You could have the most beautiful graphic elements in the world, but if your composition isn’t up to scratch, all of that goes out the window.
So, it’s safe to say that composition is pretty important. So, what exactly is a composition? Well, in very simple terms, it’s the part where all the separate elements come together to form a whole. When all of your type, your images, your graphics and colors, come together to form one cohesive design.
A successful composition means that you have arranged, distributed, aligned and compiled your design in a way that not only looks good but is also highly functional and effective. So, let’s run over a few tips, tricks and techniques that will have you mastering composition in no time.
01. Find Your Focus
Just like we were all told in school, having focus is a very important thing. A key element to any good composition is a strong focal point, as it helps your viewers’ eyes naturally settle on the important pieces of your design first.
When choosing your focal point, keep in mind that the main goal of any design is communication. 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.
Some ways to draw focus are through techniques like scale, contrast and leading lines, all of which we’ll discuss in depth later on. But for now, let’s analyze an example.
This example by Matthew Metz is for fashion retailer Nordstrom, so the focal point of this piece is the model and her clothes. So, she has been placed centrally, has type and a block of color positioned in a way that highlights and draws attention toward her face and then to her outfit, and leading lines direct the eye down her frame and gradually toward more information.
Similarly, this poster design by Shauna Lynn Panczyszyn puts the focus on the photograph of the man. The design orients the focus to this image by placing him centrally, framing him with the graphics, and using the doodled graphics to lead the eye in toward the photograph.
02. Direct the Eye With Leading Lines
Just like you point at something when you want people to look at it, by positioning certain lines and shapes in certain ways you can control the viewpoint of your design, aka where viewers’ eyes go when they see your design.
A common use of leading lines that you might be pretty familiar with is within flowcharts. Flowcharts use lines to direct your eye from one point to the next in an obvious way. Check out this save the date card by Paper and Parcel that uses flowchart leading lines to present the information in a fun, unique way.
ding lines can also guide you to various tiers or points of information. As previously discussed, you want the eye to first land on the main focal point, but then where does it go? By positioning and adjusting your leading lines you can not only direct the eye to the focal point of your design but also throughout the rest of your design.
For example, check out this poster design by Design By Day that uses strong leading lines to first guide the eye toward the main focal point (the title), and then to various rungs of information.
Of course, not every design you create will have such obvious lines for you to adjust to direct viewpoint, but this doesn’t mean you’re up the creek with no paddle. Find shapes and lines within your images and graphic elements and use them to direct the eye in certain ways.
An example of this is seen in this poster from 1 Trick Pony that uses the line along the man’s left arm to draw the eye to and from the logo and then down the rest of the image. In this way, the shapes of the image have been used to direct the eye.
03. Scale and Hierarchy
Scale and visual hierarchy are some of those creative fundamentals that can really make or break your designs, so it’s important to have a good hold on them to maintain a successful composition.
In a very brief explanation, hierarchy is the arrangement and design of elements in order to visually signal importance. So, you might make a more important element bigger and bolder than a less important element which might be smaller and fainter.
Hierarchy is particularly important when it comes to type. For a much more comprehensive and detailed discussion of typographical hierarchy, be sure to check out why every design needs three levels of typographic hierarchy.
Scale is often used to help communicate hierarchy by drawing attention toward and away from certain elements, thus signifying their importance to the communication.
For example, this poster design by Jessica Svendsen uses a scaled-up image as the largest element, which helps it attract the most attention and focus. The title is the boldest, largest piece of type as it is the most important piece of written information for this specific communication, and the body copy is much smaller. So, scale has been used to signal the focal point, and to maintain typographical hierarchy.
Scale is also an incredibly handy tool for giving your design proportion and a sense of size. You can make things seem incredibly detailed, intricate and tiny, or you can make them big and grand.
For example, this poster design by Scott Hansen uses a scaled-down, small silhouette of two people to help communicate the massive scene in front of them. This instantly gives viewers a sense of the grandeur and size of the scene.
By contrasting a small scale element next to a large scale element in your composition, you can create a number of different effects.
04. Balance Out Your Elements
Balance is a pretty important thing in many regards, and your designs are absolutely no exception.
But how do we strike that perfect balance within our designs? Well, let’s run over two common types of balance and how to master it.
First, we have symmetrical balance. Symmetrical balance does what it says on the tin – it balances your design using symmetry. By reflecting certain design elements from left to right or top to bottom, you can create a strong sense of balance.
Here’s an example of symmetrical balance. This wedding invitation design by Jennifer Wick uses a symmetrical composition by reflecting the positioning of type and graphic elements. By using symmetry, this design is made elegant, clean, and beautifully balanced.
Another kind of balance, and an arguably more common type is asymmetrical balance. Asymmetrical balance is also a fairly self explanatory term, in that it concerns creating balance without symmetry.
Here’s an example of successful asymmetrical balance. This poster design by Munchy Potato employs asymmetrical balance by dispersing and scaling elements purposefully.
In the above design, the three central circles are the largest elements in the design, but they are balanced out both by the type, the fine line graphics, and the small, heavily textured circle in the bottom corner.
A good technique for mastering asymmetrical balance is to think of each element as having a ‘weight’ to it. Smaller objects might ‘weigh’ less than larger objects, and heavily textured elements might ‘weigh’ more than flatly colored elements. Whatever the case for your design, balance these weighted elements out until you reach an effective equilibrium.
05. Use Elements That Complement Each Other
You’ve heard of complementary colors, but what about complementary design elements? One key element to a successful and effective composition is taking the time to carefully and purposefully select each element of your design so that each part complements the whole.
A common error in compositions is using images that don’t complement each other. So, when using more than one image in your composition, try to make sure that they all look effective and cohesive when grouped together. There are a lot of different ways to achieve this, here are a few pointers.
Use photos from the same photoshoot. This is an easy way to ensure your photographs look cohesive as they were likely all under the same art direction and photographic style. Check out this magazine spread by Jekyll & Hyde and Elena Bonanomi that does just this to create a beautiful layout.
Color your photos similarly. With the prevalence of filters and image adjusting tools, you are able to color and adjust your photos to have more cohesive and complementary palettes. Check out this poster design by A is a Name that runs a monochromatic filter over each photograph to tie each image together in a more natural way.
Choose photos that are shot in similar ways. Try to choose images that have similar aesthetics and styles, for example, if one image is heavily minimal, choose others that are minimalist-inspired to complement that. Have a look at this website design example by Feint that has chosen images that all have a certain ruggedness to them with plenty of texture, wood grain and cooler tones.
Creating a cohesive layout also means pairing type and imagery that complement each other. Each different typeface when used under the right circumstances has certain tones and ideas associated with it – a detailed, cursive typeface with lots of swashes and curls for instance might signal elegance and sophistication. So, choose your typeface with purpose and intention.
06. Boost (or Reduce) Your Contrast
Contrast is an incredibly useful tool for both highlighting and hiding certain elements of your design. By upping the contrast or using a high contrast feature color, you can help an element stand out and draw attention. Likewise, by lowering the contrast, you can make an element fade into the background.
This example by Thebault Julien uses high contrast colors to frame and highlight the focal images, and uses bolder typefaces to highlight the key pieces of information. But also uses lighter, thinner type to push the other elements out of the spotlight a little.
While the vibrant color in the previous case works to highlight the design, this next example uses a vibrant color to hide an element of the design.
This poster by Melanie Scott Vincent uses a yellow paperclip on a yellow background, creating a low contrast difference between the object and backdrop. While this is usually a thing to avoid, in this case it reinforces the event name ‘ignored everyday’.
In this way, contrast can also be used to ‘hide’ certain elements of your designs as well as create meaning within them. So, use contrast with purpose with your design, whether it’s to adjust focus toward an element or away from it.
07. Repeat Elements of Your Design
Repeat after me: “Repetition makes for successful compositions.”
To maintain consistency and a logical layout, try to take specific elements from one section of your design and apply it to other sections. Maybe a style of type can be applied to more than one section of your design, or perhaps a graphic motif can be used more than once. So, try to tie your design together with repeated elements.
Repetition is a key factor when it comes to multi page layouts. Repeating elements of your layout and/or design helps each page flow into the next, creating a cohesive set of pages.
For example, check out these magazine spread designs by Mauro De Donatis and Elizaveta Ukhabina. In this design, each layout’s composition is similar, the only differences being in the written content, colors, and use of imagery. This repeated composition helps readers quickly recognize the format and therefore familiarize themselves with the information much quicker.
Repetition is also a key factor when it comes to designing single page compositions. By repeating graphic elements you can keep your design strong and cohesive just like this event poster by Jessica Hische is.
This poster repeats certain type stylisations, graphics, and line weights throughout to maintain a cohesive and effective design. If it were to suddenly use a thick, bold, pink line-based graphic somewhere in the middle, the cohesion would be lost. So, by keeping the font palette and color palette small and the graphic styles simple and alike, the design is kept beautiful and strong.
When designing, keep a record of the typefaces, line weights, colors, etc. that you use, and try to repeat them somewhere else throughout your design to tie the piece together as a whole.
08. Don’t Forget the White Space
The easiest way to offend white space is to refer to it as ‘empty space’. Emptiness implies that it should be full of something, that it’s not doing its job, but this is not quite the case.
White space when used strategically can help boost your design’s clarity and overall look by balancing out the more complicated and busy parts of your composition with space that helps your design to breathe.
For example, check out this design by Cocorrina that uses white space to balance out the image, texture and type to keep the design clean and sophisticated.
So, how do we use white space in our designs?
Scale down your graphic elements. 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. For example, check out this recipe card design by Serafini Creative that scales down the central design to create a beautiful frame of white space around the design.
Don’t fill up every space with content. As mentioned just before, white space is not empty space, it’s doing its own job and serving its own purpose, so don’t feel the need to fill any white spaces you have with more content.
For example, have a look at this website design by Creative Web Themes that uses one image to represent the product, one bold title, two small lines of copy, and then a link to further information. 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.
When designing your piece, ask yourself if each element of your design is 100% necessary. 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
When designing a composition that has many elements in it, don’t just throw them all on the page and call it a day, because aligning these elements is a quick and easy way to transform your design from shabby to chic.
Having trouble aligning your elements? Canva will erase that trouble for you in no time with a super handy automatic alignment tool. Just drag your element around the page and Canva will align it with your other elements and snap it into place, just like magic.
Check out this example of a beautifully aligned magazine spread by Huck. The strong degree of alignment between its elements creates a sharp, neat and effective layout that is easy to navigate and is pleasing to the eye.
Aligning your elements in a strong and logical way also helps you create order amongst many elements. So, if you’re using a lot of images, a lot of type and/or a lot of graphic elements, alignment might just be your very best friend.
Alignment is also very important when dealing with type. 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
The rule of thirds is a simple technique where designers divide their designs up into three rows and three columns, and at the points where the vertical and horizontal lines meet is where your focal points should be.
Designer William Beachy plays by this rule with his designs as you can see in the example below. By placing focal points at each line intersection, his design is made striking and effective. Beachy also notes that “By avoiding a centered design you add some motion and interest.”
Using the rule of thirds is a great way to kick off your design’s composition as it gives you a quick and guide to positioning and framing your elements.
Check out this website design by Gajan Vamatheva for National Geographic and take a moment to imagine where the rule of thirds lines would intersect. You might notice that the lines would intersect over the focal point of each image – the two hikers in the first timage, and the largest bird in the second. The lines would also intersect at points around the text boxes, drawing the eye to these points.
A great way to get started with your design, particularly if you’re going to employ the rule of thirds is to start out with a grid. Grids can help you align your elements in a more logical way and have a clearer understanding of where the focal point/s of your designs will lie. Be sure to check out this tutorial on using Canva’s grid tools to give your designs a little more structure and order.
When you find a design that you think is very effective, try to mentally break it down and look for the underlying structure that it was built on. Did it use the rule of thirds? Or maybe it used a specific grid layout. Either way, dissect inspirational examples and take a leaf from their books wherever you can.
Mary Stribley – recent graduate from a Perth university where she studied creative writing and graphic design and got the bug for both. She has a knack for vector art and for taking on projects that are ambitious to a fault. When she’s not freelancing, she’s usually hunting for cheesy 80’s music videos.