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What is the Rule of Thirds?

The rule of thirds is a method used to divide images by creating an evenly spaced grid with three columns and three rows. Mainly used by designers and photographers, the rule of thirds creates guidelines to arrange the elements in their design or to position the view of the photo they’re about to take. The rule of thirds allows you to create guidelines to help you make a more engaging image. 

Using photography as an example, if the main subject in the picture is directly in the middle, the image looks static and has no motion to it. Symmetry suggests stasis, rigidity, and even confrontation which is why in some pictures the figure almost seems to “stare you down”. If you position the subject closer to one of the edges, your eye moves with the picture creating more dimension. You can think of it as giving you crosshairs to target a shot’s most important elements.

Why would you use this?

By balancing your main subject with negative space you will draw the viewer’s eye. John Thomas Smith coined the term “Rule of Thirds” in 1977 with his work “Remarks on Rural Scenery.”  He acknowledges the power of dividing paintings up using this grid technique to maximize the effect on the viewers’ eye. In web and app design, you can use the rule of thirds for calls to action or to highlight key elements of the website. However, it’s important to note that these sweet spots also differ in their appeal to the eye. 

With this in mind, there are sections that you want to highlight more based on how much it holds a viewer’s attention. The top left corner holds 41% of the viewer’s attention, the top right holds 20%, the bottom left holds 25% and the bottom right holds 14%. What this means is that most people are going to look at the top left corner first before anything else.

How can you use the Rule of Thirds?

Here is an example of how to use the rule of thirds in graphic design. The most essential pieces of the design are laid out to hit all the intersecting points to guide the viewer to what information is most important. 

As you can tell even though the information doesn’t hit the points exactly, your eye is still drawn to those areas. We have the seminar title as being the most viewed point of the design. The call to action to register now for the seminar hits the next viewpoint. The doctor’s name, the date, and the time fall onto the next section. And finally, the picture of the doctor is positioned to hit the last viewpoint. (Tip: adding faces into designs helped give it a more personal connection as people are more likely to interact with the graphic when they see a face.) 

As already stated the rule of thirds is less of a “rule” that is supposed to be strictly followed, but more a general guide to creating movement and flow of all the important aspects of the design.

Can you break the Rule of Thirds?

If your intention is to break the rule of thirds, there are some ways that you can still create dimension and have symmetry in your photographs. One way is to pull back from your subject. Pulling away from the subject allows the background to really show through. It almost switches who the subject is supposed to be. 

The second way of breaking the rule is to fill up the frame. (opposites) When you fill-up the frame, you’re creating that image that “stares you down”. Filling the frame is really helpful in adding a serious tone to your images. Architecture is a little different to photograph and almost always requires the images the be shot head-on. In this case, you can use the gridlines to match up with the vertical and horizontal lines in the pictures to make sure it’s completely balanced and the picture doesn’t turn out lopsided.

The rule of thirds is also one of the best tools to use to help figure out how to use an asymmetrical balance to your advantage. Having a design that is imbalanced throws off the entire layout and makes it less likely for a viewer to want to react to it. While a lot of design trends come and go, the rule of thirds is here to stay, but it’s up to you how you use this tip to create balanced designs.