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Elements of Visual Perception | Principles of Visual Perception
Rubric for Posters | Resources on Integrating Writing and Visual Art

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Elements and Principles of Visual Perception

By Sharon Wuorenmaa, Louisville Male High School, ©1996

Perception refers to the total interpretation of your environment. Visual perception is more specific, involving the sense of sight. Although it is a major perceptual tool, vision cannot be totally understood without the use of all the senses.


The primary elements of visual perception are line, shape/form, color, value (light), space, and texture.

Line - In nature, there are no lines per se. Man has created line as the simplest way to communicate visually. Our eyes see boundaries of objects in terms of lines, and we have been taught to draw using line to delineate shape and form. Lines can be long, thin, fat, or ragged. The letters we use in our posters are made up of lines and can be used to visually stimulate a response to the product that is being advertised or promoted.

Shapes are two dimensional spaces defined by a line or other boundaries. There are geometric shapes and organic shapes.

Form adds depth or volume to a shape. So form can be thought of as three-dimensional shapes. On the flat surface of the poster, form is achieved by the use of light and shade (value).

Value refers to light or the absence of light. A black object on a black surface can only be perceived by the amount of light coming from its surface. To show objects on a white poster, it is necessary to create a contrast to the white paper by using various shades of black, gray, and colors.

Color - The properties of color include hue, values, and intensities. Just as value above, these variations of color are necessary to add emphasis, to change mood, and to create visual tension in a poster.

Texture is the tactile quality of visual expression. Texture can be either real or implied and is created by using other elements such as line, color, and value.

Space is the area used to make the design. In most cases, we are talking about the size, shape, and direction of the surface (paper, etc.) used for the poster. This is often referred to as the format for the design. The use of space is very important. One thing is always necessary--using the space provided so that the viewer can easily "read" the message of the poster. That means that there must be a margin around the poster and that the words and images should be clear and the spacing balanced so the viewer's eye can travel through the work to "read" the visual message.


The primary principles are balance, emphasis, and movement (dynamics).

Balance - Gravity is the principal force behind balance. A state of balance is a state of stability. Balance in poster design is similar to the person who is walking, steps in a hole, and shifts her weight to keep from falling. When evaluating a poster design, the artist visually distributes the weight of the art elements so the work achieves visual equilibrium.

There are two types of balance: symmetrical and asymmetrical. In symmetrical balance, one side of the design is like the other side. This is sometimes called formal balance.

Asymmetrical balance is achieved when different elements are distributed on the design surface but the whole still appears to be unified or balanced. Throughout history, certain asymmetrical proportions have been considered to be a visually pleasing solution. One of these is the Golden Mean (the ratio 1:1.6). Any object placed on the Golden Mean (approximately two-fifths of the way down the page--somewhat above the middle of the page) will become the center of interest. Sometimes artists create visual tension by deliberately causing a work to seem unbalanced. It adds interest to the work. Just as a high wire artist appears to lose balance and then regains it to startle the crowd, the visual artist will use seemingly unbalanced elements to bring attention to a special aspect of a poster.

Emphasis is the principle that tells the story. It is the point of the poster. It would be the climax of a short story. Visually, it is the most important message that the designer wants to get across to the audience. Emphasis can be created by contrast, position, size, color, and any number of the other elements.

Movement - Our eyes follow objects in relation to movement in space. This occurs on the limited space of the poster as well. A good example of movement would be the television screen. Each time the camera operator shoots a shot, he or she is making a judgment about the balance and movement in the space you see on your television. If a person is demonstrating something and moves off camera, the audience will not be able to follow the message. The same is true of the poster. While on camera, a person may be demonstrating something too low on the screen or too far to the side to be understood. This can also happen in poster design.

Movement also means the placement of words and images in the poster so that the eye of the viewer is led to the point of emphasis, the main idea.

Expression, which is the creativity, personal perspective, and (in the words of the writing portfolio) voice of the artist, is neither an element nor a principle but the factor in the creative process that personally solves the problem and pleases the audience.

Rubric for Posters

4 - The design clearly and completely communicates the message. A degree of originality is used in the graphics and/or illustrations. The composition leaves enough negative space around the edges of the poster so that the eye can move around the images. A center of interest is established and the work is visually balanced. Lines, values, and shapes are appropriately clear and add to the communication and aesthetics of the work. The craftsmanship is of high quality.

3 - The design communicates the message. The graphics and/or illustrations are appropriate to the message. The composition leaves enough negative space around the edges of the poster so that the eye can move around the images. A center of interest is established and the work is visually balanced. Lines, values, and shapes are appropriately clear and add to the communication of the work. The craftsmanship is of adequate quality so as not to detract from the visual effect.

2 - The design communicates most elements of the message but some details may be left out. The graphics and/or illustrations do not necessarily fit the theme. The composition does not use the space well but the message is reasonably clear. A center of interest may not be as clear, and the work may not be visually balanced. Lines, values, and shapes are of unsure quality and do not add to the communication. The craftsmanship may be of such quality to detract from visual effect but central message is still present.

1 - Essential elements are missing from the design and it does not communicate the message. The graphics and/or illustrations do not fit the theme or detract from the message. The composition uses space poorly, with no margins, uneven lettering, and poor spacing of lines. There is no center of interest and the work is not visually balanced. Lines, values, and shapes are of poor quality and do not add to the communication. The craftsmanship is of poor quality and detracts from visual effect. The central message is unclear as a result of the lack of visual design.

0 - Unfinished or missing.

Resources on Integrating Writing and Visual Arts
  • Herman, Gail Neary and Patricia Hollingsworth. Kinetic Kaleidoscope: Activities for Exploring Movement and Energy in the Visual Arts. Zephyr Press, 3316 North Chapel Avenue, P.O. Box 66006-LB, Tucson, AZ 85728-6006. Multimodal art activities with an emphasis on whole body learning and journal writing.

  • Margulies, Nancy. Mapping Inner Space. Zephyr Press. An exciting introduction to visual mapping, a conceptual organization technique similar to webbing and brainstorming. Includes practical tips for lesson planning and classroom use.

  • Mason, Kathy. Going Beyond Words: The Art and Practice of Visual Thinking. Zephyr Press. Explores the connection between visual thinking and written communication. Includes practical, classroom-tested, hands-on activities for improving writing, thinking, and math skills through the development of visual thinking.

  • Creative Writing and the Visual Arts: A Handbook of Ideas. Classroom-tested activities for integrating visual arts and creative writing. Developed by art teachers of Madison County, Kentucky in collaboration with an artist-in-residence. Copies available from Kinko's Printing in Richmond, Kentucky. For free resources click here. Sizemore, Judy, Editor.

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Last Updated: Monday, 29-Dec-2008 15:23:41 EST