#26: 9 Ways Photography Can Make You a Better Designer { “Photograph” – Weezer }

I write today’s post in honor of World Photo Day (August 19). The things that make a good design and a great photo are very similar. IF I had to recommend one other thing that any designer should learn outside of the “formal” areas of graphic design it would absolutely be photography. Knowing graphic design and photography will make you a dynamic designer. I intentionally chose the song “Photograph” by Weezer since it seemed appropriate. The song starts off by saying “If you want it, you can have it But you’ve got to learn to reach out there and grab it.”  This post on photography and design is kind of my version of “you can have it if you want it”.
You can be a better designer by learning the similarities between photography and design. Not only will you be able to recognize and choose better photographs for your designs, you will have the know-how to hire a good photographer or direct a photo shoot, you can even learn to take your own photos! A lot of graphic designers have an interest in photography but instead of learning about it they rely on someone else to figure it out for them or they just do their best instead of learning something that just might come naturally if they already know design.
This post is my encouragement to every designer who is interested in photography; if you can create a great design,  you should be able to compose a great photograph. This can make you an even better designer.
Photography and design are so similar in so many ways, if you can figure out these elements in your work, you will be unstoppable, here are just a few similarities.

1. Composition/Layout

Photo by Brandi Sea


Whether your specialty is logos, hand lettering, editorial, or even apparel design, layout of your elements can make or break your design. In graphic design the term layout refers to the “arrangement of the different graphic elements of a design, such as headlines, body copy, colors, etc”. In photography, composition is very similar and requires the same skill. You have to plan out visually what elements in the photo you want to include for the viewer to see. Composition in a photo can include framing (see example above) and allows you to very narrowly control what you are “laying out” for the viewer to see. In many instances, a layout involves combining photography with design elements.

2. Focal Points/Hierarchy

Photo by Stefan Kunze
Photo by Stefan Kunze
Event Poster Design by Brandi Sea
Logo Design by Brandi Sea

In photography, the focal point is the central point of interest. This also applies to design (even logo design), however instead of there being one central point of interest, a design utilizes many different points of interest to create hierarchy, or a way of defining importance from most to least. It tells you, “look here first, now here, now over here, now hang out here for awhile”. In both, it requires a keen eye to differentiate what thing(s) will be the most important, what you want for your viewer/audience to pay attention to. Hierarchy and focal points give order to your work or photo, and they ensure that you won’t lose people anywhere along the way. Focal points can be created by using many different methods in photography, and many of the same methods can be implemented in a design if you can be creative.

3. Color

ColorPhoto by Brandi Sea
Photo by Brandi Sea
Editorial Design By Brandi Sea

The use of color in a design is one of the most crucial components to consider. The same is true of color in photography. Every color has it’s own “mood” and can greatly influence the emotion and perception of the viewer. I have written extensively on the topic of color (Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3) so I hope you will read those posts as they give insight on why color is so important and how to use colors correctly. In photography using bright colors can add interest and energy or can completely take away from the subject so be mindful. Color use can also create really cool focal points and hierarchy. The impact of your photography and your designs can be boosted 100% by an intentional use of color.

4. Negative Space

Photo by Florian Klauer
Editorial Layout by Brandi Sea
Editorial Layout by Brandi Sea

Space can be defined as the area between or around elements. Negative space is something I value in both photography and design. Understanding how to utilize space in a design is challenging and rewarding. When the potential of space is embraced, it can define importance, tell your eyes where they should look, and let your eyes rest, among other things. Getting in really close to your subject and filling the frame or pulling back and capturing the context of the scene can both be effective. The way you use space in both design and photography (much like using color) can incite an emotional reaction from the viewer; anywhere from calm to unease, and it can be a powerful piece to utilize.

5. Value/Lighting

Photo by Brandi Sea
Poster Design by Brandi Sea
Poster Design by Brandi Sea

Value is everything from black to white, dark to light, like a gradient. Value creates depth and can help create a pattern; it is used to draw the eye and emphasize areas of your composition. In photography, aside from the composition, lighting is the singular most importatnt thing to know. Lighting and the value of that light can take the most mundane subject and transform it into something intriguing and engaging.

6. Contrast

Photo by Brandi Sea
Editorial Layout by Brandi Sea
Editorial Layout by Brandi Sea

If all the elements in a photo or design are the same, the result will be tedious and boring. Contrast is the differences in values, colors, textures, shapes, and other elements. When you have contrast, you will be able to create visual excitement. Contrast in design is often achieved by utilizing size, value, and color. Contrast in photography is a tool that is used to direct your attention. Contrast is used in tone (dark to light) and with color (how colors interact). Using contrast will affect the mood of the photo or design. Usually, working in dark tones or colors (low key) feels more serious and mysterious, while using light tones or colors (high key) feels light and fragile. Using contrast from black to white or complementary colors can have a profound effect on your viewer.

7. Balance/Symmetry

Photo by
Photo by Will Langenberg
Editorial Layout Design by Brandi Sea

One of the easiest ways to create interest is to use symmetry and create balance. When something is symmetrical, it creates a clear path for your viewer to follow. it is sometimes an overlooked element in design but can be very striking in both photography and design. Symmetry in design involves the visual weight of something as opposed to the elements on both sides of the page being identical. When a symmetrical photo is composed nicely with a good focal point, it can be fascinating.

8. Texture

Photo by Davey Heuser
Photo by Davey Heuser
Design by Brandi Sea
Design by Brandi Sea

How something feels, or how it looks like it might feel, is the texture. When you use texture in your photography (using lighting especially) it can almost be three dimensional and is very engaging. Learning how to use texture can be a touchy thing to learn (pun intended). If, in photography you don’t take the other elements of a good photo into play, you could end up with just a picture of rocks instead of something that people will have a hard time taking their eyes off of. In graphic design, overusing texture can actually take away from the design. But using texture correctly and carefully in either one is a sign that you know what you’re doing and can really set you apart.

9. Line

LineDesign Photo & Poster Design by Brandi Sea

A line draws the eye to the focal points. These lines can be visible lines or implied lines that are created with the placement of the elements in the shot or the design. The line greatly impacts how an image or design feels. Various lines (diagonal, horizontal, vertical, or converging) can add a different dynamic to a design or photo. Using lines in your design can connect and contain content and draw the eye. Using lines in a photograph can help you frame your shot or lead your eye around. However, in photography you generally have to use the lines that are available to you in your environment, whereas in design you get to decide what kind of lines you use and where they will go to best fit your message.

If you are a designer who is frustrated because you can’t take a decent photo to save your life, then you can take heart. I have just given you the missing pieces to how to connect your know how for design and a desire to take great photos. Try to make a conscious effort to try to implement these 9 things into the area that you aren’t great at.
Even if you don’t want to take photos, use this knowledge to help you recognize and choose better photos and photographers for your projects. It’s incredibly fulfilling to be the one who took the risk to go out and get what you wanted to make yourself better. Photography is my (not so secret) side passion. I don’t get to do it as often as I would like, but I love that the fact that knowing how to do great design, can also help me take great photos. And now I hope it can do the same for you. Take some advice from Weezer and “if you need it you should show it”, and learn how to use your skills in a different way. Design is a wonderful world, I hope you’ll join me here. Because design matters.

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