Visual Hierarchy & The Rule of Thirds

Today’s essential question: How can I use the rule of thirds and visual hierarchy to create a prominent focal point in my poster?

Today we will show our designs to a classmate and make sure they fulfill the following requirements:

  • Clear visual hierarchy with a prominent focal point
  • Rule of thirds

Student Examples

Beatrice and Marina have created aesthetically appealing posters.
How have they created a clear visual hierarchy?
How do their designs follow the rule of thirds?

Lily, Quamae, and Josh’s Posters are also great.
Do you think they follow the rule of thirds in a less obvious way? Why or why not?
What are some small changes you might suggest to make an already solid poster even more aesthetically appealing?

Case Study: The Evolution of Barry’s Poster

We will follow the evolution of Barry’s project to see the importance of using the rule of thirds and establishing a clear visual hierarchy.

Barry’s project was at a point where he couldn’t add anything else (there was already too much going on), but it still felt like it was missing something. If your project feels like this, there is a good chance that the layout is not following the rule of thirds, or that all of your design elements carry equal weight, so nothing stands out as being the focal point.


The easiest way to create a clear focal point is to make your focal point contrast with the other design elements (such as by making it the largest item or making it a different color from everything else) and to place it at one of the intersection of thirds.

To show the intersection of thirds, go to View -> Rulers -> Show Rulers at the top of the screen.

Rulers should appear along the top and left side of your project:

Bring your mouse to the ruler along the left side, and click and drag it to the right to create a guide. Continue dragging the guide until it is at 4″ (if your poster is 12″ wide) or 6″ (if your poster is 18″ wide). Do the same thing again and place the second guide at 8″ (if your poster is 12″ wide) or 12″ (if your poster is 18″ wide).

Then bring your mouse to the ruler along the top of the project, and click and drag it down to create a guide. Continue dragging the guide until it is at 4″ (if your poster is 12″ tall) or 6″ (if your poster is 18″ tall). Do the same thing again and place the second guide at 8″ (if your poster is 12″ tall) or 12″ (if your poster is 18″ tall).

Now your poster should be divided into 9 sections. The 4 points where the guides intersect are natural focal points, and you should consider placing your focal point in one of these spots.

Notice how Barry’s design, despite having lots of design elements, does not follow the rule of thirds by placing any of the design elements at the intersection points:

Barry explained how “Gravity Rush” was the most important element in his poster, and the cats were second. So we hid the paw prints (by clicking on the eyeball next to the paw print layers) to focus on the most important parts first.

Notice how each cat and the text all take up around the same amount of space, and therefore have the same visual weight. Nothing stands out because everything is the same. Also, nothing important is at any of the intersection points.

Upon realizing this, Barry made the top right cat and the words larger so they become the first thing the viewer sees, and adjusted the placement of the items so the cat’s face is at a natural focal point and looks towards the letters, guiding the viewer to do the same. He also made the bottom cat a bit smaller to make it clear that it was second in the visual hierarchy:

Finally, Barry made the paw prints visible, but he made them transparent so they don’t stand out as much, and added variety by rotating them in different directions and scaling them to a variety of sizes.

Notice how now there is a clear visual hierarchy, and we see the poster elements in the following order: 1) large cat and “gravity rush” 2) small cat 3) paw print texture.

How could Barry make this visual hierarchy even more clear?

Today we will:

  • Add guides to our projects at 4″ and 8″ (shorter dimension) and 6″ and 12″ (longer dimension)
  • Consult a classmate as to whether the focal point is the largest item with the most contrast at one of the intersections of thirds
  • Make any necessary changes to our projects
  • Finish adding details and adjusting colors
  • Create a new blog post with the following:
    • a PDF of today’s work
    • a few sentences describing what you did today
  • If you think you are done, create a final blog post with the following (I will not grade your project until you have published a post with all three items):
    • a PDF of your finished project
    • a JPG of your finished project (open the PDF in photoshop and then save as JPG)
    • an artist statement about your project that is a minimum of 150 words




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