Composition: The Things I’m Learning to Check For…

When we compose we organise.


Whether we want it to look chaotic or minimally peaceful, if it achieves what it’s set out to do, the composition is achieved.


I see composing much like the work of the conductor of an orchestra leading the instruments; queuing them in and gesturing their approach to each phrase – the conductor oversees the big picture while simultaneously moving the piece in the desired direction. Of course, individually, the musicians know what they’re playing but it needs that leader to stand with a firm back to monitor, judge and arrange for that planned emotional output.


In design, the principles remain the same, just without the harsh constraint of live timing.


This is why the main skill of composition is Oversight – Being able to see the project as a whole; greater than its individual parts, then, be able to effectively direct the individual parts to create that big picture.


But what is it to Effectively compose and what are the most important things to oversee?


Here’s what I’ve learnt which has turned into my de facto checklist when composing helping me get that all-important perspective for the bigger picture:


1. Balance


Whether your composition is symmetrical or asymmetrical, balance is the ‘glueing’ of all the elements in the composition.


All the elements should be arranged in a way that no one area should unfairly overpower another. Everything should fit just so; the elements interacting with each with minimum fuss; all uniting and contributing to their sum.


Think of the visual weight of each element and how it would be balanced out. The weight of a display font is heavier than a piece of body text, but an evocative image is heavier than both, balancing them all out on the page will help the viewer see the whole thing on first glance in a more pleasing way; inviting them to explore the piece further.


A composition which is unbalanced will have unwanted tension and perhaps attract the viewer to unnecessary areas of the piece in the wrong order.


Watch as I balance these basic forms from unbalanced to balanced and notice how they emote differently:


2. Harmony


Assessing the visual harmony is to assess that the elements are consistent. Whether that’s in their size, colour, or weight, keeping the characteristics of these elements even and unchanged will give the composition a clear and unifying voice.



Additionally, harmony is essential if you want to apply contrast to the composition. Contrast means there needs to be an even norm for there to exist any counterpoint which would create contrast.


So by establishing a running harmony, you create the grounds for there to be the opportunity for contrasting elements. Which brings us to…


3. Contrast


Having contrast is usually important in a composition as it not only focuses the eye to specific parts of information but can work in balancing elements which stand in comparison.


Often the contrast or counterpoint will make the piece stick, giving it a centrepiece or sense of importance to a specific area. A good example is the old silhouetted iPod advert campaign which used high contrast to highlight and focuses the viewer’s eye on the size and energy of the then-new and revolutionary mp3 player.



Here’s a quick example I threw together whereby placing body text in even squares at the top and using a consistent typeface throughout, I have established a harmony and consistency before adding the contrast with a dynamic range of font sizes and placement to flow beneath; adding importance and dynamism to specific information.


It’s interesting, even though the text is Lorem ipsum sample text (generated from this handy website), the viewer can see what order the important information would go in.




4. Proximity and Negative Space


Are the elements too crowded or have they been spaced too far apart?


Proximity is the relationships between the elements. If the elements are close, it can be more difficult to establish contrast, however, spacing elements close can look more ordered and structured if that is your intention.



When elements are further apart and broken up a bit, you have room to breathe and think, this can be good for those compositions which are dealing with dense or complicated subject matter or compositions which want to emote finesse or an elegance of some kind. See the difference from above to the beneath… which looks more engaing to read despite there being no images or a language to draw on our attention.



When arranging the proximity of elements you also have to take into account the negative space around it. Elements are almost never without this space and so it always will need to be considered.


Employing lots of negative space allows the viewer’s introspection and thought. It makes things more digestible.


When looking at the composition I think of different landscapes and how the composition can emote similar outputs. For example, the inner city of London is full of confusion, congestion and noise, it’s also exciting and full of vibrance. A lone vineyard in the south of France, however, is peaceful and open, time slows down and it invites you to wonder endlessly.


5. Rhythm 


A good visual rhythm brings the viewer from page to page and element to element; drawing the eye to one body to the next with what seems like a natural force.


Setting a rhythm is an artsy way of saying repetition with variation, basically repeating and varying patterns over a given space.


The more you vary the pattern the more interesting the rhythm becomes. Too varied and you lose the rhythm as the pattern becomes unidentifiable. Imagine, you have a steady beat playing on a drum kit versus a drum kit falling down a staircase, the same sounds are present in each but one has a rhythm that makes your toes tap.


Inspiring visual rhythms can be found in nature like these loose floating rhythms of reeds in the wind…



Or this progressively noisy rhythm set forth by this steel grate staircase…



Or how the colour and perspective creates this gentle fanning rhythm…



We can see that natural visual rhythm aren’t just dependent on the form itself but where we place ourselves as the viewer; creating the rhythm with our own perspective.


In Closing


Using these five basic pillars of composition, I use them as a sort of checklist for when I’m taking that step back to see the bigger picture.


It’s easy to get lost in the individual elements; unable to see the forest for the trees, especially when you’ve been focused on one thing for what seems like forever, so getting that fresh perspective to see the whole can be difficult. But by using these basic tenets of composition, I can then judge things as its sum and then once problems are defined, get back inside it to make my desired composition from its individual parts – like a conductor.


Remember, the composition holds the message you want to communicate, it makes the message gravitate and impact the viewer in whichever way we’ve decided best. So treat it with care and precision and the composition will become our friend, not an untameable beast we can’t control.