Somewhere out there, Mrs. Gail Grush, my tenth grade math teacher, is laughing her head off.
This is because it’s a rare day that doesn’t see me discussing geometry as part of creative direction with somebody here at Art Machine. Mrs. Grush also got to hear my impassioned speech about how I was never going to use what she was teaching.
In my defense, the geometry my life revolves around these days isn’t the hypotenuse-and-corollary kind she taught, but rather the more arcane variety of page layout.
Twenty years of putting things together on a page has made me somewhat obsessive about this particular math. When I started out, I had a tendency to just throw stuff at the page, ignoring structure or shape. The layouts that resulted were wild and energetic and emotional, but they weren’t, y’know, clear. Or — what’s that other marketing word — effective.
Like I said, it isn’t geometry in a mathematical sense. It’s more a basic principle — successful layouts are composed around geometric forms. Arrange your elements so that they construct simple geometric shapes. They don’t have to be obvious — they probably shouldn’t be obvious, unless you’re doing it for effect. The reason for this: you want your most important messages to be close together, and you want to lead your viewer’s eyes to those messages.
For me, the simplest, most effective layout leads the eye from the top left corner to the bottom right corner, generally forming a triangle of some sort. It doesn’t really matter which corner holds the triangle’s point — Americans are trained to read from top to bottom and from left to right. The important thing is to put your logo in that bottom right corner, so that all the elements lead to it, and it’s the final thing your viewer sees on the page.
Other shapes work perfectly well, too. A Z- or L-formation can lead the eye from top left to bottom right with a few stops in between. A simple rectangle can work nicely, especially for a centered layout. Take the 2014 Halloween Horror Nights key art (See below). The ad’s important elements (event branding, main characters, IP logo, the park’s branding bar) form a central rectangle that cleanly reads from top to bottom. To help that clarity, the scene’s vanishing points have been arranged so that the perspective leads straying eyes back to the lead walker, whose lines then lead downwards. Additionally, the important elements are warmer and sharper, and contrast more with their surroundings, helping to reinforce the construction. Use whatever shape you want; it’s the organization, the direction, the storytelling that matters.
Okay, the shape matters, too, or at least the ratio of its sides does. That ratio gives emphasis and energy. It goes beyond the rule of thirds — it’s not just the disparity between unequal components adding energy. The Hustler Casino ad below uses the converging “lines” of an acute triangle to suggest the intensity of a high-stakes game while also building a bit of sexual tension and pointing the viewer toward the branding.
In other ads, those lines could create a sensation of being trapped or herded – or of freedom or velocity or more. The exact sensation depends on what the elements actually are, of course. A spiral pattern can imply dizziness or height or complexity. Concentric circles or squares can “trap” the elements at their center, or reveal them as the source. Most people understand that a layout divided into two or more equal parts is death for drama and emphasis, but not everybody thinks about the emotional effects you can get manipulating your layout’s shape.
So…organization, emphasis, and emotion can all be crafted via geometry, and all of those things add up to meaning and communication, which is the whole point of design and advertising. It isn’t the most important tool in the box, or even the only way to craft those things, but it’s too valuable to ignore, no matter what my high school self thought.
Mrs. Grush, I hope you’re enjoying yourself.