Graphic Design Foundations: Layout and Composition


Good layout is what makes great ideas successful, appealing and most important: less boring.

This course taught by Sean Adams is part of the Graphic Design Learning Path on LinkedIn Learning. These study notes combine the essences of the taught material for later reviewing. I recommend to watch the videos as every aspect is accompanied with a visual representation, strengthening the argument for, or against.

Good layout is if it attracts attention, provides a clear, powerful message, and helps tell the story and the tone of the project. Bad layout: cluttered, confusing and dull. The job is to stop the viewer at everything they are doing and focus only on our piece. This isn’t possible with safe, nice and banal.

While good writers have to do a lot of reading to become great, good designers have to do a lot of viewing.

01. Layout Elements

Stop your brain working against you. And start segmenting lines, not objects.

01. Using shape and line to guide the viewer

Whenever we see a shape our pattern-recognition forces us to instantly recognize it as the most possible instance. Is that blood on the floor or just wine? Even only small amounts of information let us assume the correct meaning.

Cases of simple shapes include:

  • Minimal information: We assume the meaning
  • Multiple use of same shape: We see the unifying feature in different products
  • Shapes in the background: Give a dynamic feeling
  • Implied shapes (e.g. peoples postures make an X): Give order and energy
  • Repetition of same shape: Sense of unity, all forms relate
  • Content split into shapes: Simplicity

Lines, or rules, delineate information and guide the reader. They work as divider between two separate pieces of information. They identify areas on a page and provide structure.

  • Use rules logically: Thicker rules applying more important information, thinner rules used on detailed copy.
  • Different weighted rules for that dynamic feeling of importance.

“Determining which shapes work best to communicate the message and where rules are applied is a great first step when beginning a layout. … You can always change your mind if it doesn’t work once you start laying in elements. It’s simply the first broad stroke on your page.”

02. How color affects a layout

One approach that doesn’t work is called mush. When a piece is just timid and bland. Often color is the culprit. While you may have fears about the right way and colors (see color theory) and there are groups who define the right colors for fashion and similar: As long as you use them with confidence, there are no two colors that don’t like each other.

Some visual truths:

  • Warm colors advance in space, cool colors recede
  • Certain color combinations create visual vibration: Typically a negative, sometimes the bad is good
  • Bright colors attract attention, people like them
  • Children are attracted to high contract combinations
  • Subtle tones convey sophistication

The subject matter shout define the choice of the palette. Use color to draw the viewer into the piece, and to differentiate space:

  • Signify a headline from body copy. Or a sidebar from the text.
  • Help the viewer identify content: Don’t let the user drown in a see of gray.
  • Define individual elements and clarify information. Differentiate complex data and charts.

Color usage and layout fails when it hinders understanding. If there is no logic behind the choices and the viewer tries to apply order and clarity to the piece, they get lost. “Using color as a tool to guide the viewer, create visual interest and add legibility is a great approach.”

03. The cultural meaning of color

Design is often subjective. Color is the most volatile aspect of out toolbox. One person might like it, the other despise this certain color. And the responses to that are very personal.

Take care:

  • Treat lightly, allow others to have illogical responses
  • Find meaning to colors based on personal experience
  • Sometimes specific colors override emotional responses, because they are right for each other: i.e. specific blue and orange
  • Mind cultural changes of color meaning: e.g. white is western pureness and Eastern Death.
  • Use cultural meaning to your benefit: e.g. blue-red American patriotism or red cross medical symbolism
  • Mind competitors colors. Steer clear to stand out by yourself.
  • Use subtle shades to imply less obvious messages: e.g. appear natural and rustic with brownish-backgrounds instead of white
  • To stand out use bright colors.
  • To differentiate use industry-untypical colors, i.e. magenta book covers in a green gardening bookshelf

“There is no one right way to handle color. Everyone responds to it differently. I found it best to be aware of the inherent meaning, logical reasons and do what I believe is right. And the be open to feedback when I show that ocher poster.”

04. Laying out text for better communication

“Typography is pictures of words. And words stand in for images and ideas.” Words and how they are depicted are as important as the imagery.

Copy and typography:

  • Don’t simply repeat what the image says
  • Copy should add to the information, or meaning of the image

First we scan for a recognizable image, then when look for a headline that provides additional information, and finally we access the smaller copy.

  • Allow the image and copy pose a question: Intrigue the viewer.
    • Present an intriguing image
    • Let the headline reconsider the question
    • Use the small text to explain what we are seeing
  • Take away information to create interest
  • Use typography as elements inside the picture, i.e. the headlines as censorship bars
  • Take it further and make the images the typography

As a designer you may feel that its not your place to comment on the copy, but the content is a combination of words and images. If the words can make it better make a suggestion, explain your point of view, and let the writer solve the problem. As a designer, you have the permission, in fact, the responsibility to consider all aspects of a design.”

All in all I give myself …

Personal Critique, Feedback and Stuff to whine about.

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