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There’s a concept in photography known as the rule of thirds—a concept employed not just by modern photographers, but by architects, sculptors, Renaissance painters, and even graphic designers. Using the rule of thirds in design helps to create designs that are eye-catching, engaging, and enjoyable to look at, and it’s a concept that can invigorate even the most staid of design pieces. So how does it work?

How it Works

The rule of thirds is extremely simple. So simple, in fact, that it’s almost hard to believe that it’s such an effective design principle. Take any image, and use three equally-spaced horizontal lines and three equally-spaced vertical lines to divide it into a grid of nine equal parts.

In a well-composed photograph, the key elements of the image will be positioned along one or more of these lines. And the most important or most dramatic elements will occur at the places the lines intersect. Most of the time—virtually all of the time—following the rule of thirds results in an appealing image that quickly grabs your attention. Not only that, but images that don’t follow the rule often feel awkward or disorganised.

Why does it Work?

The rule of thirds works for one very simple reason: our eyes are naturally attracted to lines, or the suggestion of lines. So if the key elements of an image are anchored by lines, whether they’re implicit or implied, our eyes are naturally drawn to those elements. And the lines of a well-composed image will keep our eyes moving from one intersection point to the next, creating the sense of movement and drama that makes it visually stimulating and appealing.

Applying the Rule of Thirds in Print

This rule can be tricky to implement in design, because it provides a simple way of creating designs that are symmetrical. This may seem like a good thing, because the human eye is naturally attracted to symmetry; in fact, the reverse is true. An unsymmetrical design is actually more likely to grab and hold our attention, perhaps because it’s different from the symmetry that is so pleasing to us.

Where the rule of thirds is really useful is in achieving design balance, rather than design symmetry. Following this rule allows you to create designs that put key elements in places where they’ll have the greatest impact, and also provides guidance in spacing out those key elements—ensuring that the viewer is engaged without being overwhelmed.