The Dos and Don'ts of Composition

The Dos and Don'ts of Composition

The title of this essay is fundamentally misleading. I will describe some Dos that you can "do" to help ensure your compositions don't flop, but telling you "don't" isn't a great way to teach.

Failure is part of life, undoubtedly part of MY design process, and a necessary, though usually painful, part of growth in general. I couldn't put it better than this. "The burned hand teaches best. After that, advice about fire goes to the heart." Gandalf the Grey said that.

If you're not going to believe ME about making mistakes, then consider one of the most well-known wizards that ever didn't exist. Maybe you'll like this quote better? "Have no fear of perfection—you'll never reach it." Salvador Dali said that one.

Although, if you can't trust an art professor or a fake wizard, should you trust a surrealist?

Dos and Don'ts of Composition - Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali

Mastering the Basics: Emphasizing Fundamentals and the Role of Iteration in the Design Process

I teach composition as part of my introductory design class. I have a hack that I'll tell you in a bit. A hack is fine when survival is on the line. However, a one-size fits all solution usually doesn't satisfy everyone.

Learning the fundamentals means that you always know what to do. I think the fundamentals are essential. In composition, it is to think in terms of contrasts. There are six that I teach. They are Form, Scale, Space, Direction, Weight, and Texture. They are the textbook answers, but the basics never change. That's what makes them the basics.

Another essential part of the design process is iteration. Warning! Sports metaphor following! In training for some sports ball thing, the coach tells the players to do drills. They run, jump, tackle, and sing, right? I don't play sports, so I don't know what they do. Regardless, what the coach is asking the player to do is to work on a problem again and again.

Iteration is similar. A designer doesn't just take one run at a problem from one direction. We approach a problem from various perspectives, giving us multiple starting points. We don't just go with our first idea, and that's that. We generate, we iterate. It's play. It's work. It's the drill.

Dos and Don'ts of Composition - Vintage football illustration


Utilizing Iteration and the 'Rule of Thirds' to Enhance Your Composition Skills

Take our six fundamental contrasts and now add the concept of iteration. Say we have two forms in our composition: a circle and a square. Now add a notion of SCALE. Make the Square big and the circle small. Or do the reverse. Now let's change the SPACE – crowd them together in a corner. Spread them far apart.

Now let's imply some DIRECTION. Change the WEIGHT. Then the TEXTURE. Before you know it, you're iterating your design ideas and creating a lot of different mediations.

Now that you've burned your hand, here is the easy composition hack that I promised. I teach the "Rule of Thirds," which is a way to think about the composition of your picture so that you don't create a dead design. Divide your paper or your canvas into thirds vertically and horizontally. Where those lines intersect are all good places to put the focal point of your work.

You can choose one, two, or even three of these intersections. Don't cover all four, however. The goal of most compositions should be to avoid centrality. Plopping stuff in the center of your page or canvas is a rookie move (more sports talk!) and will kill viewer interest.

The "Rule" is a hack, but it's also more. It's a reminder to always be thinking about the composition of your picture. How and where does the eye move? Where do you WANT the viewer to look? How can you shuffle the elements to make the things you want to have happen, happen?

Even with my thirty-plus years as an artist, I'll break out this simple grid and squint at what I'm doing. Does this approach fit every need? No. But it's good to have something to push you to be present in your work and to control your composition.

Dos and Don'ts of Composition - Vintage football illustration with grid

Go SPORTS with the Rule of Thirds grid applied

The Undervalued Role of Design Fundamentals

Design fundamentals aren't just for artists or designers. It's pertinent in almost any field where communication is essential. In higher education, most science and engineering research is presented as… dramatic pause… POSTERS! Even at the doctoral and professorial levels, engineers and scientists struggle with combining words and pictures effectively in order to communicate their research and attract funding and support for their work.

Guess, however, how much 2-D Design training most engineers and scientists get. Have you guessed ZERO? Because that's the answer. As a university professor, I've been telling anyone who will listen that an introductory design course, or two, would really help the fields of science and engineering. Few want to listen. Tell your kids and wake the neighbors. Learning how to compose an image and combine words and pictures effectively is a good thing for all people.

Dos and Don'ts of Composition - Science research poster not pictured

Not pictured: Science research poster. Most a truly wretched as pieces of graphic design. Google them and see for yourself.

The Connection Between Composition and Drawing

I'm not the only one who thinks design training should be for everyone. In 1957, Henning Nelms wrote, "If you have enough skill with a pencil to write your name, you can make a drawing." His book, "Thinking with a Pencil," was published in 1957 -- it's not new knowledge. Drawing is a teachable skill. Especially in the context of a significant research university. The question isn't CAN you learn to draw, the question is WILL you?

You might be thinking – weren't we talking about composition, and now we're talking about drawing? You're right. To my way of thinking, visual design and observational drawing are intertwined. Learn to make better compositions, learn to make better drawings. Same/same.

Dos and Don'ts of Composition - Thinking with a Pencil book

Thinking with a Pencil

Take Charge of Your Composition

Returning to "Thinking with a Pencil," you couldn't ask for a better book to learn a variety of approaches to drawing. The book isn't made for people who already have training in art, but rather it teaches what you need to know. Nelms identifies drawing not just as what we think of as classical observational representation but also includes map making, charts, and diagrams.

A used copy will set you back about $20. Drawing is not only a tool for expressing. It's a tool for thinking and a tool for persuasion. Controlling your composition means controlling your destiny.

About Christopher Sperandio

Christopher Sperandio is an artist, writer and university professor. In 2015, he founded the Comic Art Teaching and Study Workshop at Rice University, where he teaches art and comics. Sperandio has produced several comics fonts for RetroSupply including TOOM, and others. Sperandio writes a bi-monthly micronewsletter on art and comics. You can find Sperandio’s popular political comics on Instagram.