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Elements of Design




Size is simply the relationship between the area occupied by one shape to that of the area occupied by another.
To have a large sized shape requires the existence of a smaller sized shape.


Size differences create interesting dynamics within a design. Equally sized shapes create confusion – the eye jumps from one to the other, not knowing where to rest.

Design Element - Size

The symmetry created by equally sized shapes causes confusion – the eye jumps from one shape to the other

By varying the size of the shapes, the eye is drawn to the larger, dominant shape. There is a comfortable size difference, creating little tension in this example.

Unequal size shapes

By reducing the size of one shape, the eye automatically focuses on the dominant shape

If we exaggerate the size difference, tension is created. The larger sized shape appears to threaten the smaller sized shape. This tension can be used to add impact to a design or painting. It was a popular device used by the romantic landscape painters of the early nineteenth century.

Large and small size contrast

By exaggerating the size difference an interesting tension is created

The Scottish watercolorist, David Roberts (1796 – 1864) used the technique of amplifying size difference in many of the watercolors he brought back from exotic locations.


The technique was used to better convey the scale and grandeur of the sites he visited.

‘It is well known that a long form when contrasted with a short one can appear much longer than it really is.'(1)

David Roberts [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

David Roberts, Pompejus Column – Egypt, 1838. Exaggerated difference in size gives a monumental impact to this small watercolor



Relating size to human proportions brings about the concept of scale.  The effect of scale can be seen in most forms of visual art. The design on a coin has an intimate, personal impact, whereas the impact of the same image expanded to 30 feet high is aggressive, unavoidable and public.

Canadian Nickel

Canadian Nickel

Giant Nickel - Sudbury, Ontario

Giant Nickel – Sudbury, Ontario

Architecture is designed around human proportions, so scale has an obvious and dramatic impact on us.

The small Greek church below is barely large enough for half a dozen people, but it is heavy, solid and cocooning, giving whoever steps inside the feeling that they are safe, important and intimately protected.

small Greek Church

Small stone church – Athens, Greece

St. Marks Cathedral, Venice (below) is heavily decorated with gold leaf and beautiful mosaics but, more than anything, its enormous scale makes the worshipper feel small and humble under the shadow of such beauty and grandeur.

St Marks Venice

St. Marks Cathedral – Venice



(1) Itten, J, 1963, Design and Form – The Basic Course At The Bauhaus, Thames and Hudson, London p.62

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