It’s not always easy to understand how graphic design works.

We see a nice poster or a nice brochure and we’re instantly thinking « whoa yes, that’s it, that works » consciously or unconsciously. Then when it comes to designing something or simply, organizing several elements of informations together (creating a composition) it’s then less easy and it can be frustrated to not understand why this or that brochure is so good and works and why what we produce feels not that easy and correct.

Through this note, we’ll try to give you the major points and rules that are to be taken in consideration when doing a composition (it can be your next flyer, a poster, your catalogue or brochure, your newsletter, a website page etc). More over, we’ll explain what they mean and why they are important.

But first: What do we call composition ? 

"Composition is the art of discovering and representing unity in variety" - Plato (idea that Paul Klee developed with his students at the Bauhaus1)

Composition in graphic design is the selection and the organisation in a determinate surface of the diverse elements of the subject: it’s the « art » of linking in a relevant way, the chosen elements of the project. 

To work, a composition as to be relevant, coherent and easy to read.  
To do so, there are several design rules that help creating this relevant and coherent content.

1 - Unity & Harmony: Proximity, Similarity, Continuation, Repetition
2 - Balance: Symmetry, Asymmetry
3 - Hierarchy & Path: Visual and Intellectual journey
4 - Scales & Proportions (+ Golden Rule)
5 - Dominance & Emphasis
6 - Order + Unity + Movement + Harmony = The rhythm
7 - Unity & Variety: Contrast
8 - Background & Shape: In & Out / Full & Empty

1 - Unity & Harmony: Proximity, Similarity, Continuation, Repetition

By harmony is meant here a composition which aims to achieve a visual balance in the field of application. 

"Harmony is the relationship that accords the different parts of a complex whole in such a way that this meeting forms a coherent, happy, satisfying whole for the mind and the senses" Etienne Souriceau, professor of aesthetics at the Sorbonne University, Paris . 

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2 - Balance: Symmetry, Asymmetry

    Symmetry - Element on either side of the axis are arranged similarly  

Symmetry - Element on either side of the axis are arranged similarly  

    Asymmetry created by the proportion of the mass into spac 

Asymmetry created by the proportion of the mass into spac 

Element differ on each side but stil are in visual equilibrium. 

3 - Hierarchy & Path: Visual and Intellectual journey

The composition does not distract the attention of the subject and lose the reader in the field of application, so even taking the view too quickly out of the frame can be detrimental. It is essential to control the progression of the gaze in the image by the composition if one wants to best serve the subject treated. 

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4 - Scales & Proportions

Size: Elements of different sizes in relationships with each other
Ratio: Elements related to each other in a ratio appear together in visual harmony
Division: These create focal points that automatically give a sense of the relationship

5 - Dominance & Emphasis

Highlight: Breaking the visual hierarchy using form to lay emphasis
Colour: To distinguish between elements in a series of similar form
Size: Elements of different sizes focus viewer attention accordingly  

 

6 - Order + Unity + Movement + Harmony = The rhythm

«  We can perceive the rhythm simultaneously in three different senses. First hear it, second see it and thirdly feel it in our muscles. »  
Paul Klee

Rhythm plays a living link between all parts of the composition. It is at once a principle of order, diversity and unity or harmony.

The rhythm is inevitable: It makes it possible to subdivide time and space. It works on times or landmarks perceived consciously or not according as they will be more or less emphasized.

The rhythm facilitates the reading: it organizes the meeting with the composition. It defines and qualifies a temporality.
The rhythmic effect can be ensured by the distribution of light and dark spots as well as by color, formal elements or effects of matter.
The rhythm is all the more attractive as it offers possible developments and gives a sense of infinity to the composition. The cold is therefore a major principle.

A grid can be considered as a rhythmic frame, a frame that is chosen to mark with more or less insistence according to the final perception sought.      

7 - Unity & Variety: Contrast

Contrast is a principle of deviation which can go as far as contraries; It allows both to unite and separate. When the deviations are fully balanced and mastered, one can speak of unity and coherence as for a contrasting couple. Two opposing plastic elements can offer unity by their complementarity. This is the case of couples such as black and white, red and green, the circle and the square ..

Contrasts make it possible to emphasize the identity of each actor, to reveal, to order, to amplify the visual impact, to hold the attention, to make the composition expressive.

The concept of contrast applies as much to the shape (geometry, scale), directions (horizontal, vertical, oblique), colors (hot and cold, light and dark etc.), textures (rough or smooth, matte or glossy , Etc.). 

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8 - Background & Shape: In & Out / Full & Empty

The white background often acts as an empty space from which the image emerges, this empty space being "presented for perception but not for composition" (Norman Bryson).

The background can be perceived as a concrete surface of silence, an indeterminate in which form can appear. It offers the possibility of the presence of things. Form is definitely defined only by its opposition to the bottom. This opposition between form and form is at the basis of the "Gestalt Theory".

The greater the contrast between the background and the form, the more distinctive and mutually reinforcing these elements are. In a composition, the "empty" or almost "empty" parts are as important as the solid parts where patterns abound. The white background often provides the vital space around the form; An area of rest, meditation as in a musical page, the abstract space of all possible.