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What Makes an Image Compelling

In 1991, Molly Bang, an award-winning children’s book illustrator, published a trail-blazing book, called How Pictures Work, analyzing how the structure of an image works to engage the emotions of a viewer and how the elements of an artwork can give it the power to tell a story. If you can find a copy in your local library, it is worth spending a couple of hours reading it, because you’ll spend the next year reflecting on it.

In her book, Molly investigated how changing shapes, positions, and colors would affect the visual telling of Little Red Riding Hood. In Figure 2.10, we see a visual representation of Little Red Riding Hood in the middle of the forest, about to meet the wolf. However, while the image evokes the story of Red alone in the forest, it isn’t particularly scary. How could she change the composition of the image to make Red meeting the Wolf scarier?


FIGURE 2.10 Using simple shapes cut from construction paper, Molly Bang experimented with the best way to tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood visually. (From Picture This, ©2000 Molly Bang. Used with permission from Chronicle Books, LLC)

As a result of her work, Molly discovered 12 principles that detail how the structure of an image affects its effectiveness. The first four describe the effects of gravity on how we perceive an image; the last eight reflect the world of the image itself.


Smooth, flat, horizontal shapes give us a sense of stability and calm. In fact, smaller horizontal or horizontally oriented shapes within a picture can also be felt as islands of calm.


Vertical shapes are more exciting and more active. Vertical shapes rebel against the earth’s gravity. They imply energy and a reaching toward the heights or the heavens. If a horizontal bar is placed across the top of a row of verticals, stability reigns again.


Diagonal shapes are dynamic because they imply motion or tension. We tend to read images diagonally from left to right, the same way Westerners read a page of text.


The upper half of a picture is a place of freedom, happiness, and power; objects placed in the upper half also often feel more “spiritual.” The bottom half of a picture feels more threatened, heavier, sadder, or constrained; objects placed in the bottom half also feel more grounded.


The center of the page is the most effective “center of attention.” It is the point of greatest attraction and stability. However, shifting an element off-center makes it more dynamic because the edges and corners of the image are the boundaries of the picture world. Everything stops at the edge.


In general, white or light backgrounds feel safer to us than dark backgrounds because we can see well during the day and only poorly at night.


We feel more scared looking at pointed shapes; we feel more secure or comforted looking at rounded shapes or curves.


The larger an object is in a picture, the stronger it feels.


We associate the same or similar colors much more strongly than we associate the same or similar shapes.


Regularity and irregularity—and their combinations—are powerful. Though perfect regularity and perfect chaos are both threatening.


We notice contrasts; put another way, contrast enables us to see.


The movement and import of the picture are determined as much by the space between the shapes as by the shapes themselves.

Molly concludes, “When we look at a picture, we know perfectly well that it’s a picture and not the real thing, but we suspend disbelief. For the moment, the picture is ‘real.’ When we are just beginning [to design], we often constrain our pictures…we make all the elements fairly similar in size; we tend to use the center of the page and avoid the sides; we tend to divide the space into regular sections; we tend to go for realism rather than essence.…And very often we sacrifice emotional impact for ‘prettiness.’ Do not worry about whether the picture is pretty. Worry about whether it is effective.”2

Molly Bang illustrates the power of these principles in Figure 2.11, which is strikingly more dramatic than Figure 2.10. As you’ll learn, her principles extend our original Six Priorities. Let’s explore these ideas further by looking at several specific visual composition techniques.


FIGURE 2.11 Again, simple shapes, but much more dynamic, exciting, and scary. Molly Bang’s principles explain why. (From Picture This, ©2000 Molly Bang. Used with permission from Chronicle Books, LLC)

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Last Update: November 17, 2020