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[Design] Alignment

category: Design | course: Graphic Design | difficulty:

Following contrast, alignment is the strongest principle. It does the same as contrast, but reversed and more general. Elements that are aligned seem to belong together, even when such an alignment spans across the whole width of a design, and across many elements. Instead of contrasting properties, we’re trying to establish hierarchy and increase aesthetics by making elements share a common alignment.

The Purpose of Alignment

The main purpose of alignment is to bring order to chaos. As a result, because humans like order, alignment makes a piece of design more visually interesting. Elements that share the same alignment are immediately recognized as having something in common, while elements on a different alignment path are recognized as belonging to distinct groups. By using several common alignment paths, we create unity within a design, leading to cohesiveness and a feeling that all elements in the design are related to each other in some way or another. You don’t want your design to feel like it’s three different designs mashed together.

DesignAlignmentOverview

How to Create Alignment

There are two types: edge alignment and area alignment.

  • Edge Alignment requires elements to be placed such that their edges line up along common rows or columns. Alignment along diagonals is also possible, as long as the angle is more than 30 degrees, otherwise it’s too subtle. It might be necessary, though, to highlight diagonal alignment in some other ways as well.
  • Area Alignment requires elements to be placed such that their centres line up along common rows or columns. When elements have different or complex shapes and can’t be aligned by edges, area alignment is the best alternative.

Even though I only mentioned straight horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines, alignment can be applied just as well to organic curves. In the Grid chapter we saw that we could create circular and organic grids as well, which means your alignments can follow the same pattern if you’ve chosen to use such a grid for your design. If you chose, for example, a regular grid, it’s best to stick with horizontal and vertical alignments.

DesignAlignmentTypes

Be conscious of where you place elements; nothing should be placed on the page arbitrarily. Always find something else on the page to align with, even if those elements are far away from each other. When elements can’t be close to each other, alignment makes them appear connected, related, or unified with the other information, simply by their placement.

Pitfalls to Avoid

In general, prefer edge alignment over area alignment. Use the strongest alignment you can get, which means left, right (or justified), and not centred, unless you’re going for a formal or dull design. Area alignment results in ragged edges and sometimes seemingly displaced elements, so use it with care. It is often a strong alignment – combined with the proper typefaces and other elements – that gives a design its sophisticated, formal, fun or serious look.

DesignAlignmentRags

There is, in theory, no such thing as too many alignments; no matter how wild and chaotic piece may initially appear, if it’s well-designed, you can always find the alignments within. I must say, however, that simplicity is still always better. If you can reduce the amount of alignments to only a few, if you can align one element to multiple already existent paths, do it!

DesignAlignmentSimplicity

In Summary

Every element should have some visual connection with another element on the page, and alignment is the easiest and strongest way to do so. Choose your alignments consciously and with care, and use it to lead your viewer through a design via the implied lines. Good alignment should go by without viewer’s notice, bad alignment is immediately noticed and only good for creating tension or making one specific thing stand out.

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