Design is all about taking a collection of elements and arranging them to tell a story in a single composition. Photography is all about arranging elements (or the perspective of elements) and arranging them to tell a story in a photograph. As you can see, the two are pretty similar; the interface is just different. Many of the elements of good photography also work well in design. If you’re looking to make the jump from photography to design, here are some great tips to get you started.
Begin with the end product in mind
Just like photography, most of the time, creating great designs does not happen by accident. Sure, there’s always that perfect moment of inspiration that catches us, and the pixels seem to arrange themselves. But, for the most part, it does not matter the type of design you’re working on, flesh out your concept and work it until it works, or it’s clear that it doesn’t.
Pause before you get started on a design and visualize the end product. It doesn’t have to be fully formed, but it does need to be concrete enough for you to mentally reference. When you’re starting out, I recommend that you sketch out an outline by hand so you can come back to it. If you decide halfway through to fundamentally change the design, re-sketch or edit on your hard copy first. This will force you to go through the creative process of proving the concept to yourself before you shift your on-screen design.
Composition Is King
Now that you have an idea of what you’re designing, get started with the composition. When naturally viewing a scene (think landscape photography), the human brain unconsciously picks out subjects of interest and focuses on them. However, when viewing an image or a design composition, the brain relies on the creator to tell it what’s important. Not having a clear focal point can result in a cluttered and messy frame that confuses the viewer as to what the subject is about.
You can help your viewer focus on your subject by choosing the right composition. Your objective is communication. Ideas, feelings, emotions, or information – choose a focal point that tells your story in the most compelling way.
Use the rule of thirds
Just like best practices in photography, by placing your focal points on or along the thirds of the composition, they draw the eye in a more natural manner. The rule of thirds is effective because it forces the viewer to focus on your subject and then take in the rest of the setting, allowing you to tell a story with the image.
Start your design process by taking your outline and placing overlaying it with a 9 square grid. The eye will naturally be drawn to the middle square, but it will also naturally flow along any of the individual third lines. Start placing the elements of your design beginning with the most important. If you want your viewer to focus on it – place it on the grid. This process is made significantly easier in a design software like CorelDRAW or Illustrator.
Create an Engaging Balance
The balance of design is the visual weight of all components of your design: objects, space, colors, and textures. Arranging this mix of elements results in a composition that feels aesthetically pleasing. Think of the balance as a scale – each element should have an equal or opposite element that stabilizes the layout.
There are three main types of balance:
Symmetrical – Each side of a composition has equal weight. It doesn’t have to be identical, but the weight of the components needs to feel the same.
Asymmetrical – One side of a composition has more weight than the other which results in a dominating element. You can justify this by adjusting the placement of the weight so it feels like it’s even. Asymmetrical balance requires a more purposeful and complex layout to feel natural. However, achieving this balance creates visual interest that can be incredibly engaging.
Radial – The elements of a composition are arranged around a central point. This balance is perfect for showing action or drawing the eye to your focal points.
It’s also possible to combine all three balances in a single composition
Especially when starting out, don’t be afraid to experiment using different kinds of balances. Even if you like the one you started with, try changing it and see if you like the feel better.
Draw the eye in with leading lines
The human eye will naturally follow lines in a composition. Use them to attract your viewer’s eyes to move around the design, leading them to your principal subject. As they follow along with the lines, you can tell the narrative of your composition. Use leading lines to guide the viewer on a journey.
To achieve a strong sense of three-dimensional space, adopt converging lines to draw the eye
A common pitfall of the new designer is the desire to fill a composition with as many elements as possible. Doing so can result in a cluttered design that distracts from the focal point you have worked so hard to highlight.
The best way to combat that is to be aware of and embrace space. Specifically, negative or white space.
- Positive space is easy – it’s the area that your subject and objects take up.
- Negative space is the area around, under, through and between the positive spaces.
White space is the use of empty space to give the elements of your composition breathing room. Do not fill up every space with content.
Remember that white space is also an element of your composition. It’s almost just as important as your focal point because it provides a space for your focal point to exist.
Do What Comes Naturally
When learning design, principles from other disciplines (like photography) can be helpful, but the most important tip I can give you is simply to create designs that look and feel natural to you. You share a common trait with those that will view your compositions – you’re human. If you feel like a design is unbalanced or doesn’t tell a story, it is probable that your viewer will as well. Be creative. Be imaginative. Create art design that you love.