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Graphic Design Fundamentals: Getting Started

Lesson 7 of 18

The Graphic Designer's Tools: Layout & Space

Timothy Samara

Graphic Design Fundamentals: Getting Started

Timothy Samara

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Lesson Info

7. The Graphic Designer's Tools: Layout & Space
Graphic design is made up of different, and at times competing elements: typography and imagery. How do you merge these to create harmonious and compelling visual compositions? You will learn how to manipulate space in your design and organize elements to influence how your audience reads your message.

Lesson Info

The Graphic Designer's Tools: Layout & Space

And then we have to also be able to organize typography with graphic elements and with images. And to understand a way or to find a way for these two very, very different kinds of things to kind of live together in the same space. Images are all over the place. They're photographic, they're soft, they're hard, they're geometric, they're organic, they're dots, they're lines, they're planes, they're textural, they're flat. Typography is always the same thing. It's always dots, it's always lines, and it's always masses. And usually kind of hybrids of those. And that stuff never changes in it's sort of basic quality. And this is why it's very challenging for most people to bring typography and imagery together in to a composition, in to a project. Because you're looking at these two radically different kinds of material. And how do you find formal or visual relationships between those, so that you create a totality and that all the parts are talking to each other? And that happens in layou...

t. So we have to be able to understand the relationship between form, the stuff, and space, where it is. That is, the positive and the negative. Not negative, like, in a bad way, but just the opposite of thing, (laughs) snow. And a form will change it's appearance from positive to negative depending on how it's oriented within, or cropped within a format. So as a form changes size, it's level of dynamism increases or decreases. It's sense of being an object or a space or sometimes both changes. And we have to be conscious of how space is being broken in order to create movement and kind of trajectories between elements, relationships between elements and their positioning around a space. There are two kind of basic sort of organizational ideas. One is symmetry, in which things are organized around the center axis of a format in one way or another. And then there's asymmetry, of which there is an unlimited number of kinds. Stepping, stacking, clustering, spiraling, concentric, radial, branching, and so on. And these are very very different kinds of compositional approach or layout approach. And very rarely do they like to play with each other. They are so specific. And they each have their pros and cons, and they're each relevant or useful in a different place. When we're talking about bringing elements together in space, we have to start to talk about differentiating them. And creating some kind of interplay that makes that composition vibrant and lively. And one of those things that we look at is what's called contrast. And it's creating differentiation or visual differentiation between elements. You could put all of the visual elements in a space, whether a page layout or a poster or a web space, and make them all the same size and space them evenly, and that would give you a dull snoozer of a layout. The more things are the same, the less interesting it is. And the less likely that the audience will be able to determine which of those elements is of greater importance compared to the others. So the compositional contrast that you have to try to introduce functions on two levels. It functions on a visual level, that is to engage, to create dimensionality and rhythm and movement, and also to emphasize or de-emphasize. And so that relates directly to hierarchy. That is, how do you create an ordering for the information? How do you show people instantly by looking that something in this field is more worthy of their attention than other things? That it's the most important thing. It's the thing you really wanna be thinking about. And then how do you downplay those other things and still have them relate? I mean, clearly all the information in a designed communication are important, but they're not all equally important. And so there are different ways, by creating difference relative to surrounding fields of similarity. That is, the different thing gets called out. You can introduce levels of difference. These are less different overall than this is, compared to everything, and so on. And you can look at the proximity of things. Generally things that are close together in space are more likely to be understood as related to each other, and things that are separated in space are understood to be less related to each other. And then you can kind of ping-pong people around. Hierarchy and composition is also about movement. How do you cause the eye to follow a path from one place to another? And it doesn't have to be from upper left corner to lower right corner. Because if you're doing your job, you can get a person to read in any order that you choose. And as another kind of an organizational idea, there's this which is called the grid, the typographic grid. And it's a kind of a mathematical or architectural framework for organizing a lot of complex information. Pictures and images, usually in publications, where you have tremendous volumes of text, very very complex hierarchies, different levels of information, different kinds of information running side by side or alternating. And the grid gives you a way of creating a kind of a proportional similarity, a kind of a harmony of size and position. Anchoring points, alignments within the page that helps tie everything together, but it acts as a system. You can group these little pieces of space in different ways to accommodate images of different sizes, text of different lengths, information of different kinds in any combination. So the flexibility of the grid is that it allows all these kinds of changes in information, which are unavoidable, to live together as a totality. And that's usually why they're used by designers for complex publications, when you're going page after page after page.

Class Description


  • Identify and apply fundamental graphic design elements
  • Add essential design skills to your toolkit
  • Approach and manage the creative process through varied projects


You don’t need to have a background in fine arts or be an Adobe InDesign whiz to create compelling designs. In this class, Timothy Samara takes you back to the fundamentals of graphic design - the same principles he has consistently returned to in his 25-year career.

Through real-world projects, you’ll learn the basics of:

  • Form and image
  • Color theory
  • Typography
  • Layout and composition

Most unique about Timothy’s class is his demonstration of how design theory manifests in actual projects; he cracks open his professional portfolio and takes you into the world of how real designers work. With an extensive career behind him, Timothy’s design services have spanned from web design to print media, to interface design, and to building brand identity. By walking through Timothy’s creative process, you not only see how design elements interact and impact an overall product, but you get a rare view of the problem-solving graphic designers do and the decisions they make. What rules exist and when are they broken? How do you juggle meticulous research vs. spontaneity?

Whether you want to design a poster, flyer, or logo - this class will give you the insights you need to design with confidence. Welcome to the art and science of graphic design.


This class is designed for beginner and intermediate graphic designers as well as more experienced designers looking for a brush-up on design principles, career-changers, marketing team members, and anyone interested in graphic design fundamentals.


Timothy Samara is a New York-based graphic designer and educator whose twenty-five career has so far focused on visual identity and branding, communication design, and typography. Since 2000, he has split his time between professional practice and academia, defining a highly respected reputation as an instructor at the School of Visual Arts, Parsons/The New School for Design, Purchase College SUNY, New York University, The University of the Arts, and Fashion Institute of Technology. Mr. Samara is a frequent university lecturer and contributor to design publications both in the U.S. and abroad. He has written eight books on design to date (all from Rockport Publishers), which have been translated into ten languages and are used by students and practitioners around the world.

Connect with Timothy online: LinkedIn

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a Creativelive Student

Wonderful class! I loved getting the info as to the creative process. Great!

Øyvind Hermans

I love this class, clear and precise information with very interesting examples. I have worked as a graphic designer for 6 years but have no design eduction, so at times I feel like there is these gaps of design-knowlegde in my decisions, this was the perfect filler of these gaps.

sixtina maculan

Thank you for sharing your experiences in this class. It's been a pleasure to listen, learn and understand, as well as a wonderful motivation.