The rule of thirds & how it relates to graphic design

Mrignayni Pandey

Content strategist, and copywriter.
January 10, 2023

The famous rule of thirds has defined most visual art pieces throughout history. Let's take a closer look at how you can make the most of it in today's graphic design landscape.

It can be difficult to create a harmonious and cohesive layout when mixing numerous dissimilar elements, such as text, images, and abstract forms.

That’s why many photographers, painters, and designers use graphic design rules to create harmony in a composition.

One such rule that’s most commonly used is the rule of thirds. It provides more visual balance to the frame while purposefully drawing the viewer’s attention to essential aspects.

In this article, we’ll delve deeper into the rule of thirds and how you can use it to create great design. Here’s a glimpse of what we’ve covered here:

What is the rule of thirds in design?

According to the definition of the rule of thirds, if you split a canvas into three equally sized horizontal and vertical pieces, the resulting grid serves as a sort of “roadmap” that directs where you should arrange your design elements.

In graphic design, rule of thirds helps with issues like aligning text, positioning photos, and generally arranging all the elements in a way that helps the viewer’s eye to ingest the information more easily (like reading a book).

The rule of thirds works well in graphic design because the intersections at which the lines meet fall upon the primary focal points of the scene.

And the human eye naturally lands on these points more readily than other spots in the composition, and the resulting asymmetry (using the odd number 3 instead of 4 rows and columns) creates just enough tension to bring a dynamic sense of flow to the work.

Image source: The Noun Project

How is the rule of thirds used in design?

By using the center intersections as a set of guidelines for your material, the rule of thirds removes the guesswork from the composition. Also, viewers will automatically land on the subject without having to scan it visually as long as the primary focal elements closely coincide with at least one of the four major intersections (or guiding lines).

For instance, you can place a call-to-action button or other important elements in one of the four points in a website to call out key information.

Image source: The Noun Project

For text-heavy designs like flyers, you can make sure the most crucial text is at these intersection points to draw attention to it. 

Image source: The Noun Project

How the rule of thirds is used in photography

Since graphic design also involves the use of photographs, let’s look at some ways the rule of thirds is used in photographs. 

Landscapes 

In landscape photographs, the horizon line should ideally lie at the top or lower dividing line. And you should allocate either 1/3 or 2/3 of the total frame to each main subject. This is the easiest method to achieve balance and give the photograph a grounded look.

And if your landscape shots have large amounts of detail, think about where you want people’s eyes to land — and then move through the remainder of the composition.

Let’s understand all of this better with an example. In the photo below, putting the horizon close to the center-line might be tempting, but other prominent elements like the subject, i.e., the sheep, may not be visible or prominent. So, it’s better to crop and reposition the photo so the subject falls on an intersection point and the photo packs a punch.

Image source: The Noun Project

Portraits

In portraits, it’s better to keep the eyes as the primary focus of the shot instead of taking a confrontational or static shot. This is because the subject’s eyes add visual interest to the photograph and a more natural conversational flow to the scene.

In the example below, the person’s eyes overlap with the intersections of the 3x3 grid, which create a better sense of eye contact and engagement than placing them dead center in the photo.

Image source: The Noun Project

Architecture

If you're taking pictures of architecture, you can experiment with the differences between a symmetrical head-on shot and one that lines up a building's most notable elements with the rule of thirds. 

As opposed to head-on shots, which can make it feel like you are staring at a TV screen, the latter will help the spectator feel like they are ultimately more immersed in the area and moving physically through it.

Of course, there are different types of architecture, so as you go around a building's exterior or inside, you'll want to be mindful of how you apply the rule of thirds to capture symmetry, abstract patterns, and negative spaces. 

For instance, you may want to capture all the prominent elements of a building by aligning its most prominent features and horizon lines within your rectangle. 

Image source: The Noun Project

And if you’re photographing a building that has abstract patterns, you can capture the pattern’s repetition to add a balanced structure to a shot. 

Image source: The Noun Project

Action photography

Action photography is one of the strongest applications of the rule of thirds, as it naturally gives your composition a sense of motion. It depicts movement and emphasizes the direction of your subject by framing it along one vertical axis and leaving empty space along the other. 

In the image below, the sprinter is positioned toward the edge rather than the center, and this positioning creates a sense of fluidity as it shows that he has moved from one end of the frame to another.

Image source: The Noun Project

Wrapping up

There are many graphic design rules to balance all elements and create a harmonious composition. One such rule that’s well-known is the rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds involves splitting the canvas into a 3x3 grid and placing prominent elements along the intersection.

In graphic design or photography, this helps draw attention to the various elements and creates a sense of fluidity. 

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