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Composition Basics for Non-Designers

by Mary Ivanova

yellow chairs composition

I know what you are thinking – I’m not a designer, I use ready-made templates for any illustrations and visuals I might want, why do I need to learn composition basics? Two reasons: 1) this will help you become template customization guru (and who hadn’t hit a brick wall at least once when trying to fit your text and/or illustrations into the cutest template whose layout just won’t bend to your needs?), 2) we make it fun!

I’ll start the list with the most useful principles of composition, so that at any point you feel bored or overwhelmed, you can just like and share the post and come back to it when you’ve mastered the first batch of composition basics and feel ready for more!

Symmetry

Symmetry is one of those things you don’t notice until it’s gone. Unless asymmetry is intentional, symmetry in your image is necessary to allow the viewer’s attention to travel to other, more important elements of design. Symmetry is static and invisible and helps add formality to your design, whenever needed:

business meeting

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Make good use of the alignment tool to make sure the text you type in is still aligned with the rest of the template elements or to

More about alignment in this blog post.

Asymmetry

Make your design too perfectly symmetrical or balanced and you drain it of all visual interest. That can be a good decision if you need to add a sense of stability and even rigidity to your visual, but is generally not recommended. Asymmetry is an easy way to add some visual interest to your visual.

When asymmetry is intentional and calculated, it’s visually pleasing – a great way to make a statement or provoke curiosity. Use asymmetry to add accents and add a feeling of controlled chaos.

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Repetition

Using repeating elements shapes, colors and forms helps add rhythm to an image and connect all of its various elements into one single idea. Say, you want to create a disconnected frame effect on your design. You’ll use a corner-shaped border in the Objects tab and duplicate it for each corner. The repetition will bring your visual together.

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Visual hierarchy

The most important question with any design is what am I looking at? You viewer wants to know where to look and what’s the essential information they are getting from the design. Making that obvious is what makes your design effective.

“If every part is equally important, then every part is equally unimportant,” explains Hollywood artist Nathan Fowkes.

Establish visual hierarchy within your visual to create a path for your user. There are several techniques to help you do that:

Contrast

Contrast heightens tension within your design, highlighting the distinction between each element. Some elements of your design are going to be large and prominent, others faded into the background. Interestingly, the largest portion of your design is most likely going to be a neutral, medium value.

Larger text or objects with a lot of space around them draw the most attention, are easier to spot and process, and usually translate as more important than the rest of the visual. Making the central item of your design oversized is a great technique to add interest and establish hierarchy within the visual.

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Layers

Placing some design elements in front of others while some are moved to the back quite literally creates an order in which your pieces will be perceived. Skillful use of layers to help the viewer prioritize information in your design is key to good composition.

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If you are not that confident in your mastery of moving design elements between layers, look through our quick tutorial here.

Focal point

Establishing a focal point in your visual is a great way to create visual hierarchy. A focal point helps turn an image into a story where the rest of your design serves as a leading line toward the central idea of your visual.

Moreover, a focal point helps the eye go right to the most important part of the message, without wandering throughout the design without any sense of direction. A focal point helps gather information from your image in an organized, predictable manner.

Highlight your focal point using bright color:

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Harmony

Harmony of your visual means that there’s some common ground for all design elements in it – they are of similar color, style, line design or size. Harmony is not the same as repetition because harmonious elements aren’t necessarily the same but they complement each other and look like they come from the same “set”.

Here are a few ways you can create a more unified design:

Similar illustrations

If you are using more than one illustration for your visual, you need to keep them more or less uniform to maintain image harmony. There are a few ways for you to do that:

  • use icons from one set,
  • add photos or illustrations that are similar in colors and style,
  • use the same filter on all of the illustrations you are adding or turn them all black and white.

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Matching fonts

Fonts that reflect the mood of your visual and information in it are a great way to complement the rest of the design and maintain image harmony.

Some fonts have more character than others, so depending on the style you are going for, you can either use simple placeholder fonts or go a fancier route and use more ornate typefaces (which you might have a harder time matching, so here’s a link to our font matching tutorial for beginners).

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Leading lines

Leading lines help make your design more harmonious by connecting different elements of the design into a single flow that guides the eye in a certain direction. Leading lines can be literal lines leading to the focal point of the image or they can be implied shapes out of the design illustrations, text or other elements:

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Framing

There’s something about a frame that makes all elements inside it feel like they are part of the same set, even if they look nothing alike.

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Proximity

Items related to each other have to be placed close together. If you are including a list in your visual, make your design elements equal in size and matching in color and place them in a close group:

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Triangles

Both literal triangle shapes and arranging items in a triangle-shaped groups is a great way to put together your design elements and add just the right amount of imbalance to maintain interest without plunging into chaos:

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Movement

This might seem a bit challenging for designs of your giveaway announcements or article header images, but a sense of motion is another characteristic of engaging design. This is one of the reasons triangles we just talked about work – they are imbalanced and shaky by nature.

Make sure your design elements push your visual into a vivid, lively territory, instead of adding weight and rigidity.

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Gimme some space

White space is probably one of the most used phrases in articles about design. It’s any unused space in a design. White space makes your visual breathe and helps balance out larger items on the screen.

To create a better composition for your design, avoid cramming too much stuff in a limited space – not every nook and cranny of your picture or video needs to contain design elements or text:

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Another important space-related term (oft confused with white space) in design is negative space – the space within, between and around objects. Unlike white space, negative space is necessarily linked to objects filling the rest of the page and is a negative, i.e. unfilled space, in relation to them. It’s not always blank or empty, it can be filled with color or background pattern.

Negative space is a useful tool that can help make a design look clean and minimalist or add drama.

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Depth

Another way to make your design more engaging is making sure you create a sense of depth, three-dimensionality to it. That makes your visual feel like part of the physical world around the viewer and make it easier to mentally integrate the information you are presenting.

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Rule of thirds

One of the most respected rules of composition is the rule of thirds. It’s so respected, in fact, that even our cameras have the option to display grids on the viewfinder dividing your shot into horizontal and vertical thirds.

The four points where lines intersect create focal points – placing key elements of your design there can help add structure to designs that aren’t centered.

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Progression

Progression is a great visual tool to indicate change, maturation or growth. In the below example it serves as a metaphor for takeoff. Moreover, the heavier lower bars help emphasize the importance of the headline also located in the lower part of the image:

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Radical balance

Did you know that arranging elements or spaces around the center is called radical balance? Me neither.

It can be used for designs that need to get the viewer zero in on the central item in the composition only:

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Zigzag

The Z-layout is a great way to organize images in your design when you want to lead the eye of the viewer through your visual top to bottom:

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Rule of odds

Odd number of key items in your design, usually three, balances out your visual as the two additional design elements around your hero image (or headline) serve as a buffer:

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Suitable background

Whether you are using a photo or a pattern as your design background, make sure your background combines smoothly with the text and design elements on it. If you background is busy, make your text and design elements scarce.

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If you need to use a lot of text and/or design elements in your visual, pick a background that is spacious and allows for a lot of breathing room:

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Design-changing magic of cutting the crap

With all the bells and whistles of design at your disposal, it can be tempting to try and incorporate them all in your design – a leading line here and a visual contrast there, stylish repetition and a matching set of illustrations there. Marie Kondo your design by removing everything that doesn’t spark joy.

Your goal with effective design should be delivering your message with as little means as possible. Achieving the desired effect with one or two composition techniques is the most effective choice.

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Breaking the rules

Didn’t we promise to make this fun? Now that you are a freshly minted composition buff, it’s time to learn a few cool ways to break all those basic composition rules you’ve been learning so diligently!

Breaking some rules and getting away with it – it’s not just for professional designers.

Against all odds

Once in a while a static, perfectly aligned design is a great way to support your design’s message. Like in this design that might be overdoing it with the symmetry and balance but managing to convey the reliable stability and safety of romantic bliss perfectly:

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Lack of focus

Another way to break the rules of composition is making your message not a central focal point of the image. In this design the beautiful bouquet draws the viewer in and the text to the right provides the key information:

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Visual equality

On occasion, not establishing visual hierarchy within your visual can work as a unique design solution that adds interest to your piece and helps it stand out. Works great when you only have a little information to include, like in this template:

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Never too busy

Sure, spacious design with slight minimalist inclination may seem your best bet when it comes to successful composition. But in reality, if you combine your text, illustrations, headlines and photos right, a busy design can very well be a winning one:

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Road to nowhere

According to the rules, lines in the design need to direct the viewer to the most important parts of the image and guide them through the visual. But sometimes lines can be used more as an accent, and not, well, lead anywhere:

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Want more?

Now that you feel more confident customizing templates for your visual content needs, here’s a small selection of handy posts you might get some use of when preparing graphics for your social media and marketing:

A Guide to Simplifying Content Production for Multiple Social Media Profiles

Digital marketing Trends on the Rise for 2019

Top 10 Expert Tips on Researching Target Audience

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