Design: its the little things that count

Reading: Reading Images by Kress and van Leeuwen, Chapter 6: The meaning of composition

Spatial composition refers to the way something is physically set up.  For instance, in movies the composition of a shot would deal with the way the objects in said shot are set up to create meaning. For example, take into account that in movie, different shots are long, wide, different focuses are used, different angles, each of these aspects of the composition of a shot helps convey meaning. Its actually quite intricate.

However, I’m not interested in movie compositions, I’m interested in the composition of images and layouts. Here are three interrelated systems that help determine the way something is developed (courtesy of Reading Images):

1. Information value. The placement of elements (participants and syntagms that relate them to each other and to the viewer) endows them with the specific informational values attached to the various ‘zones’ of the image: left and right, top and bottom, center and margin.

2. Salience. The elements (participants as well as representational and interactive syntagms) are made to attract the viewer’s attention to different degrees, as realized by such factors as placement in the foreground or background, relative size, contrasts in tonal value (or color), differences in sharpness, etc.

3. Framing. The presence or absence of framing devices (realized by elements which create dividing lines, or by actual frame lines) disconnects or connects elements of the image, signifying that they belong or do not belong together in some sense.

Take note that these three principles of composition apply to pictures, visuals with text and image, and a number of other genres. Genres that incorporate both pictures and text are integrated text, meaning that the viewer doesn’t look at them as separate entities, but as one entity with interrelated parts.

So lets say you’re designing a magazine article that needs to incorporate text with images. Would you slap the text on the page in a typical fashion and place images at the bottom? Well I’d hope not. A large part of spatial composition is attention to detail. Columns, white space, font, text color, they all have an impact on the way a piece looks because they all are subtle, yet integral parts of a piece. In other words, pay attention to small details! They can make or break your work!

Here are some other factors of spatial composition that you may find useful.

The left of the page is usually for given (or standard) information, where the right side is usually for new information.  In this same fashion, the top is usually for the ideal aspect of an ad, while the bottom is for the real. These layouts are designed this way because the human eyes usually looks to the left of a horizontal ad, and the top of a vertical ad.

Text is usually on the left of an ad.

Given-new compositions are seen on television when interviewers are placed on the left side of the subject.

In cultures where they read right to left (in contrast to our left to right) these spatial composition values would actually be confusing. In this same sense, think about if there was a culture where dark meant good and light meant bad (in contrast to dark meaning bad and light meaning good in our culture). Think about how utterly backwards it would be looking through some of their ads.

Discussion Question

1.  Think about some of the more memorable ads  you’ve seen lately. What made them memorable?

2. Do you think anyone would be able to create great compositions? Or would it have to be someone who was gifted in design?


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