Alignment Principles in Graphic Design

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we explore one of the key principles in graphic design, alignment. Find out why alignment matters in design projects, the different types of alignment you can use, and unique ways to play with alignment for dramatic effects.

Not Just for Cars

You've probably heard the term alignment before, possibly regarding your car or maybe even in word processing. Well, graphic design uses alignment as well. In fact, it is one of the key principles of graphic design. You see, just like visual art, graphic design uses a variety of elements, basic components or properties, and the way those elements relate to one another are the principles of graphic design. Alignment is simply the way visual elements are arranged so that they line up in some way. Think about it as an invisible line or a force field preventing your elements, whether they are images or words, from going out of bounds.

What Does Alignment Do?

As simple as it is, it serves a great purpose by helping designers organize different elements in their composition, giving the design a definitive structure, and creating balance. Using alignment well in a design can result in a clear, professional, and sharp finished product. Basically, the individual elements won't be sloppy.

Basic Kinds of Alignment

There are two basic kinds of alignment; edge and center. Edge alignment determines the placement of elements in relation to the edge of the page or canvas. This can mean the elements are aligned to the left side or right side, but it can also mean they are aligned to the top or bottom of the page, so long as it uses an edge to organize everything. When the alignment is right or left, we call that horizontal alignment, though it is still an edge alignment. When the alignment is top or bottom, that is vertical alignment. When writing text, we usually use left alignment, meaning all the lines to the left of the page line up along that side.

Here we see a right and a left edge alignment.
Edge Alignment

The other kind of alignment, center alignment aligns all the elements so that an invisible, central line on the page will always be in the center of the elements. Again, writing is the easiest way to explain this. Have you ever seen a page where every line was a different width, but the center of every line ran along the exact center of the page? In graphic design, the same principle is applied to words as well as other visual elements. Just like with edge alignment, we can have horizontal and vertical alignment. However, when the center line runs vertically from the top of the page to the bottom, we get horizontal alignment. Likewise, when the center line runs horizontally from one side to the other, we get vertical alignment. I know, it almost sounds crazy until you see how it works.

As you can see, a horizontal center line determines how an image aligns vertically on the page.
Horizontal Alignment

Using Alignment

Rarely will a graphic design project create one large space with a single alignment scheme. Usually, the design is more complex and usually requires the use of a grid to define the different areas and their alignment. Using grids will give your work structure and consistency, but when finished, the viewer should not be able to see the grid itself, just the results of its use.

If your work has a strong, consistent alignment, it will look clean and crisp with a professional finish. However, there are some ways to rebel against common alignment while still looking professional. First, you can use mixed alignment where different elements are aligned properly, just in a variety of different ways. This can add a fun, energetic feel to your work. Finally, you can intentionally break alignment, misaligning one part of a design in contrast with the rest of the aligned design, as a way to grab the viewer's attention.

Breaking alignment can draw attention when used correctly.

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