Proportions and Composition in Design

Designing is a discipline that is reliant on more than one field of study. In essence, designing is interdisciplinary. It requires a clear understanding of culture, popular trends, technological advancements, aesthetic supremacy, and even biology.

Designs are in everything that we happen to sense – they’re in music, art, content formation, and even food and beverages. Just like design, mathematics is ubiquitous. It can be found in art, science, and visual aesthetics, to name a few. Resultantly, designing has a lot more to do with mathematics than what meets an uninformed eye.

Two exigent principles that rule the aesthetic appeal of designs are proportions and composition. It does not take an erudite thought to figure out that both proportion and the composition are offshoots of mathematics. Therefore, geometry is a crucial field of knowledge to have expertise in producing appealing designs.

While proportions are directly correspondent to geometry, the composition takes some understanding of the field you’re working on. The importance of these two principles and how they influence design are explained in detail in the following article.

Understanding Proportion

In the following section, the principle of proportion and its importance in design is explained in detail.

What is the Proportion?

Proportion can be described as the relationship between the weight, size, and aspect of different design elements. It refers to each element’s dimensions and how they correspond with each other in the overall composition.

The way proportions are used to influence the appearance of realism or stylism of each element. Proportions are crucial while creating accurate designs. The accuracy in return affects where the viewer’s attention is directed and how appealing the entire design looks.

Proportions set a relationship between various elements that are put together with respect to color, degree, setting, size, and degree. This relationship becomes harmonious when all elements are put together in a desirable ratio with respect to one another. An earnest proportion brings balance and coherence among the various parts of the design.

Complementary proportions can be found in almost all fields of visual and aural arts. Musical proportions are seen in Beetles’ music. Similarly, graphic designing, interior designing, photography, and fashion designing are a few examples of niches that rely on proportions.

Ratio in Proportion

Generally, the principle of proportion is applied to design with respect to size. The size of one element should complement the size of other related elements in the design, i.e., all element sizes should be in a prefixed ratio. Wonderfully, a proportion is only noticed when some element is out of proportion, i.e., is unharmonious.

An equal distribution of elements is what comes to mind when thinking of a good proportion. But imagine a single painting with four equal-sized circles drawn on it. It seems monotonous, doesn’t it?

Similarly, think of canvas with two circles drawn on it. One has the diameter of an ostrich’s egg, while the other has the diameter of a pea. It seems unharmonious, doesn’t it?

Therefore, a perfect proportion is one in which one element is larger than the other but not large enough to overpower the smaller element. The perfect proportion ratio is called the golden ratio. A brilliant illustration of the golden ratio is Da Vinci’s Proportions of a Human Figure.

The Golden Ratio

Two design elements are in a golden ratio if their ratio is equivalent to their sum ratio to the larger element.

To understand this, imagine that the two elements in question are A and B, A being the larger element. If A: B is equal to A+B: A, the two elements are in a golden ratio.

This becomes even more fascinating when considering a golden rectangle. Imagine the rectangle’s width to be divided into the A, as mentioned above and B. If a square of side length equal to A is put on top of this rectangle, the rectangle’s leftover, whose length is B, becomes a golden rectangle itself.

The division process can be repeated infinite times. Every time, the leftover rectangle will be a golden rectangle. This phenomenon greatly influences visual arts, as each element becomes complementary to one another.

However, the golden ratio is not practical since its proportions are difficult to draw and use. The practical ratios that are closest to the golden ratio are 9:16 and 3:4.

(Source : Google Images)

The 9:16 aspect ratio has been the dominant proportion over the past few years. The iPhone 5S, HDTV, and Google Nexus 5 are examples of devices that use the 9:16 aspect ratio screens. Similarly, the iPad Air is modeled on the 3:4 aspect ratio.

Achieving Good Proportion

A good proportion is not as difficult as the above-given explanation made it sound. The following few steps can be taken into account to achieve a decent proportion to make any design look pleasing.


Placement of similar elements that share some features or have a similar character brings about symmetry in the design. A symmetrical design is a proportionate design.


Harmony is achieved in design when each element is complementary to one another. Agreement between shapes and sizes creates emphasis on the similarity of all parts.

If one element seamlessly fits into another’s position and space, a harmonious relationship is formed between the elements.  Think of an orange cut in half. Each triangular wedge fits into the circular orange perfectly, creating a harmonious proportion.

Golden Ratio

Creating major and minor element sizes puts the focus on each element. However, equal-sized elements cause monotony, while dramatic shifts, if size, cause disharmony. Therefore, the golden ratio or a ratio close to it forms a beautifully proportionate design.


A lot of mathematical calculation is undoubtedly put into forming a proportionate design. However, the design falls flat if that geometrical arrangement becomes obvious. A well proportionate design is always dynamic.

The mathematical effort put into the design should not be visible on a single look towards the design. In this regard, subtlety is beauty. Think about the Proportions of a Human Body, and you’ll know how subtle the geometry of great designs is.

Use of Proportions to Create Emphasis

A good proportion makes the design more aesthetically pleasing. However, it can, at times, also be used to exaggerate or emphasize the conceptual base of the design.

Proportions are largely based on the relationship between expectations and sizes. If a design needs to be realistic, expected proportions are strictly adhered to. However, if expected proportions are violated, the design looks stylistic and abstract.

Proportions can be used for effect by artists. Through the correct usage, elements can look mysterious, strong, weak, or even funny. Exaggerated proportions emphasize the meaning of an object within the design.

This is why caricature sketches use distorted proportions to create an incredible or hilarious representation of the subject.

Manipulating Proportions

(Source : Google Images)

Take a look at the image that represents a set of palms holding our planet. The fact that the earth cannot possibly fit in a human’s palms is a no brainer. Therefore, the proportionate shock brings out the image’s conceptual importance, i.e., humans can make or break the world.

Most modern abstract artworks on the principle of exaggerating the unexpected. You can think of any abstract work of art, and you’ll find non-similar, seemingly unharmonious elements violently yoked together.

However, modern abstract art is very geometrical. The purpose of the seemingly disproportionate presentation is to show that there’s calm in chaos if looked for correctly.

(Source : Google Images)

El Greco, a Greek painter, used manipulated proportions to create emphasis. He is known for his religious paintings and the fact that he chose to distort human proportions in all of them. He distorted the human body’s proportion so that it would make the viewer think of God. He did so by elongating body parts so that the audience would look upwards.

If we think of interior design, imagine a hand-shaped sofa in the middle of a room. This sofa attracts attention to itself because of its unexpected proportion. The expected design of a sofa is violated to create something that seems illogical. However, the perfect proportions of such a sofa keep it from looking atrocious and make it an ornamental piece.

Understanding Composition

Explained below is the principle of composition in designing. The significance, importance, and uses of composition are defined in this section.

What is Composition?

Composition is one of the 6 most important principles of design. Great composition can make the weakest of elements look great and vice-versa.

Composition is the amalgamation of all elements in a design. Composition is that part of designing when all singular elements come together to form a whole. Composition is when images, colors, graphics, text, and other elements are brought together into unity to form a cohesive design.

Composition means putting together elements. The word can be used for any work of art, be it in writing, photography, or painting. Work becomes a composition only when elements are put together through conscious thought.

Importance of Composition

A successful composition involves the aesthetic and effective distribution, alignment, and compilation of all design elements. The organization of elements should adhere to all principles of art. Therefore, if the composition is not on point, even the most beautiful elements cannot make the design effective.

Composition is important because it determines the way elements are arranged. This arrangement can drastically affect the style, mood, and reflection of the design. For example, if a story about a child’s first day is composed in a morose setting, the cheeriest of incidents cannot make the story happy.

Putting everything together is what makes and breaks a design. A composition rules how a subject is perceived and rules where the audience’s focus falls on.

Emphasizing on Important Elements Through Focal Points

A crucial element to a decent composition is the definition of a focal point. The whole idea of a composition conveys a message, and building focus on important elements goes a long way. These important focused elements define the mood and purpose of the design without altering individual elements.

Building a Focus Point

The key goal of any composition is communication. All compositions communicate a feeling, thought, information, idea, or even a specific story. Therefore, building a focus point is necessary to begin the narration of the communicated element.

Choosing a focal point is crucial since the audience’s eye falls automatically onto the subject in focus. The focal point of a composition should be the strongest and the most important element of the design.

Focus can be achieved through leading lines, contrast, sharp angles, size, and scale.

For example, in a painting with multiple subjects, the largest or the brightest subject will become the focal point. Therefore, only the most important subject must be large.

In music, the focal point is generally created on the chorus of the song. This focusing is done through a gradual tension building done by the verses and the chorus’s repetition. In current EDM music, the focus is made on the beat drop, as built-up tension and anticipation are realized.

Following the Audience’s Natural Gaze

In the western world, language is read from left to right and from top to bottom. However, in the Arabic world, language is read from right to left and from top to bottom. This reading pattern becomes the natural gaze of the audience.

Therefore, in the western world, the first glance is set towards the upper left focal corner of the design. The gaze follows to the upper right corner and slowly shifts downwards from left to right.

A perfect example of how this gaze is used to emphasize key elements sees how blog posts are made. The left margin is usually assigned to a tab to elements that the user can click on to skip to the intended section. The title is made the focal point by using a bold and large font, and the rest of the elements follow suit.

Another example of such a horizontal composition is found in paintings with no specific focal subject. The natural gaze falls upon the upper left corner and then follows accordingly.

Backgrounding and Foregrounding

In any composition, backgrounding and foregrounding of elements is crucial to give layers to the design. The foregrounded elements receive much focus, but the background elements give bae and balance to the focal element in works of art.

A wonderful example of graphic design backgrounding and foregrounding is seen in Apple’s Operating System. When two windows are opened simultaneously and placed on top of one another, backgrounding and foregrounding becomes obvious. The foreground window has much more color, character, and detail to it than the background window.

In music, we see how backing vocals have lower volume levels than that of the leading vocals. This way, even though the backing vocals give structure to the leading vocals, they do not receive the same amount of stress, texture, and attention.

Hierarchical Arrangement in a Composition

A hierarchical composition gives direction to the audience. This helps the designer take charge of what is seen and emphasized in a design. While important elements are always higher in the hierarchy, unimportant elements can be found at the bottom.

A hierarchical arrangement makes sure that the information or the idea is conveyed only in the way it is intended to be conveyed. This kind of arrangement gives extreme control and precision to the designer.

In fashion, either the topmost or the bottommost element is used as a point of attraction. Best of the pieces follow harmony, giving the hierarchical power to that one focused element.

Read more: How to harmonize visual design and disruptive technology.

How Composition is Used to Communicate?

As mentioned earlier, the main point of any design is to communicate. That communication can be anything from an idea to a thought and a feeling to a story.

The design’s composition is crucial to communication, as it brings together the stylistic elements and the setting. The setting is the context and mood of a design. Therefore, if a subject Is seen with a long face on a sunny day, the composition would either fail, or the focus would be created on the gloomy subject.

Similarly, if a verse of minor notes is added to a major note dominated piece of music, the composition will convey a mood of confusion.

A composition that puts together similar elements safely conveys the intended message. However, the important thing to remember is that composition can shift focus from one element to another. Therefore, imagine a design that is set in an affluent environment.

One of the subjects is well dressed and pompous looking, while the other one looks penurious. In such a design, the latter will look out of place, conveying a specially intended message.

Summing Up

Mathematics, aesthetics, and general cultural unity play an important role in how designs are made. Designing is such an interdisciplinary subject that gaining knowledge from all subjects is crucial. An interesting read for the same is Kimberly Elam’s Geometry of Design.

Composition and proportions have a heavy impact on how a design comes together and how it is perceived. Proportions influence the individual element’s aesthetics and how they influence the whole. On the other hand, composition is the art of bringing all proportionate elements together to bring out the effectiveness of a design.

You can read more about design principles here.

If perceived from a harmonious point of view, designing is an interesting subject to learn. It gives a new perspective and understanding of the world as we see and hear it.

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