Using Scale: Real World Examples

By LaurenMarie

Size is often used synonymously with scale, but there is a distinct difference between the two.

Size is the physical dimensions of an element in the layout (a 6 inch by 6 inch image). Scale is the size of the element as it relates to its usual physical size (it is impossible to get a full size human on an 8.5×11 piece of paper, so s/he would have be scaled down to fit).

Size is relative to the layout. Think about 12 pt font in a magazine vs. a billboard. It’s the same size, but in relationship to its layout, it can seem just right or entirely too small.

Size and Scale are used to

  • Create depth
  • Create perspective
  • Create hierarchy and organize
  • Create interest and variety

I Love Typography

Using size to construct the hierarchy of a layout is probably the easiest way to introduce this element.

Take a look at I Love Typography, the definitive typography blog. It is easy to distinguish the header from the headline, byline, subheaders and body copy. This is because they vary in size and your eye is naturally drawn to the largest element first. Note the drop cap, too; it’s a great way to indicate where the reader should start and an example of using size to direct the viewer’s eye.

Onitsuka Tiger

This Onitsuka Tiger ad is an interesting exploration of scale. The shoe is made up of the elements of the culture they are appealing to. You’ll remember those posters where little photos are put together in such a way that they create a larger image, which is along a similar vein (and what is on the website

The use of scale for this image pulls the viewer in to look at the details. Using small details in this way is a great tactic for holding the viewer’s interest. The effect is that the viewer wants to see all the different pieces, to see if s/he recognizes any of them in order to identify with the ad in a more personal way. The details don’t just have to be in the image, they can also appear in repeating icons in a border or background elements.

Military Museum

Experiment with scale for background elements, texture and patterns. In this Military Museum ad, the planes have been scaled down to create a kind of pattern. Alternatively you can scale something so large that it becomes nearly unrecognizable, and so creates an abstract background (think of most macro photography).

Nikon Vietnam and Foster’s Matchbook

Visual cues are important when relating the size of objects that might be unknown to the viewer. You often see images in ads that show a coin next to an object, or a person next to a product in order to give the viewer an idea of the actual size. Of course the reference point needs to be on the same plane, otherwise it will distort the perspective (Nikon ad).

It can be effective to mess with the viewer’s perceived ideas of how large or small an object should be. Think of rides at amusement parks like Disneyland where you are blown up or shrunk down and your perspective of the world is skewed. Sometimes it’s fun to get a different perspective.

Consider how you crop photos in your layouts, too. For example, would the Foster’s ad have been as effective if it showed the whole person instead of just a hand? Maybe, if the guy was super dorky, but still managed to get a lot of numbers because of Foster’s, but it probably would diminish the shock of the huge matchbook.

Use Scale Wisely

Look at how scale is making your layout more interesting.

  • Add an object or image that is magnified x3 to create an abstract background
  • Shrink the image smaller and duplicate it to create a texture or pattern
  • Would a single large, dramatic image or 6 smallish images that don’t show much detail be more effective?
  • Add to or skew the viewer’s perspective with the use of scale.

And be mindful of possible poor uses of scale.

  • Size of an object can overwhelm the layout.
  • Everything the same size = boring, possibly confusing (hierarchy).

Of course, once you know the rules, you can purposefully break them to create a desired mood or affect!

This has been the fourth installment in Real World Examples of the elements of design. Previously covered have been line, shape and space. Next up will be texture, value, use of color and the color wheel and color theory.

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