case it fits perfectly with the theme of the event, which is entitled “ignored everyday.”

By manipulating the levels of contrast in your designs, you can both ‘hide’ elements and impart deeper meaning. Make strategic use of contrast in your designs, whether to draw attention to or detract from certain elements.

07. Repeat Elements of Your Design

Let me say it again: “Repetition makes for successful compositions.”

Taking elements from one part of your design and using them in another helps keep things uniform and logically laid out. Perhaps you can use the same typeface throughout your entire design, or perhaps the same graphic motif can be used in multiple places. Use recurring patterns to unite your design.

With multiple-page designs, repetition is essential. You can make sure that each page in your document flows into the next by repeating certain layout and/or design elements.

Take a look at these designs for magazine spreads by Mauro De Donatis and Elizaveta Ukhabina, for instance. The composition of each of these designs is consistent; what varies are the texts, the hues, and the pictures. By using the same structure over and over again, the reader will quickly come to recognise it and be able to begin learning the material.

Check out this designer’s checklist for making multi page layouts for more tips, tricks, and examples.

When crafting compositions that fit on a single page, repetition is also crucial. This event poster, designed by Jessica Hische, is a great example of how using repeated graphic elements can help to maintain a strong and cohesive design.

This poster accomplishes this by consistently employing the same typefaces, graphics, and line weights throughout. Cohesion would be broken if in the middle it used a graphic with thick, bold, pink lines. Therefore, the design remains beautiful and powerful by limiting the font palette, colour palette, and graphic styles to a small, uniform set.

Keep track of the typefaces, line weights, colours, etc. that you use in your design, and try to incorporate them again somewhere else if at all possible.

08. Don’t Forget the White Space

Avoid using the term “empty space,” which is the most common offender of white space. The word “empty” suggests it should be brimming with something, that it is failing to perform its function, but this is not strictly speaking the case.

Strategic use of white space is an effective way to improve the readability and aesthetic appeal of your design by counteracting the density of other elements in the composition.

See how Cocorrina’s design keeps its image, texture, and type proportional and elegant by utilising white space.

Where should we put white space and why?

The visual components should be reduced in size. By scaling down your imagery, type, graphics etc. you can create some luxurious white space around your focal points while staying within the frame of your original graphic. Take Serafini Creative’s recipe card design as an example; by reducing the size of the main design, a lovely border of white space is created around the card.

Don’t fill up every space with content. Don’t feel obligated to fill any existing white space with more content; as was just stated, white space is not empty space and serves an important purpose in its own right.

Check out how Creative Web Themes simplifies product representation on their site by featuring just one image, a bold title, two lines of copy, and a link to learn more. Thanks to this simple layout, and the way that not every space has been filled with content, there’s plenty of room for white space to do its thing and let each element breathe neatly and effectively.

Make sure every part of your design is absolutely crucial before you commit to it. Do you need all of that type, do you need the bright blue title, do you need 3 different images? By subtracting the unnecessary bits and pieces of your design, you can create a more direct design that makes the most of white space.

09. Align Your Elements

Don’t just slap a bunch of design elements on the page and call it good if you’re working on a composition with a lot of parts; proper alignment can take your work from sloppy to stylish in no time.

Having trouble getting things in the right place? Canva’s automatic alignment tool is a lifesaver and will quickly eliminate that hassle. Canva’s automatic alignment and snapping to other elements on the page make it as easy as dragging an element to a new location.

This magazine spread, by Huck, is a perfect illustration of his skill with alignment. Its elements are well-aligned, making for a clean design that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

Putting many pieces in order is made easier when they are aligned in a solid and reasonable fashion. Therefore, alignment could be your best friend if you’re using many images, many words, and/or many other graphic elements.

When working with type, alignment is also crucial. There are many ways to align your type, but a good rule of thumb for longer pieces of copy is to stick with left alignment as this is the easiest for the eye to navigate and make sense of.

10. Divide Your Design Into Thirds

Using the rule of thirds is a straightforward design principle that dictates focal points be placed at the intersections of the vertical and horizontal grids.

As you can see in the example presented here, designer William Beachy adheres to this principle in his work. By placing focal points at each line intersection, his design is made striking and effective. While doing so, you create movement and interest, as Beachy puts it: “By avoiding a centred design you.”

The rule of thirds can serve as a quick and easy reference for positioning and framing design elements.

Take a look at this National Geographic website Gajan Vamatheva created, and think about where the rule of thirds lines would meet. The two hikers in the first image and the largest bird in the second would be at the intersection of the lines. The lines would also intersect at points around the text boxes, drawing the eye to these points.

If you come across a layout that impresses you, it’s a good idea to mentally disassemble it to see where the foundational elements lie. Did it use the rule of thirds? Or perhaps a particular grid layout was used. In any case, learn as much as you can from exemplary models and implement what you find useful.

Over To You

When composing your design, there are many factors to think about. It may take some time and effort, especially if you’re just starting out, to get the hang of things, especially if you have to constantly rearrange things, resize elements, and rearrange them again.

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