Layout is the act of arranging text and images on the page according to an overall aesthetic scheme and for the purpose of clarifying a presentation. In graphic arts, it is the elephant in the room; layout underlies everything we do when we communicate visually. Well-structured content can guide readers through complex information, but when the material we present lacks order, it can confuse or, worse yet, agitate readers trying to make sense of the material.

Many artists and architects achieve balanced outcomes by proportioning their work to approximate the golden section. The golden section is a special mathematical relationship that comes from dividing a line into two segments where the ratio of the total length (x + y) to the length of the longer segment (x) is the same as that of the length of the longer segment (x) to the length of the shorter segment (y) (Fig. 1a), or 13:8. Many celebrated paintings since at least the Renaissance exhibit these proportions (Fig. 1b).

Compositional aesthetics may serve a fundamentally different purpose from designs aimed to communicate. However, the Fibonacci numbers, which are also linked to the golden ratio, heavily influence graphic design. This sequence of numbers starts with 0 and 1 and each subsequent integer is the sum of the previous two (that is, 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 and so on). The quotient of successive pairs of numbers, with the exception of the first few, is approximately 1.6180 (or 13:8). The harmonious relationships of the Fibonacci integers are often used as measurements for font sizes and determining page layouts in books.

A practical application of the golden section is to incorporate their congruous proportions into slides and posters we create, and not just for artistic reasons: the placement of objects on a page can carry meaning. A simplified version of the golden section is the 'rule of thirds', which suggests dividing a page into nine equal parts (Fig. 1c). Elements placed along the lines and especially where the lines intersect (the so-called power points) become more visually prominent. Eye-tracking studies have shown that our gaze lingers in the regions marked by the lines when we scan an image.

Using a grid to aid layout (Fig. 2a) can dramatically streamline the design process by taking the guesswork out of sizing and placing content. Try creating a set of strategically placed guides in Microsoft PowerPoint or Adobe Illustrator before you work. Grids help to anchor content and create stability within a design. They also build consistency between slides that allows the audience to anticipate where content will appear.

Layout is more than adhering to lines of a grid system: it is the process of planning out exactly the journey we want the eyes to travel across the arrangements (Fig. 2b). The goal is to reveal the hierarchical relationship in the information and make clear what is to be read first, second and so on. This can be done by developing dominance with some elements and practicing restraint with others. Two ways to draw a reader's attention to a compositional element is to make it visually different from its surroundings1 or to frame the object in ample white space2 (Fig. 2c). The Gestalt principles3,4 also offer useful operational guidance to describe relationships between objects based on certain graphical cues.

We all have seen slides and posters packed full of content where the presenters have assigned equal visual weight to all the material. In these situations, it is difficult to know where to begin reading. The legendary American graphic designer Paul Rand said, “Without contrast, you're dead.” Layout is the foundation of graphic design, and it should not be overlooked. How we arrange elements on the page can help or hinder whether the information is understood.

Next month, I will focus on the importance of aligning 'salience' and 'relevance'.