Fundamentals of design: Proportion Monday April 21, 2008, 0 comments

Last time I explored the concept of balance, which is one of the more encompassing principles of composition. A designer can control the emotional impact of a piece by creatively using (or abusing) balance.

This post will be a short exploration of proportion. Proportion is a much smaller topic than balance in terms of scope, but it is still one of the more important principles of composition.

Proportion is all about scale, about large objects and small objects. Most people raised in western society learned at a relatively young age that a sense of depth, or distance, could be created by making objects closer to the viewer larger, and those more distant objects smaller. By using proportion in this way, a composition can be given a sense of depth. In eastern cultures, a sense of depth is conveyed by placement – the closer an element is to the top of a composition, the closer the audience perceives it to be. And it will be perceived to be further away if it is closer to the bottom of the composition.

See-saw

In conjunction with depth and distance, proportion gives us another important attribute that can be used to clarify a message. Not only are larger objects perceived as closer, they are also more dominant than other objects. It seems obvious, but the closer something is, the more important it seems. Conversely, smaller objects can appear further away, and thus are perceived as subordinate to larger objects.

This dominance and subordination allows the designer to create a visual order out of an otherwise potentially chaotic composition. More important elements can be made more dominant by making them larger, while less important information can be subordinated by making it smaller. As with balance, composition can make use of dominance and subordination to create a sense of chaos.

Proportion - Man threatening woman

And like balance, proportion can be used to enhance the emotional qualities of the piece. Larger images are more evocative and emotionally powerful, especially when the proportion not natural (arge man looming over a small woman to create more of a sense of fear, or a large woman conquering a smaller corporate world to reinforce a strong female message).

Proportion - Woman conquering city

Manipulating order and chaos, and the dominance and subordination of culturally powerful imagery (guns, babies and religious symbols are all examples of culturally loaded imagery) can create a jarring emotional impact to reinforce a message. These same properties can be used to render the piece emotionally flat, if required.

A strong understanding of proportion and how it can be used to to modify the message or purpose of content, can add depth and order (or disorder) to composition.


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A Rain of Frogs is written, designed and built by Adrian Lebar, a twenty(!) year veteran of web design and development. He is currently managing web and mobile development teams at Canada’s largest and most beloved classifieds site, Kijiji!

He is a father, sailor, snowboarder, skier, cyclist, writer, artist, graphic designer, classically trained musician and afraid of heights.

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