A work of art or craft is made up of design elements, like colour, shape and line. The way we arrange them into a picture in our work depends on our experience, traditions and inspiration. There are also some common design principles that we might be using when we make our decisions about composition. Identifying the decisions we make can help us understand how the design elements work together.
Proportion and Placement
The size and placement of design elements affects how they relate to each other. For example, the size of an object can indicate if it is near or far. Where we place objects in our design can also show the viewer if it is near or far. Larger objects at the bottom of the picture seem closer, smaller objects in the middle or near the top seem further away. We can also use size and placement to create emphasis.
We often crop photographs to focus on the area of interest, or to make the picture more balanced. When we chose a specific area within our view to use for the picture, we are cropping the image – even if it’s only in our imagination at the time. We are making important decisions about what we will use, and what we will leave behind.
Movement is created by the path followed by the viewer’s eye when they observe an image. We can use design elements to take the viewer from point to point through our composition. Lines, pattern and emphasis can all be used to guide the viewer from one part of a composition to another.
You can create contrast by placing opposite elements next to each other. The colours black and white create the greatest degree of contrast. Complementary colours also contrast with one another. Contrast can be used to create visual interest and to direct the viewer’s attention to a particular point, the focal point of a design. You can also create contrast with texture (rough and smooth) or shape (large and small, or simple and complex).
Repetition not only attracts the eye, it also creates a sense of order in a design. It can be used to create rhythm, gently guiding the viewer through the space, or through the items in a design. By repeating design elements we can create patterns. Pattern is often used to form a border.
Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds tells us that if we arrange the important elements of a picture near the lines that would divide the picture into thirds, it seems more natural and is visually pleasing. This is a design principle that is often used in photography.
In the photographs of the lighthouse below, imaginary lines have been drawn to divide the photo into thirds horizontally and vertically.
- In the first photo, we can see that the lighthouse is two thirds of the way over from left to right, and the line where the land meets the water is one third of the way up.
- In the second photo, the lighthouse is one third of the way over and the horizon line is one third of the way up.
Sometimes you want to create a symmetrical design where both sides are the same, or a design that is the same all the way around.
- In the third photo we can see that the window is right in the middle, dividing the picture in two and creating a symmetrical composition.
Unless you want to create a symmetrical composition, the important elements of a design should be off-centre, and can be balanced by smaller elements. If there is a horizon line, it should be positioned above or below the centre to emphasize either the sky or ground.
Odd and Even
Having an odd number of elements in an image tends to be more interesting than an even number. An even number of elements can be used to create formal symmetry – in a patchwork quilt, for example. But formal symmetry can appear less natural, so an odd number of elements can be used if your intent is to have a more natural look – in a landscape quilt, for example.
Compositions with a lot of elements can create distractions and make it difficult to identify the subject of the picture or design. Simplification can be used to help the viewer focus on the important elements.
We make choices about the viewpoint when we are putting our composition together. For example, you might decide to take a photograph from a certain angle. When someone views that photograph, their feet are in the same place that yours were when you took it. They see what you saw. We can use viewpoint to bring ourselves and the viewer to a certain place – in the middle of the action, viewing from the sidelines, or seeing into our imagination.
Unity and Variety
Unity is created by similar elements within a composition that give a sense of harmony. It could be a similar theme, colour scheme, or material, or the items could be grouped by similar use. Variety is created by the use of contrasting elements and can add interest or emphasis to a composition.
When we are making a work of art or craft we are constantly making decisions about line, shape, colour, texture and so on, and what it all means when it is put together. The meaning of a coloured form is determined by its position, colour, and shape and by the interaction between it and other parts of the composition. The meaning is determined by the viewer, the interpretations the viewer makes.
Different design elements carry different visual weight, or impact. Something that attracts the eye and makes it rest there longer (colour, shape, texture, contrast) is said to have more visual weight. Balance refers to the equal distribution of visual weight in a composition.
When something is balanced it gives a sense of order. When something is unbalanced it can make the viewer feel uncomfortable. Balance is an important principle in design and understanding it can help us to make decisions that affect how our work feels to a viewer.
When you have a complicated design with many elements it can become difficult to identify how individual elements create balance. That is when your artistic intuition takes over. You sense that it works or doesn’t work.
There are different types of balance: symmetrical, asymmetrical and radial.
Symmetrical Balance is created when two sides of a design are the same, a mirror image of each other. Symmetrical balance is formal and very stable. It uses repetition to create visual interest.
Asymmetrical Balance is created when the two sides of a design are different, but the visual impact, or level of interest, is the same on each side. For example, one side of a design might have a large image and the other side a group of small images. The group of small images can carry the same level of visual interest as the large image on the other side. Asymmetrical balance is useful in design because it keeps the viewer’s eye moving and can create drama.
Radial Balance is created when there is a focal point in the centre and items of equal interest are placed around it, like the numbers on the face of a clock. In your crafts you might use radial balance in beadwork to create a flower or snowflake design on a slipper.
How Design Elements Affect Balance
- Size: Larger shapes or objects have more visual weight, or visual interest.
- Position: the further a shape is from the centre of a design, the more visual weight it has, so that a small shape on the outer edge can balance a large shape at the centre.
- Quantity: A group of small shapes carries more weight, or has more visual interest and can be used to balance a large shape.
- Meaning: Meaning adds visual weight in a composition. A photo of a face has more visual weight than a shape the same size and colour with random texture or pattern.
- Space: Negative space is the shape created around an object by the background. When we have a single shape, or a simple group, another shape is created by the negative space in the background. The shape of the negative space can be used to create contrast and balance. A small shape in the middle of a design can seem uncomfortable because the negative space overwhelms it. Too little negative space can affect a design too. Sometimes if a design is too close to the edges of the work it can feel uncomfortable because the eye has nowhere to rest.
- Isolation: A shape on its own has more visual interest.
- Diagonals: Diagonal lines or a diagonal arrangement of shapes pull the viewer’s eye through the design. They can be used to create drama. Horizontal and vertical lines create a feeling of stability and generally have less visual impact than diagonals.
- Colour and Value: Brighter colours have more visual weight than lighter colours. Dark shapes or images have more visual weight than lighter ones.
- Shape: A complex shape has more visual interest than a simple shape. A small complex image or shape can balance a large simple image or shape.
- Texture: A shape with heavy texture has more visual interest than one with no texture. Textures can be used to create contrast within the design.
What do you do when it doesn’t work?
There are a few things you can try – turning your work upside down or looking at it in a mirror to get a fresh view. Sometimes taking a photo helps. Suddenly you see your work as a whole picture, not as the ideas, brushstrokes or stitches you have put into the work. Now you can analyse what works and doesn’t work with a fresh eye.
Exercise: Experimenting with Design Principles
Experimenting helps you to identify the design elements that do and don’t work for you. With this exercise, you can move design elements around, change out backgrounds and colours and pause to see how each design works. Try taking photos of the compositions you make. You can then analyse the photos to see what is making each composition work or not.
Our exercise is available here in PDF format: