What sets apart a good design from a great one? The devil is in the details. As with any other skill, like driving or cooking, for example, it’s important to master the basics first. You wouldn’t drive into heavy traffic on your first time behind the wheel, right? Similarly, when we talk about graphic design, the foundations of the trade are composition and layout. These graphic design basics are the building blocks of creating stunning visuals. In this post, we’ll walk you through the key layout and composition principles and how to incorporate them into your designs!

Graphic Design Basics – Composition and Layout

Before we dive in, let’s take a quick look at what composition and layout mean:


Composition means “putting together”. In graphic design, a successful composition is where all the separate elements come together to form a whole design.


A layout refers to the arrangement of elements on a page. The practice of arranging these elements is called “layout design”.

Related: Design Terms: A Must Read for Beginners!

Why are Composition and Layout Important?

Whether you’re designing a book cover or an Instagram story, it’s not enough to have a great idea. Humans are visual creatures. We make immediate connections and assign meaning to visual information. If what we’re looking at doesn’t hold our attention, we lose the plot – literally.

The Science Behind Visual Connections

Why Composition and Layout Matter

  • A well-composed design tells a story and sets the tone of your project.
  • A strong composition will not only attract eyeballs but also hold attention. Your audience will linger on your page, learn more about your product and you’ll potentially make a sale.
  • A powerful layout design delivers your brand’s message with confidence.
Source: Apple

For instance, in the image above, notice how Apple communicates its product’s story through design.

7 Layout and Composition Principles in Graphic Design

If you’re a newbie in the world of design, these rules will serve you well in creating stunning visuals. If you’re already a maestro, use them to brush up on your knowledge of graphic design basics.

1. Alignment

Alignment is the position of a design’s individual elements in relation to each other. It also refers to the placement of design elements along the top, bottom, sides or middle of a page. The way you choose to align your elements determines the success of your design’s composition.

For example, take a cue from the world-renowned fashion magazine, Vogue. The small text is justified to the left, leaving just enough room for the large text to fit into the indent. Notice how the composition uses simple, solid colors mirroring the model’s outfit.

If you’re new to design and don’t know how and where to start, read Simplified’s guide on smart alignment for powerful, well-adjusted visuals!

2. Focal Point

This section of graphic design basics takes its inspiration from photography. For instance, if you’re composing an online ad for pet food, the focal point will be your product. You’ll also want to add something that communicates your brand’s message. For example, a happy dog like Pedigree has done below:

Source: Pedigree

The focal point in design, also called the emphasis, is strongly intertwined with visual hierarchy. When designing, ask yourself this – where do I want my audience to look first?

Related: How To Use Photography In Graphic Design

3. Visual Hierarchy

Visual hierarchy in design refers to arranging elements from most important to least important. The most important element in your design will instantly grab your audience’s attention. For instance, an end-of-year sale in big, red block letters. Then, your design should help them visually navigate the others elements in decreasing importance. For this reason, elements can gain or lose emphasis through subtle but effective design tweaks. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Changing text and media sizes
  • Altering color contrasts
  • Placement on the page
  • Changing the relationship to other elements in the design

For example, Michigan Creative has created a wonderful tell-all design to advertise their services:

4. Balance and Symmetry

When it comes to composition and layout in design, you’ll never strike out after reading this. Did you know that not only are we visual creatures, but our DNA craves balance?

We are hard-wired to find symmetry because it exists in the natural world.

For instance, a snail’s shell is a self-similar object, repeating itself, smaller and smaller, and at all scales. This is commonly known as the golden ratio, the proportions of which are found in the Mona Lisa and the Pyramids of Giza.

We need balance and symmetry in design because it calms our tensions about visual chaos. Furthermore, if you want your design to communicate power and strength, achieving the right balance in design is paramount.

Twitter’s logo is a good example of a design that conforms to the proportions of the golden ratio:

Source: Responsify

5. Negative Space

Also called “white space,” negative space doesn’t necessarily imply colorlessness or emptiness. In fact, negative space adds to your design by subtracting from it. What does this mean?

For one, the empty areas of your design can give your composition space to breathe. This means that you can avoid visual chaos and clutter by purposefully leaving blank spaces.

For example, look at Batman’s eyes under the M. The negative space below the letters also serves as the top part of his suit. Pretty neat, right?

Want to learn more? Hop on over to Simplified to read about the power of negative space!

Source: Pinterest

Related: Why Visual Content Is The Future Of Marketing

6. Color Contrast

The contrast panel is a graphic designer’s best friend. By boosting or reducing the color contrast of your elements, you can either highlight or hide them. The best way to do this is to take a step back and look at your work as a whole. Ask yourself what you want the viewer’s eye to focus on. Once you know that, simply increase or decrease the contrast between that element in relation to the design. This is especially important to make designs that are colorblind-friendly.

Source: WebAIM

7. Complementary Design Elements

This may not come as a surprise, but not all your favorite elements will work together as a cohesive composition. When choosing elements for your design project at hand, carefully pick each one. There are several ways to choose complementary design elements:

  • If you’re using photographs, make sure they’re all shot in similar ways.
  • Tweak the colours of your elements so that they’re in sync with each other.
  • If your design has text, take some time to choose fonts that complement the images.
Source: LUSH

Take a cue from LUSH UK above, and notice the beautifully shot photographs in the same color palette.

Related: Top 10 Apps To Edit Aesthetic Photos On Your iPhone

In Conclusion

We may have reached the end of your graphic design basics journey, but this isn’t goodbye! Simplified is an all-in-one design platform where you can play around with composition and layout to make your designs better than ever! You can also edit photographs, apply filters, tweak colors, and so much more on Simplified. Give it a try today!

One Free app to design, collaborate, and scale your work – try Simplified today.

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