Composition in graphic design
 

The term composition is used for describing the arrangement or placement of the visual elements within a design. Whether you are working with vector graphics, text, or images, and regardless of how good all of these elements look individually, it is of great importance that they form a cohesive, clear, and legible design.

A design does not only have to be aesthetically pleasing to the viewer, but it should also have the ability to communicate and convey a message in a functional and effective manner. In order to achieve this, the design in question has to be successfully structured and the best way to accomplish that is to follow certain rules and guidelines regarding composition and layout. These principles refer to the individual elements, as well as the design as a whole.

Focus

First and foremost, it is very important for a design to be able to capture the viewer’s attention. This is why a strong focal point is considered a key element for any good design. A focal point is used to emphasize an area of interest and to naturally guide the viewer’s eye through the design by giving accent to its most important part. Focal points can be recognized by leading lines, contrast, placement or isolation of objects and other design principles.

Leading lines

Leading lines, as the name implies, are certain lines, shapes and other visual elements positioned in such a way that they can easily direct the eye towards the focal point. After landing on the focal point, these elements can be further used as a guide towards other important points of information throughout the design.

For example, in the first poster, all of the red lines and surfaces lead to the man’s silhouette, which is the focal point of this design. On the other hand, the leading lines on the second poster both emphasize the focal point (the horse’s head) and guide the viewer through all the additional information. 

Poster design by Fernanda  Strunz
(source: behance.com)

Poster design by Natalia Konowatek
(source: behance.com)

Hierarchy and scale
 

Hierarchy is a fundamental visual technique used to help the viewer to navigate through the design easily, as well as to determine the level of importance of each element. It is achieved by scale and arrangement of different elements so that the more important ones are made bigger and bolder, while those less important are smaller and more subtle. 


Hierarchy is crucial when it comes to typography. The title considered the most important bit of written information, should always be the largest and boldest text in the design. Next, come headings and subheadings, each more toned down than the one before, while last comes the body text which should be much smaller and lighter. Regarding posters, brochures, and other such designs, the designer should determine which information is most important for the viewer in order to make it stand out the most.

When it comes to lines, shapes, and forms, designers often use scale to establish hierarchy. The goal is to draw attention toward more important elements by making them larger and using more intense colors, while making less significant elements smaller and more subtle.

Scale is also used to achieve proportion, depth, and a sense of size, which is achieved by comparison. For example, the viewer can better grasp the size of a very tall building when compared to a human standing next to it.

Poster design by Shanti Sparrow
(source: behance.com)

Balance

When it comes to design, balance can be defined as equal distribution of visual weight within the composition. It can be determined by color, size, quantity, or amount of negative space.

There are two types of balance, symmetrical and asymmetrical. Symmetrical balance is achieved by reflecting the same or using very similar design elements on both sides of a horizontal or vertical axis. 

 

Asymmetrical balance is a result of arranging the elements in a way that their “weight” is equally distributed on both sides, even though the elements are neither visually identical nor similar. For example, one visually heavy element on one side can be balanced by a few visually lighter elements on the other.

While symmetrical design evokes feelings of elegance and formality, it can often feel static and not visually interesting. On the other hand, asymmetrical balance feels more modern and energetic, since it shows more visual variety. 

 

Poster design by Shanti Sparrow
(source: behance.com)

Poster design by Chetan Rokade
(source: behance.com)

Complementary elements

The use of complementary elements guarantees a unified look and an overall aesthetically pleasing design. This can be applied to images, graphics or typefaces. If a design contains multiple images it is best that they are cohesive, which could mean, for example, that they are all from the same photoshoot, or that all have similar minimalistic backgrounds. This applies to text as well. In the case where a design has multiple paragraphs, it is best to use the same typeface for all of them.

Using complementary elements is very important for the overall composition. Notable style differences of the visual elements can often be considered overwhelming for the viewer, leaving the impression that the design is of poor quality. 

Template design by Pixasquare and Graphicgum
(source: behance.com)

Contrast

In graphic design, contrast can be defined as a tool used to present two visual elements in opposite ways. It can be used to grab the viewer’s attention, emphasize certain elements of the design, or to highlight an important piece of information, whether written or graphic.

It can be achieved through using colors, sizes, line weights, or typefaces with opposite properties. Contrast is a very important principle when it comes to composition since it can create a focal point and naturally lead the eye through the design. It can also give greater visual weight to certain elements or create  an overall balance within the design.

Design by Ion Lucin/Ionic Type
(source: behance.com)

Repetition

The principle of repetition implies that certain visual elements are used multiple times in the design. These elements could be anything from graphic motifs to shapes or type and reusing them gives a sense of consistency and cohesiveness.

 

This principle is especially important for multi-page layouts, since using the same color palette or placing the headings and texts in the same place on each page reinforces and strengthens the design. This way the viewer can navigate more easily through the project and focus more on the rather than the structure. As a result, the overall design feels coherent and unified. 

Presentation template design by Amber Graphic and Infostyle Agency
(source: behance.com)

White space

White or negative space is considered a necessary tool in order for a design to feel clear and legible. It refers to the spaces between all the different elements of a design, such as the space between the graphics, images, and text, as well as the space between lines and the outer margins. White space helps in defining different sections through the layout while making the whole design feel more neat and balanced.

 

Not every part of the layout has to be filled with content. If a design feels cluttered or overwhelming, the designer can add more whitespace by scaling down certain elements or subtracting unnecessary parts from the content. With an immaculate layout and just the necessary amount of information, the whole composition can be more comprehensible and visually pleasing.

Design by Jan-Alfred Barclay
(source: behance.com)

Alignment and proximity

Alignment is a crucial aspect of design since it helps organize all the visual elements in order to make the composition seem neat. This design principle implies lining up the images, text blocks, and graphics within the composition in a way that makes the most sense for the design in question.

The alignment of content can be centered or on either side of an (invisible) axis. For example, when it comes to long paragraphs, it is best to adhere to left alignment, since it helps the viewer navigate through the text easier.


 

If a design has a lot of content, whether graphics, images or text blocks it is best to form different sections of closely related elements. This is called proximity and it implies grouping related elements while separating those that are unrelated.

When grouping and aligning elements it is important to pay attention to the margins and white space as well, which means that the size of the different margins should be consistent throughout the design. 

Editorial design by Paz Roberts
(source: behance.com)

Grids and the rule of thirds

The best way to achieve order within the composition is to place all elements on an invisible grid, which will give more structure to the design. This way, it is easier to organize the elements more logically and get a sense of where the focal point should be.

 

The placement of the focal point is best determined by applying the rule of thirds, a technique with which a design is divided into three equal-sized rows and columns. The focal points should be placed on the intersections of the grid lines. Using the rule of thirds, rather than placing the elements centrally, makes the design more dynamic, interesting, and visually pleasing. 

(source: Wikipedia)

Conclusion

Putting together a well-structured composition might seem difficult and complicated at first and it definitely takes practice and effort in order to master it. Luckily, these methods and techniques can be of great help for beginners, along with paying attention to detail.

There are many successful designs that can be used as inspiration or to learn from.
As one gets more and more familiar with these principles, it gets easier to recognize them within different designs and compositions, as well as to implement them in present and future works.


Links to image sources:

Focus
https://www.behance.net/gallery/79020805/Poster-Friday-the-13th

Leading lines
https://www.behance.net/gallery/19609267/Chicote-Nunca-Mais

Hierarchy and scale
https://www.behance.net/gallery/66218289/Taste-of-the-Upper-West-Side-Food-Festival?tracking_source=search_projects_recommended%7Cevent%20poster

Symmetrical balance
https://www.vecteezy.com/vector-art/216507-classic-vintage-sunburst-wedding-invitation-design-with-couple-c

 

Asymmetrical balance
https://www.behance.net/gallery/72968539/Poster-Designs-Client-%28New-York-Beer-Company%29?tracking_source=search_projects_recommended%7Cposter%20minimal

Complementary elements
https://www.behance.net/gallery/82746189/FORM-Stylish-Minimal-Template?tracking_source=search_projects_recommended%7Cpresentation%20design

Contrast
https://www.behance.net/gallery/19484739/Big-John-Slim-Joe-Typeface?tracking_source=search_projects_recommended%7Ccontrast

Repetetition
https://www.behance.net/gallery/87535103/Barbershop-PowerPoint-Presentation-Templatehttps://www.behance.net/gallery/87535103/Barbershop-PowerPoint-Presentation-Template

White space
https://www.behance.net/gallery/38116577/EditorialMag-PSD-%28FREE%29

Alignment and proximity
https://www.behance.net/gallery/40725921/TOC-Suplemento-de-Cultura?tracking_source=search_projects_recommended

Grids and the rule of thirds
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Rule_of_thirds#/media/File:Rule_of_thirds_applied_on_M%C3%A4dchen_am_Strand.jpg 

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