This is the second installment in the 55 secret Rules in Design and Advertising. So far, I’ve covered:

  • Part 1: Basic Rules

Set 2: The Rules of Composition in Design

Composition describes the arrangement of the elements of art, or design, in an artwork, using the principles of design. Sometimes, comp is used as a substitute for artwork (mainly in advertising), although that’s actually incorrect, as the artwork is the piece itself and not the placement of the elements inside.

This leads us to the question: What are the elements of design? The answer is the first rule of composition:

1. Know your Stuff

The first rule of composition refers to knowing the elements and principles of design. Let’s take a look at the elements first.

These are the basic components, or ingredients, we use to produce an artwork. They provide the structure for a design. The elements of design are:

  • color – has three properties: hue/tint (red), intensity/purity (bright red), and what is an element of design itself:
  • value – the lightness or darkness (luminance), especially important for monochrome artwork
  • line – we all know a line when we see it – it can be straight or curved, thick or thin, solid or dashed or dotted, blurred or fuzzy, etc. etc.
  • shape – usually two-dimensional (e.g. a square)
  • form – a three-dimensional shape (e.g. a cube)
  • texture – the feel of an object, expressed by a surface quality like flat, glossy, glittery, wet, furry, sandy, leathery, etc.
  • space – the distance between (negative) and taken up by (positive) objects

Looking at our everyday work, we can see that everything we create and use, from a photograph over a vector illustration to a typeface, is made up of these elements.

Now, as we know what we’re talking about, let’s take a look at the principles of design. These refer directly to the elements of design as named above. They are intended to lead the designer in order to create a better artwork. Some tend to see the principles of design as ideals, others as issues; however both as inherent in the best designs. The principles of design are:

  • balance – the way the elements of art are arranged to create stability (symmetry, asymmetry, radial)
  • emphasis – the dominance given to an element in an artwork
  • harmony – a union, or blend, of aesthetically compatible components
  • movement – arranging, and combining, the elements of art to produce the look of action; also in a way that causes the eye to move over the work
  • pattern / rhythm – the repetition of an element; visual tempo creating movement
  • proportion – comparative relation of one part to another
  • tension – tenuous balance, capable of causing anxiety or excitement
  • unity – the combination of all elements into one complete whole, achieved through balancing harmony and variety
  • variety – the opposite of monotony in an artwork; the use of diversity

So there you have them. Knowing the elements and principles of design is of great importance for every designer. We use the elements every day and use the principles to make a composition, so we should know what we’re talking about!

Let’s move on to the 2nd rule of composition.