The Retreat Files: Strategies for Brilliant Design

Have you ever thought about what makes a great layout design?  Do you ever browse through galleries or magazines and see amazing layouts, but aren’t sure exactly what makes them stand out?   Well, chances are they utilize one or more basic design principles.

Part 1:  Basic Design Principles

These are a few broad principles that apply to any kind of visual design, such as interiors, advertising, fashion, and, you guessed it – even scrapbooking!

Emphasis/Focal point

When you look at a layout (or any work of art), pay attention to where your eye goes first.  This is the focal point.  When you are creating a layout, think about what you want to your focal point to be.  For scrapbookers, it’s usually the photos.  Perhaps you have more than one photo there is one that you want to stand out, and the others will be secondary.   However, the photos don’t have to be the focal point; perhaps it’s the title or even some clever elements that help tell the story. Whatever it is, there are many ways you can go about creating your focal point.

Using the Rule of Thirds is a great way to create a focal point.  You may have heard of this rule before in regards to photography, but it absolutely applies to scrapbook layouts as well.

The rule of thirds states that if you place your focal point at one of the places where the grid intersects, it creates more energy and interest to your layout.  Additionally, if you place lines in your layout where the grid lines are, this will create a more pleasing visual design.

Another way to create emphasis is by playing with size.  One of my favorite things about digital scrap booking is that it is so easy to size and resize everything.  Making your focal photo big and your supporting photos smaller is an easy way to create emphasis where you want it.  Or a big title next to many small photos immediately lets the viewer know what the subject of your layout is.

The use of white space can be very useful in adding emphasis to a layout. (This is also sometimes referred to as negative space.)  White space refers to an area of a layout that is mostly unmarked.  Leaving an area void of photos, journaling, or other elements serves to add emphasis to the focal point of the layout. To place an element surrounded by white space gives it more visual weight and draws the eye to it.

One of my favorite ways to add emphasis is to add frames and borders.

- To make a photo stand out, I often add a simple white stroke to it.  This is really simple to do:

1. Make sure your photo layer is selected in your layers palette.

2.  Edit>Stroke (Outline) Selection

3.  Set the width (I like about 30 pixels)

4.  Set the color to white

5.  Select “inside”.  I like inside because it keeps the corners nice and

square.  Selecting “outside” or “center” will cut the corners off just

a little bit.

 - I often use a border of some kind near the edge of my layout.  I find it helps unify and contain the whole design, while adding emphasis to the design as a whole.


Contrast is all about differences.  There are many different ways to achieve contrast:

Ÿ  use contrasting colors.  Contrasting colors are those that are opposite one another on the color wheel.

Ÿ  using light and dark.  For example, a bright photo against a light or white background can be very striking.

Ÿ  using size.  Small items next to large ones; photos or other elements of differing sizes placed together create contrast.

Ÿ  using different shapes together.  I love to add a circle (or several circles) to a layout with square and rectangle photos & elements.


 Balance is the distribution of visual weight on a layout.  The way you place the various elements on a page can help achieve a balance, creating unity and harmony.

One of the best ways to do this is to create a visual triangle on your page. This means placing elements on your page in three different spots that, if connected, would create a triangle.  This anchors your design and helps create balance and unity across the page.  There are any number of ways to do this – using items that have similar shape, color, size, etc.


 Repetition, pattern, or rhythm refers to the recurrence of similar elements within a layout: colors, lines, shapes, values, etc. Any element that is generally echoed serves to make for a stronger visual presentation.  A good rule is “If you do it to one side, do it to the other side.”


Establishing a pattern using repetition and then breaking the pattern adds emphasis. For example, if you have a simple row of squares and then set just one of them to a different angle, they eye immediately goes to the one that is placed differently.  You could also add extra embellishment to one of squares to make it stand out.  This is an easy way to create a focal point.

One of my favorite ways to use repetition is by creating a grid on my page.  I do this by creating similar shapes and aligning them in a gird format – usually squares or rectangles, but I’ve used circles as well.  I use this grid to house my photos, pattern papers, and sometimes even other elements such as a flower or journaling block.  As the similar shapes are repeated it helps create unity and harmony in the design.

Part 2: Using All Your Tools to Tell The Story

 Before you start creating a layout, stop and think:  What is the story I want to tell?  Ask yourself questions about the subject of your layout.  What is it about? An event? An everyday moment? An individual?  Or perhaps just your own thoughts and emotions about the photos on your layout?  What is the mood?  What emotions do you want to convey?

Then, using your answers, think about what tools you have that will help you tell the story.  Often we only think of the photos and journaling as the storytelling part of a layout, but I want you to think about ALL of your scrapbooking tools; how can they be used to help tell the story?  These tools might include:

Color/Tone/Value.  This may include specific colors, or things like bright vs. muted or light vs. dark colors.  Pay attention to the emotions that color can covey.  Using a monochromatic color scheme can be especially dramatic. Often mimicking the colors or tones of the photos enhances the story.

Shape.  Different shapes can convey emotion as well.  I find that squares and rectangles create a sleek, streamlined feeling.  I love to use circles to help convey energy and playfulness.  Combining a mixture of the two is also a great way to establish structure while adding a playful or whimsical feeling.

Embellishments.  There are a lot of theme kits available for digital scrap bookers.  Sometimes it is fun to add themed embellishments that go very specifically with the story you are telling. This can also be done using less descriptive embellishments – for example I used colorful stitching in the shape of a circle on a page that had a photo of a rainbow.

Journaling/Type.  Do you need a lot of words or just a few?  Sometimes journaling can fill most of a page, and sometimes a simple title is all that is needed.  When selecting alphabets or fonts, try picking ones to match the subject and mood of your layout.

Photos.  Because of digital photography, we can take tons of photos – too many to scrap.  Sometimes, especially for event pages, I like to include a lot of photos to convey all the people, celebration, and fun.  Other times, less is more.  I may take 50 candid shots of my toddler, but just end up putting one on the page because it gives the story greater impact.

Your overall style and design.  Will it be simple and clean, or busy and noisy?  Soft and ethereal? Sweet? Grungy? Whimsical? Playful? Calm? Bold? Choose a style that not only reflects what you like, but something that reflects and supports the subject of your layout.  Use the design principles (from part 1 of this lesson) that will best serve your story.

There are probably other tools I am forgetting as well!  The key is to simply use everything at your disposal as a scrapbooker to let your story shine.  Don’t get too caught up in all the rules. Don’t try to use every principle on every layout, use what works for you, play around, and have fun!

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One Response to The Retreat Files: Strategies for Brilliant Design

  1. Kathy says:


    Loved all the scrapbook page design tips. I’m pretty good at the law of thirds, but as I’m more of a filler, leaving white space is definitely tough for me. With all the new info you provided here, we’ll see if I can show improvement in my scrapbook designs.