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How to Compose a Better Page Layout

Page Composition Tips

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Page layout or page composition is the process of placing and arranging and rearranging text and graphics on the page. A good composition is one that is not only pleasing to look at but also effectively conveys the message of the text and graphics to the intended audience. There are certain tried and true elements of page composition that can help insure a successful layout. You may notice that these page composition tips are closely tied to the principles of design.

1. Align All Elements With Each Other or a Grid

Grid Alignment
© J. Howard Bear
Place each text or graphic element on the page so that they have a visual connection to each other. You can use horizontal or vertical alignment, align objects along the same edge or center them. Eyeballing it can work but for complicated layouts, a grid is helpful. This one composition tip alone can greatly improve the composition of a page because our eyes and brains crave a certain amount of order and consistency.

2. Select a Single Visual or Make Strong Visual Connections

Screenshot by J. Bear; Die Ziet and Chicago Tribune, examples from Poynter Online, July 3, 2003
Screenshot from Poynter Online
One of the simplest and perhaps most powerful layouts use one strong visual. However, if using multiple images, keep them connected both through alignment and proximity — grouping the images so that they form a single visual unit and aligning them in a similar fashion.

3. Keep Odd or Even Elements in Balance

Asymmetrical balance
© J. Howard Bear
Creating the right balance is both about the number of text and graphics elements and how they are arranged on the page. Odd numbers tend to create a more dynamic layout. Use an odd number of visuals, odd numbers of text columns. Or, create a dynamic layout with an asymmetrical arrangement of elements. Symmetrical balance or the use of even elements such as two or four columns or a block of 4 pictures generally produces a formal, more static layout.

4. Divide the Page Into Thirds

Rule of Thirds Illustrated
© J. Howard Bear
Related to balance, the rule of thirds suggests that a more pleasing composition is possible if your arrangement of text and graphics can be placed using one of these guidelines:
  1. most important elements spaced more or less evenly within vertical or horizontal thirds
  2. most important elements concentrated in the upper or lower third of the page
  3. most important elements centered on one of the points where lines intersect after visually dividing the page into thirds horizontally and vertically

5. Add White Space in the Right Place

Use White Space
© J. Howard Bear
Just as important as the text and graphics on the page is the empty space. Cramming too much on the page even if it is perfectly aligned and balanced and falls within the rule of thirds can ruin a composition. The page needs visual breathing room. The best place for white space is around the edges of the page (margins) and the edges of text or graphic elements so it doesn't get trapped in the middle of the page but increased paragraph, line, and letterspacing can also improve a layout.

6. Use Two or More of the Same Design Element

Repetition and Consistency
© J. Howard Bear
If one is good, two is better? Sometimes, yes. Repetition can come in the form of consistent use of alignment, using the same colors for related items (such as pull-quotes or headlines), using the same style or size of graphics, or simply placing the page numbers in the same spot throughout a publication.

7. Emphasize Differences Between Design Elements

Use Contrast for Emphasis and Interest
© J. Howard Bear
While some aspects of page composition involve things that are the same — the same alignment, consistent use of color — it's also a good idea to do some things differently, to use contrasting elements including color and alignment. The greater the difference the greater the contrast and the more effective the layout. Simple examples of using emphasis include making headlines a great deal bigger than other text and using a different size or color of text for captions, pull-quotes, and page numbers.

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