At first, I wanted to call this chapter size, but then I realised that wouldn’t be entirely correct. Following light, how large or small an element is determines most of its message. However, size is fixed, but scale is relative. When you put a gigantic square on the canvas, it still feels relatively small when you put even larger squares next to it. The exact size you eventually give elements should be a result of the relationships between elements, which means you should think of elements as being scaled larger or smaller with respect to other elements in the composition.
Another distinction has to be made, however, between scale and proportions. While this chapter looks only at the size of one design element, proportions look at the differences or ratios between the scale of all the elements on the page, including negative space or white space. The two concepts are directly linked, and you’ll see many more principles applied in the Proportions chapter, but I just wanted to already mention some key concepts here to get you started.
The Meaning of Scale
A design whose elements all have a similar size generally feels dull and static, lacking in contrast and hierarchy. To improve our designs, we want to use scale to convey a sense of depth and movement, and draw attention to our focus points.
Large elements seem to pop off the page and convey a surprising sense of scale. Smaller elements tend to recede and seem further away. This creates a sense of depth, but bigger elements don’t always have to draw attention. A small element surrounded by a vast amount of space is equally effective.
Besides creating depth, scales inherently create a hierarchy and rank among elements. When other variables are kept constant, the largest elements will seem first in rank and most important, and the smallest last and least important.
Scale is also a property of elements you can change over time. By gradually making an element bigger and bigger, you can make it seem like its moving towards you. Conversely, by making it smaller and smaller, it seems to move out of sight. Even when applied subtly, this is a very effective way for making designs more dynamic.
Because scale is so dynamic, it can be used to direct the viewer’s eye towards certain elements. By gradually changing the scale of elements, you imply a line running through the elements, pointing towards something else.
Objective versus Subjective Scale
The reason scale is so dependent on context, is that we automatically make comparisons whenever we receive sensory input. In order to understand new things, we compare it to things we already know or have already seen. This can be other elements of the design, but will at first glance most likely be personal memories of the viewer.
We differentiate two types of scale:
- Objective: The actual, literal size of an element expressed in some globally accepted unit. When relation to an object’s size in real life is important – such as with maps or architectural plans – objective scaling is necessary. One needs to measure the lengths of lines in the real world, and use a fixed ratio to convert that to a line within the design.
- Subjective: Refers to a person’s impression of the object. For humans, a house may seem incredibly large. For ants, humans are huge. When working with objects viewers might be familiar with, keep into account how they may feel about the relationship in scale. Depicting a woman and a house next to each other as if they were equally big may work in abstract cases (such as icons), but not when you’re trying to be more realistic or concrete.
A direct consequence of this, is that scaling something disproportionately leaves the viewer confused and uncomfortable. Within objects in the real world, there’s a relationship between their width, height, and depth. On the paper, this results in a fixed relationship between width and height. A guitar viewed from the front, for example, is far wider than it is high, which means depicting it differently looks odd and unnatural.