Principles of design: Alignment

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Principles of design: Alignment
Posted on July 8, 2015 by Simon Dunn

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This is the second of a series of posts on design principles. The previous post covers Hierarchy and can be found here.

The foundation of good design is built on a set of common, though not uniform, rules or principles that help anchor designers and give them a reference and framework for their creativity.

As market researchers many of you will be familiar with analysing the way people look at visual stimuli and deconstructing how they ‘read’ an image, so I’m not going to tell you how to create the desired response in your audience. However, I am going to tell you about some of the rules designers are trained in, and follow or break, in order to create that visual stimulus in the first place.


An excellent metaphor for alignment in design is to imagine you are visiting the supermarket for the big weekend shop. At the car park, instead of parking within the white lines, everyone parks wherever they want, at different angles and directions and not obeying any rules. So you do the same and abandon your car. When you return you have great difficulty finding your car because everything is chaotic – there is no alignment or order in the way the cars are parked therefore it’s very difficult to find yours.

This is also true of lack of alignment in design, it prevents your design from being clear and easy to interpret. Fundamentally our brains are wired to see patterns, symmetry and alignment, even if it’s only hinted at. How often have you straightened the cutlery at a restaurant or arranged the magazines on a coffee table? This is the personification of your innate need to apply good alignment and order to your environment – we also like to see it in design.

gregory house copy

In the poster design above you can see that the designer has used alignment as a key ingredient in the design. Everything is aligned to everything else at about 5 degrees, the whole design is based on this alignment relationship.

To take things further, if you were to draw an invisible line down the centre of House you would see that the picture is also aligned with the other elements.

I love this design, it’s very impactful, you can imagine how it was built up, maybe the designer saw the angle in the photo they chose to use and built everything from that. The whole design works well, a key element is the harmony in the orange and turquoise, the temptation would be to introduce dark grey into the text but that would have destroyed the relationship between the text and the image. Also more subtle elements please the eye, for example the way the text runs both behind and in front of House in places and the text across his chest is knocked out. All detail held together by the overarching principles, particularly alignment.

If you’re interested in the other principals of design please keep an eye on this blog and see our post on Hierarchy:

Principles of design: Hierarchy