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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Custom Printing: Thoughts on Designing with Photos

I was reminded this week while teaching an art therapy class that the principles of design are the same for fine arts and graphic design. We were making clocks by building up paper collages over Nordstrom shoe boxes with clock motors attached to the box tops.

As source material for the collages, my fiancee had collected and silhouetted photos of the autistic members, and had also collected large sepia images from an oversized Italian fashion magazine as well as color photos and drawings from an advertising promotion print book.

What started as a fine arts project began to gradually expand into a graphic design project, as the autistic members and their parents and aides wrapped the images around the boxes, in various sizes, at various angles, and with various photo croppings. Some images were tightly cropped, with parts of models’ faces wrapped around the box corners or cut off entirely. In some cases the members even cut out words from the magazines and pasted them down, or glued Scrabble letters onto the clock shoe-boxes to spell words.

I observed, and I thought, and then I explained the following principles to help them with their artwork:.

Photo Cropping

Images can have a lot of space around the subject matter (such as a person’s face), or they can be “severely” cropped. That is, you can focus intently on one aspect of the face, such as the eyes, by cropping away everything else.

This concept is immediately transferable to publication design as well. (In your own work, whether you’re designing a brochure, logo, or print book cover, try different approaches to photos. Decide what you want the image to “say.” What’s the message you want to convey, and how can you most effectively make this statement by highlighting certain elements of the photo? If you’re doing this on a computer with an image editing application and a page design program, your ability to play with different approaches is enhanced (compared to my fiancee’s and my students’ approach with scissors and glue).

I also encouraged the members to run the photos off the edge of the boxes, and perhaps from one side of the shoe box onto an adjacent side.

This is relevant to publication design as well. In graphic design it’s called bleeding an image off the page, and what it does artistically is give the impression that the magazine, brochure, or print book page is larger and more opulent than if the photo did not bleed off the page (if the image is just surrounded by the white text page). The bleed gives the illusion that the image is much larger and that it actually extends off the page.

Photo Contrast

Much of what creates interest in either a work of fine art or a page in a graphic design project is the contrast between (or among) images. This contrast can be achieved in many ways:

  1. Contrast of size
  2. Contrast of color
  3. Contrast of content (simple vs. busy, for instance)
  4. Contrast in the edge treatment of the images (straight edges, torn edges, or shadows behind the images)

All of these were relevant in the creation of the autistic members’ clock collages on the shoe boxes, but they are also equally relevant in the design of a print book, brochure, poster, etc.

I suggested that the students start by choosing a larger image (perhaps a sepia or black and white one) for the background of the front of the clocks. The clock hands and numbers would eventually be placed over this large, dominant image. I suggested that they then choose smaller images (including their own photos which my fiancee had silhouetted) and other photos to position in various places over the larger photo (i.e., smaller shapes positioned over one unifying, larger shape).

The autistic members saw just how the smaller photos laid over the larger photos created a contrast in size, actually making the larger photos seem larger and the smaller photos seem smaller. A silhouette of a person looked small when superimposed over a sepia toned background. This created a sense of interest, balance, and movement. That’s what contrast does in a piece of fine art, but it’s also what it does in a graphic design piece like a print book cover.

I noted that the sepia toned photos were “desaturated.” They lacked intense color. Therefore, the members could create contrast, interest, and movement with small color photos laid over the larger, less intense images. The intense hues of the smaller color images would catch the viewer’s eye first.

The same is true for designing a poster or any other graphic design piece.

Now for contrast in content. One of the members found a color photo of a hand and placed it over a much larger sepia toned photo that included a number of people. The difference between the busy background photo and the simple elegance of the hand photo made for an interesting contrast.

Finally, I encouraged the members to tear the photos. I noted that this created random, irregular photo edges that might be interesting when laid over straight-edged photos—again, a contrast between the simple and regular and the varied and jagged.

Moreover, I told the members, parents, and aides about line direction: vertical lines imply stability; horizontal lines suggest peace and tranquility; and diagonal lines give a sense of movement and energy to an artistic piece.

Again, the same is true for graphic design.

Now contrast by itself is just a trick. I strongly encouraged the members to use the contrast to set up an intentional direction of eye movement through and across the various sides of their clock collages, using such attributes as strong color or interesting photo cropping to draw the eye to certain elements of the design first, second, third, and so forth.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

The first thing to learn is that successful graphic design and successful fine art are based on similar (or even the same) principles. You can learn a lot by going to the art museum or studying fine art print books along with your design textbooks. In fact, you might want to study the following artists: Piet Mondrian, Toulouse Lautrec, and Andy Warhol, all of whom pursued careers in both graphic design and fine art. If you keep an open mind, you’ll learn a lot.

Another thing to learn is that contrast elicits interest in a piece of fine art or a graphic design. You can contrast size, color, edge treatment, or the amount of activity in photos. But for this not to become a trick of the eye, it’s important to consider the message you’re conveying and how you want the reader’s eye to travel through the fine art piece, poster, brochure, print book page spread, or whatever. Ask yourself the following. How can your treatment of the images reinforce the statement you’re making?

Another thing to learn is that the more you look, the more you will see. If you like a billboard you see while driving, ask yourself why. What is the message it conveys, and how do the various graphic elements reinforce this message? If you like a poster, brochure, or print book page spread, ask yourself the same questions.

Also, since our world is becoming increasingly visual, with YouTube apparently surpassing Google as the primary search engine, consider the use of photos online, in commercial printing, and even in photo collage. (By the way, the collage work our autistic students were doing is called photo compositing in the graphic design world. The main difference is that graphic designers do the compositing in Photoshop on a computer rather than by hand with magazine photos, scissors, and glue.)

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