How to Master Layout Design
A full guide to learn the basics of visual design.
The million-dollar question: what is the secret to good design?
We can go philosophical about this one, but generally speaking, the proverbial ‘secret’ to good design lies in the way that you organize your visual elements, in relation to your canvas, and with each other. Basically, we've just described layout design. Which, when you think of it, is everywhere you look.
Take the layout of a magazine, for example. Their design follows a classic grid system (we’re going to learn all about grids in a minute). Everything is usually aligned left, right, and at the bottom. The columns especially have a distinct justified alignment that makes the page not only visually appealing, but also easy to read, and authoritative. The large headings attract the viewer’s attention, while the subheading comes as a contrast in size to create a visual hierarchy of information.
All these qualities make the page design clean, structured, and easy to read, and they're in tune with the tips we’re going to talk about next. But first, let’s understand more about layout design itself.
What Is Layout Design?
So we’re not talking about logo design here. But the design of print material, like newspapers, magazines, posters, and their digital counterparts, as well as web, app, or UX/UI design.
The word ‘layout’ gives us a lot of hints. It means an arrangement of predetermined elements on a page.
When a layout is effective, it looks good, and it guides the viewer to understand the message the design is trying to convey. Understanding layout is therefore key in creating engaging, effective, user-friendly, and pleasing compositions.
If a layout does not convey its message well to the audience, or in other words, it doesn't "read well", the design will be ineffective no matter how trendy it looks. In the realm of layout design, content supersedes trends and gimmicks.
The Purpose Of Layout Design
To convey a message fast
This is key. Layout design establishes the relationship between graphic assets to achieve a smooth flow of eye movement for maximum effectiveness and impact.
To create balance
Using the principles of layout design is the most straightforward way to create a sense of balance and symmetry in your design projects without becoming boring.
To create cohesiveness
Layout helps you arrange the many elements of your design in an easily digestible, cohesive, and logical way.
To create beauty
Balance and structure naturally create beauty. If your layout design is done correctly, it will automatically become visually appealing to the viewer. The less effort the viewers need to put in order to understand a message, the more attractive your design will seem.
The Elements of Layout Design
This includes not just the text body or paragraphs, but also headlines, subheadings, headers, and footers. Your choice of typography, color, and size will achieve different effects on how your layout will translate to your audience.
The most common types of images are photographs, illustrations, or infographics.
Shapes can be geometric, which are very angular, or they can be organic, mimicking the natural world. They can also be abstract. Abstract shapes have been very trendy in the past year, as we’ve seen web designers incorporating them into complex and sprawling compositions.
Shapes can replace an image. Or they can be used to add graphic elements to a page, highlight text, or delineate the space between other visual elements.
Any layout design will have a certain amount of white space that will allow your elements to breathe and stand out on their own.
The Golden Principles of Layout Design
You’ll notice that the principles of layout design follow a lot of the fundamental principles of design. Like using color in a certain way, typography, repetition, contrast, hierarchy, and balance.
Principle #1. Use Grids
Grids help designers position various design elements like text and images in a way that looks coherent and easy to follow.
They provide a sense of order, they keep elements from overpowering each other, and most importantly, grids will also correct your alignment. Making your work feel cleaner and more professional.
The anatomy of grids
You might think it’s just vertical and horizontal lines, but a grid is made up of several parts. Many, in fact. Here's the most important terminology you need to know in a basic grid:
- Format is the full area of your final design. So if you design something for print, the format is the page, and if you’re a web designer, the format is the web page or the browser window.
- Margins are the intentional empty spaces between the format and the design.
- Flowlines are the horizontal lines that separate your layout into parallel sections. Flowlines help with the readability of your design and guide the reader to follow the content correctly.
- Modules are the blocks that are formed by the horizontal lines and vertical flowlines of any grid. If you think about it, they are the building blocks of any grid. All your vertical modules create your columns, while all your horizontal grids create your rows.
- Regions are groups of connected modules, either vertical or horizontal. There are no rules as to how you decide to organize these.
Types of grids
Layout grids were first used to arrange handwriting on paper.
They date back to as early as the 13th century, when French artist Villard De merged the grid system with the golden ratio to produce printed page layouts with margins. You can see this grid system to this day, as the majority of printed book and magazine layouts prove. Publishers, editors, and designers prefer to use standard grids not only because they look good, but because readers have come to expect certain design elements to be in a particular place.
Grids can be designed in two ways: symmetric or asymmetric. Symmetric grids follow a centerline, where the vertical and horizontal regions are equal to each other; and columns have the same width.
In an asymmetric grid, as the name suggests, the margins and the columns are not all identical.
Based on this classification there are five main types of layout grids used worldwide that you can rely on:
Manuscript grids are the most common sort of grid for documents. They separate the header, footer, and margins, and basically create a rectangle inside the format (or the page) that provides the boundaries to your text. They are the base for magazines, newspapers, and books. So it's probably the layout you are most familiar with.
Column grids are another favorite in magazine publishing. A typical magazine layout uses column grids to separate text into easy-to-read sections. But they are very popular for websites as well. You can use anything from two up to six grids. More is possible, yet not common. A very important thing about column grids is that the spacing between the columns, or the gutters, are equally distanced from each other.
Modular grids are similar to the column grid, but they also account for the horizontal flowlines. This type of grid is needed when you have to organize various elements in your layout and the column grids are simply not enough.
Baseline grids are fantastic for text-based compositions. A baseline is the line where text rests when you type, and leading is the spacing between two baselines. Wondering how big your heading or subheadings should be?
Hierarchical grids look less like a grid than all their counterparts. Nonetheless, they're very useful when organizing design elements in their order of importance. Hierarchical grids can be based on modular grids, or you can even create your own. Websites use this grid a lot, especially digital magazines and newspapers tend to rely more on hierarchical grids rather than column grids in their transition to becoming digital.
Principle #2. Use Negative Space
We often think that emptiness, silence, or lack of color is a bad thing. But we don't consider how they are the solid foundation of the contrast.
Negative space will help separate various areas in your design, while also allowing your layout to breathe. It helps with visual hierarchy and visual balance; it sets the user's focus on the core elements; it reduces the level of distraction; and finally, it adds style and elegance to your design.
Inexperienced designers might have the tendency to fill out as much of their canvas as possible, by scaling up text or blowing up a logo, or an image. But giving your elements room allows the viewer to pick on certain information cues faster and more comfortably.
– Aaron Walter, 'Design for emotion'
An easy way to determine your negative space is by using a modular grid. By placing that on top of your design, you can then easily visualize which modules can remain empty, and which should be filled in.
Principle #3. Choose A Single Focal Point
Has a client ever asked you to make the logo bigger? And then to make the headline even bigger?
You can't emphasize everything. It defeats the point of good design. Just like time, focus is relative. For one element to stand out, another has to serve as the background. Some elements need to dominate others in order for your design to display a visual hierarchy.
A focal point will announce to your audience where their viewing journey starts on your design. So it's the beginning of the story you are telling.
This can usually be achieved by using a large image or a large source of typography. Notice how effective the below focal point is
But while a focal point will draw the attention of your audience in, the next rule will help guide it.
Principle #4. Think of Proximity and Flow
The principle of proximity is simple. Ensure that elements that are related to each other are placed together.
So only cluster design assets that have a relationship with each other, and use pockets of information on your design to guide your audience to the piece of relevant content that they need to consume. This is also called the flow principle.
A design with good flow will lead the viewers’ eye throughout the layout, from element to element, with ease. Your focal points will pull the eye and become the resting place, while other elements impart direction.
A simple way to understand this is by taking the example of our website, for example. Graphics are clearly separated from the text, and so are the calls to action, so the viewer’s attention is navigating from one cluster of information to the next.
Principle #5. Use Contrast
Make sure you have enough contrast in your design.
More than that, good use of contrast also adds visual interest throughout your design. Let’s face it, a layout where everything is the same size, shape, or color is going to look boring. Contrast spices things up.
Your first thought might be color contrast, such as warm versus cool, dark versus light, blue versus orange. But while color is an extremely essential principle of contrast, there are also contrasts of type, alignment, and size. And remember, contrast is also relative. It only has meaning in juxtaposition with other elements.
Here are some examples of layouts that use this rule in a smart and beautiful way. Notice the contrast in typography, color, and even the contrast in the size between elements.
Principle #6. Repetition, Pattern, Rhythm
When we think of repetition, we think of the same element over and over again.
But it's different in design. It's definitely not as boring as that. When used correctly, repetition can actually empower your design.
Try to identify and reuse a motif throughout your layout so that various areas feel connected and part of the same composition. It will help your design have a theme. By repeating elements, you not only deliver according to the expectations of your audience, but you will also improve the user experience. Being consistent makes the users feel more comfortable.
You can do this by repeating shapes or symbols. Or even a color scheme, a typeface, and the same style in general.
A good habit to get into is to use a typeface with a large family. Limit the different number of patterns, line weights/styles, and colors, and repeat throughout. Also, try to keep the style of images and graphics the same. For example, use illustrations by the same artist.
That’s it. These are the six principles that will help you organize your design and achieve a cleaner, more professional, and balanced layout.
But your journey does not end here. Graphic design is not an exact science and it shouldn't be limited to tips and principles. As is true in all areas of creation, there is no hard rule of thumb. Breaking out of these tips in subtle ways will add depth and variety to your designs.
Nevertheless, they are a great starting point and we encourage you to give them a try. And let us know how they worked!
Download Vectornator to Get Started
Take your designs to the next level.