Using Composition to Tell a Story

Instructor: Yuanxin (Amy) Yang Alcocer

Amy has a master's degree in secondary education and has taught math at a public charter high school.

In this lesson, you'll learn what design elements you can use to help you create a pleasing visual whole. Also, you'll learn how these elements can encourage certain emotions and reactions from your audience.

Composition

Can you remember the last movie you saw where you cried? Or what about a commercial that made you laugh? It's no accident that you cried or laughed after watching those stories. The producers wanted you to feel that way, and they used composition in their visual storytelling to help encourage those emotions and reactions.

In graphic design and visual storytelling, composition describes the way visual elements are chosen and arranged. There are no strict rules for composing an image. However, a well-composed visual story will have far greater impact than one that isn't well composed.

Think back to the movie that made you cry or the commercial that made you laugh. To accomplish this, the producers used certain design elements in their composition to make their visual story more powerful.

Design Elements

Major design elements that can add impact to your visual story include:

  • Framing
  • Color
  • Rule of thirds
  • Lines
  • Focus
  • Proportion
  • Space

Framing and color can be used to add visual emphasis on specific story elements, thereby evoking certain emotions in your viewers. For example, you can heighten the peacefulness of a beach scene by framing just the beach area and using appealing blues and greens for your color palette. Contrast this with a beach scene that reveals the cars parked at the end of the beach and uses a lot of bright, contrasting colors. It doesn't give you the same peaceful feeling as the other scene.

Focusing on the beach area in your framing enhances the emotions and reactions you want to convey
composition storytelling

The other design elements—rule of thirds, lines, focus, space, and proportion—help to tie in all the visuals in your frame to produce a pleasing whole.

For example, the rule of thirds tells you how to best frame your composition. It tells you to place your main subject at the intersections created when you split your frame into nine rectangles by dividing the composition into thirds both horizontally and vertically.

Lines can also direct the viewer's eye to your main subject, and can be integrated naturally into the scene with existing elements, like tall, straight buildings.

Likewise, if you keep your main subject in focus while blurring the background, it helps the viewer focus on the most important topic of your visual story. Or if you have more than one main subject, you can use proportion to guide the viewer from the biggest (and thus most important) subject to the smaller (and thus less important) subjects.

Methods

How you put all these elements together depends on the type of visual story you're creating. Movies and commercials are produced differently because of their differing purposes, formats, lengths, etc. The same is true for advertising posters and CD covers. What is true for all these different kinds of visuals is that is you need to compose your design elements to create a pleasing whole that invites your viewers to look and keep looking.

With movies, you have more time to build up your story. You don't have to worry about making your audience see everything all at once. You can focus on one aspect at a time, framing each scene by focusing on what's happening in that scene. Don't worry about bringing in too much information. This way, you can make sure your colors for each scene match the specific emotion of that scene.

For commercials, though, you have less time and you need to fit a lot more information in a short period of time. So, for example, you can use proportion to let your viewer know what you want them to focus on first, second, third, and so on within a single shot. Make your first, most important topic, the largest and decrease in size accordingly.

Of course, not all visual stories are told with time-based media, like video. An advertising poster requires you to place all of your design elements in a single frame. For this type of visual, you'll need to focus on your use of space. Give enough space around your main subjects so they aren't crowded to the point where they get lost, then use proportion to guide the viewer from the most important to the least important. Also, use lines to help you separate the sections of your composition and guide the viewer to your important subjects.

Consider a poster advertising a restaurant. It can use proportion to guide the viewer from the name of the restaurant, to its food, and then to its features and address. And its elements can be spaced apart enough so it's not too busy or crowded.

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