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Design: the parts and the whole — chapter 13 – emphasis and rhythm




While balance is usually a unifying principle of design, emphasis is a principle of variety. Emphasis is an attempt to draw the viewer to a specific place or places in a composition. Areas of emphasis are often called focal points.

In most design situations the artist wants to bring the viewer’s attention to certain areas in the composition.  The primary way to create this emphasis is by contrast. The artist pulls the viewer to the desired section by making that section different from the surrounding area. This can be done in a composition that is predominantly gray by making the focal points black or white – using, that is, the contrast of value. Value is a very common contrast used to create areas of emphasis but there are many others. The following are a few: bright to dull, warm to cool, complement to analogous, color to achromatic, hard edge to soft edge, detail to plain, fuzzy to sharp, smooth to rough, solid to fragmented, organic to inorganic, random to organized, singular to plural, horizontal to vertical, convex to concave, and so on (Myers 105). It is important to remember that it is not simply dominance that creates an area of emphasis, it is uniqueness – the difference that the focal point has to all that is going on around it. In a large rough surface it is a smooth area that will catch the viewer’s eye; in a field of geometric shapes it is the organic shape that will capture the attention. The ability of contrast and uniqueness to catch the eye plays a very important role in advertising design, where the objective goes beyond simply creating a focal point within a composition. The designer must also make the ad itself the focal point among many other ads competing for the viewer’s attention. This is true whether the ad is placed in a newspaper or a magazine or in a cluster of thirty-second or fifteen-second spots on television.  Uniqueness and contrast are what makes an ad stand out and capture the audience’s attention even if sandwiched in with the barrage of advertising that constantly bombard us.

Countless artists work with contrast to create areas of interest, one of my favorites is Rembrandt.  He used classic light-dark contrast to draw the viewer to and almost into the work. His shapes and colors are often composed with the value to pull the viewer through the composition very directly but still not harshly – a gentle but clear guidance to the heart of the work.

Another way to create areas of emphasis is through placement. If a shape or color is isolated, it attracts attention. An isolated single apple will catch your eyes before a cluster of apples in the same composition. Another way to use placement to gain attention is through the use of diagonals. Diagonal movement through lines and shapes can direct the viewer’s eyes to places that become areas of emphasis. A famous example of this is found in Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. The one-point perspective in the room interior creates diagonal lines that would meet if projected directly at Christ’s head. The diagonal lines pull your eyes to that point. But Leonardo doesn’t stop there, he also creates the strongest value contrast in the composition with Christ’s head against the light sky in the window behind him. And to further clinch the focal point he isolates Christ in the center of the composition by clustering the disciples in groups of three on either side of Christ with the disciples all forming curving twisting shapes in contrast to the central, solid, triangular shape of Christ. All this sounds a bit heavy-handed but the results certainly are not. The carefully structured composition creates a scene of great stability and reverence.

There may be times when the designer does not wish to create obvious areas of emphasis, letting the viewer roam through the composition. This can be effective but it can also be dangerous in that what might seem intriguingly open-ended to some will seem chaotic or boring to others who need more guidance.

There might be times when no focal points are part of the design requirements as in the case of fabric or wallpaper design. Or it can be that the lack of focal points is part of the conceptual basis of the work, as in the case of some of Andy Warhol’s work of the 1960’s. Warhol (or rather Warhol’s factory) created pieces in which one canvas displayed one hundred soup cans or hundreds of dollar bills, dozens of the same image of Marilyn Monroe or an electric chair. These compositions had no definite focal point, just the same image produced over and over.  The work served as an expression of the mass consumer society where soup cans, Hollywood stars, or executions were all part of the consumption cycle, to be used in quantity.

The repetition of Warhol’s consumer goods brings us to our next principle of design.


Here we return firmly to a unifying principle of design.  Rhythm can tie a composition together. Rhythm is repetition in a composition, most commonly repetition of shape or line. Rhythm can be very obvious as in the case of a pattern, or very subtle, almost invisible, as in the common Renaissance use of triangular grouping of figures.

Rhythms are sometimes created by the process of production.  Brushstrokes, chisel marks, stitches, fiber in weaving, lines in hatching, all are part of the process that form rhythms that the designer may enhance or hide.

Rhythms within a composition can be very reassuring to the viewer. The predictability of rhythm often produces a soothing effect, like the waves on the ocean or the gentle wind-formed dunes on the desert. But also like the waves of the ocean, rhythms can be harsh and disturbing. They can be jagged, even threatening, depending on how the designer uses them.  Another kind of rhythm can be found in the religious texts illuminated by the Irish monks of the eighth century C.E. (Common Era). They created elaborate rhythmic designs that interlaced with mind-boggling intricacy. The power of the illuminations was not just detail and skill but also how well the complexity, control and beauty reflected their reverence of the Gospels. Just as rhythmic and complex as the Irish illuminations are Jackson Pollack’s abstract expressionist paintings of the 1950’s.  But in these works the expressive impact is not control, clarity, and detail, but a wild abandon of emotion and frustration. But even in this expressive explosion of rhythms there is planning and structure.


Emphasis in nature is an interesting occurrence. It happens by chance, by natural process, often with stunning visual results: the single tree on a vast prairie landscape, the red bird in the green foliage, the black sheep in a herd of white sheep. These natural points of emphasis can leave lasting impressions.

Rhythm permeates nature. It forms the soul of natural structure. Growth patterns and cycles are rhythms. Blades of grass, trunks of trees, clouds, mountains, hills; all repeat their rhythms to form a natural harmony.

We are creatures of both natural and unnatural rhythms. The beat of our hearts, the pattern of our respiration indicate we are alive.  We search for and impose structures of rhythm to try to measure and predict nature. The calendar, our timepieces, and our personal schedules are all attempts to put our lives in a kind of rhythm. Our search for rhythm is a connection with the rhythm of nature. The more connected we are to the actual flow of nature’s rhythms, the more comfortable we feel. The farther we get from a rhythmic connection to life, the more estranged both physically and mentally we are from a natural harmony with life.

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