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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The Retreat Files: Templates and Clipping Masks

A layered template is a layout that has the basic page design already set up for you, using shapes each in their own layer. You can use each shape layer as a clipping mask to ‘clip’ your photos and papers to the shapes—meaning the top layer (paper or photo) will take the shape of whatever is in the layer directly underneath it, “masking” or hiding whatever portion of the paper or photo that is outside of the shape.

There are so many reasons why templates are awesome tools in your digital scrapbooking adventure. I’ll share some of my top reasons why I love templates.

  1. Templates give you a great starting point, a jump start for your design juices to flow.
  2. Templates are great for beginner scrappers and intermediate scrappers alike.
  3. Templates help you do things that you don’t know how to do, or things that you can’t do in Photoshop Elements, for example. They also help you try new things.
  4. Templates are very versatile—rotate them, add or remove things, use them over and over again.
  5. Templates are not just for page design—use them for borders, photo masks, hybrid projects, etc.

Using Clipping Masks with Layered Templates

Step1: Open Photoshop or other photo editing program.

Step 2: Open a layered template (File > Open > folder where your template is stored). If you want you can also go to File > Save As and save this project under a new name so you don’t accidentally save over your original template.

Step 3: Open the digital papers, photos, embellishments that you would like to use on your layout and bring them into Photoshop (File > Open > folder where your photos and digital scrapbooking supplies are stored).

Step 4: Select the shape layer (such as “photo1” in the layers palette in the screenshot below) in the layered template that you would like to replace with paper or a photo—make sure it is highlighted in the layers palette. Then use the Move Tool to drag your photo onto your layered template. In the layers palette, make sure your photo layer is located directly above the template shape layer you want to clip it to, see below:

Then use the Move Tool to position the photo so that it covers the shape you want to clip it to in the template.

Step 5: To create the clipping mask, go to Layer > Create Clipping Mask (Keystroke Shift+Ctrl+G in PS). In PSE, go to Layer > Group with Previous (Keystroke Ctrl+G). Or you could right click in the layers palette and select “Create Clipping Mask” in the drop down menu. Voila! The paper is now the shape of that layer!

Step 6: With the paper layer active, use the Move Tool to re-size and rotate the photo until the desired portion of the paper is visible. What’s great about clipping masks is that it doesn’t crop or cut the paper at all, it just “masks” or hides the parts outside of the shape, so you’re not stuck with cropped paper later on if you want to change it.


Step 7: Once you are satisfied with the position of the paper in its new shape it is a good idea to merge the two layers to decrease the memory required to store the layout. Right click on the photo layer in the layers palette and select “Merge Down” from the drop down menu to merge your photo into the template layer. Alternatively go to Layer > Merge Down (Keystroke Ctrl+E).


Step 8: Continue this same process with your photos and papers until you have used all the pieces in the template that you want.


Step 9: Embellish and make the layout your own!

Extra template tips:

Templates are so versatile and fun to use. They are a good starting foundation for any layout. Some templates come with drop shadows already set, others don’t. Either way you can add or delete drop shadows as desired. Add your own personal touches to finish off your page. You can alter them to fit your needs, rotate them, move shape layers into different places, delete layers you don’t want to use. You can even use them with text. There are so many fabulous possibilities using layered templates and clipping masks in your digiscrapping! Have fun!


Once you’re done with your layout you’ll want to save your file. Click on File > Save As. It’s good to get in the habit of always choosing “Save As” instead of “Save” so you don’t save changes to your original picture accidentally.

Choose the file you want to save your scrapbook page or document to. Enter the file name then choose the format you want to save in. There are two ways I like to save my layouts.


  1. PSD files: This keeps all the separated layers intact, which is great if you ever want to go back and make changes on your layout. It’s also great because you can keep using the same design for different scrapbook pages by using clipping masks to change out your photos and papers. The downside to PSD files is that you can’t send a PSD to the photo lab (it has to be a JPEG) and they are very large file sizes.
  2. JPEG files: When you save as a JPEG, the layout is flattened so there are no layers. So once you know you are finished with your layout, you can save as a JPEG. This is the file type your photo lab needs for printing. Also, the file size is much smaller than a PSD.
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Template Tuesday

Want to join in our Template Tuesday challenges?! Great! Check out our challenges section on our message board to come and play, with a new template coming out every Tuesday.

Here are a couple to get get you started! Click on each of the images below to be taken to the download link for the template.








Our most recent.


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Roots Tech Expo review

We had such a blast at the Roots Tech Expo this year. The Digital Scrapbook Memories booth saw a lot of traffic with new faces, and several return customers and friends.  Our most popular kits for the show were out Young Love kit and our Family Ties CD. They both tie in well with genealogy and heritage style layouts, along with blogs and newsletters that a lot of people wanted to use them for. I had several women and men return to my booth, that came last year, to tell me just how amazing Digital Scrapbook Memories is and how much they love our Digital Kits.  It makes me so happy to see that we got so many people excited about digital scrapbooking. Besides, I love it and I love what I do, so it reflects on how people perceive our business as a whole.

This year we got to be right across from the Microsoft Playground. I was SO excited. They have a nice lounge/play area for people of all ages with games and activities to do to help with the overwhelming education of genealogy that took place at the show.

Our old friend Jill, from Flip-Pal, stopped in to say hello. She is such a motivational woman to be around. She always pumps me up about our graphics and tells me how much she loves our company. Jill always manages to squeeze in little business tips and tricks, that she has picked up along the way of many of her own ventures in life. I always appreciate them and have acted on a few of them.  I don’t know anyone nicer or more thoughtful than this woman. I love her. lol

Overall the show was a success and we got a lot of new people into the world of digital scrapbooking.  I always have such a good feeling in my heart and head at the end of shows that reaffirms me why I do what I do.

LOVE for all my digital scrapbookers out there!!

Much love,


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The Retreat Files: Blending Backgrounds

Layer Blending Modes

1. Open or create two separate layers to be directly on top of one another that you want to ‘mix’ together. This could be:
Papers on Papers/Elements
Elements on Papers/Elements
Photos on Papers/Elements
Adjustment Layers, like Solid Color, Gradient, or Pattern on Papers/Elements

2. Select the top layer of the two to be mixed and from the Layer Blending Mode drop-down list select an option, such as Multiply, Screen, or Overlay.
TIP: After making the first Layer Blend Mode selection, use your keyboard arrow keys to move up and down through the list to experiment or play with the various options.

OPTIONAL: Change the Layer Opacity setting on the top layer to make the blending mode not as prominent.

Changing Color (Method 1)

1. Open the image you want change colors.

2. In CS versions select the Image menu, Adjustments, and Variations. In Elements versions select the Enhance menu, Adjust Color, Color Variations.

3. Using the options provided:
Select the Area to be affected (Shadows, Midtones, Highlights, Saturation)
Adjust the Intensity slider

4. Click on OK to accept changes or click on Cancel to reject changes.

Changing Color (Method 2)

1. Open the image you want change colors.

2. Select or sample the foreground color you want to use for the new color.

3. Select the New Adjustment Layer button from the palette options bar, and choose Hue/Saturation.

4. In the Adjustments window choose the Colorize checkbox. Then proceed to adjust the saturation and lightness as desired.

5. Click on OK to accept changes or click on Cancel to reject changes.

TIP: Changing the Hue will alter the base color you previously chose.
TIP: Play with various Layer Blend modes to try and get a more natural look to the color change.

OPTIONAL: Better results can often be achieved by first converting the base image/layer to black and white (BW) and then adding the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. To do this, select the layer to be converted to BW and then:
(CS versions) Select the Image menu, Adjustments, Desaturate.
(Elements versions) Select the Enhance menu, Adjust Color, Remove Color.

Controlling Changes

Isolating by Selecting First
An excellent way to help control what and where colors are affected in the previous techniques is using selection tools to first create a selection around the area or of the colors you want to affect.
The Magic Wand and/or Quick Selection Brush are two beneficial tools in quickly and efficiently getting only certain areas highlighted or isolate where changes will occur.
Jumping to a Separate Layer
After selecting what or where you want things to be affected, an additional step to further control and add flexibility to your changes is to jump those pixels or area to its own layer.
With a selection made, press Ctrl/Cmd + J to Copy the pixels/area to a new layer above the current.
With a selection made, press Shift + Ctrl/Cmd + J to Move/Cut the pixels/area to a new layer above the current.
These new layers can then have their Layer Blend Mode adjusted, have an Adjustment Layer clipped to just its specific pixel information, or change the Layer Opacity.

Class taught by Bryan McEwan

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