How To Create Visual Tension in Your Designs - Vanseo Design (2022)

The pattern of building tension and then releasing that tension is one of the most ingrained patterns on all human beings. Tension and release is at the heart of music, story, art, and pretty much all creative endeavors.

The tension and release pattern in music creates rhythm. In a mystery novel we call it suspense and resolution. In the visual arts, including design, it leads to things like hierarchy, focal points, and flow.

Understanding how visual tension works and how to control it is an important tool for designers to master.

How To Create Visual Tension in Your Designs - Vanseo Design (1)

What is Visual Tension

Before we can get to how to create and release visual tension we need to understand what it is. Consider the following definitions of tension.

tension (n)

Even though I’m sure you know what tension is, consider the nuances of the different definitions above. We’re concerned with all of them, but when it comes to graphic design it’s the last that’s probably most important to us.

Imagine the image above is of a ball on the side of a mountain. Our knowledge of round objects and gravity tells us the ball can’t possibly be stable where it is.

The image is perhaps a snapshot in time, that we know changed from the previous moment and has to change in the next moment.

Stability won’t be achieved until the ball stops rolling somewhere on the horizontal. The current unstable snapshot carries tension because it’s not stable.

When we’re looking at a web page, the visuals we see can also be thought of as a snapshot in time.

What we perceive visually is more than a series of shapes and colors, objects and movements. What we experience visually is more dynamic. We see the interplay of directed tensions.

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About a year ago, I posted 19 factors that impact compositional balance. In that post I said visual balance had two components, weight and direction. Similarly we can say that visual dynamics is direction tension.

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Why Visual Tension is Important

When we design a web page we’re looking to communicate something. You have several messages of differing importance you want to convey to your visitors.

Graphically we do this by creating a hierarchy of design elements.

You create a dominant element or dominant area in the design containing your most important message and then lead your visitors through a series of less dominant focal points that contain secondary and tertiary messages.

Tension adds visual interest and energy. It adds visual weight. Hierarchy is created entirely through scaling visual weights.

It makes sense then to learn how to create and release tension so we can better direct our audience around our designs.

One point to keep in mind is that like everything else hierarchy, we need to use tension sparingly. Too much visual tension everywhere will pull the eye in all directions at once and hurt your design.

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How to Create Visual Tension

Consider the series of images above.

To the left is a dot placed in the center of a square background. There’s equal space (forces) around it and the dot sits quietly and statically in the center. No tension exists.

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In the middle image I’ve moved the dot off center. The space is now active as the forces are no longer equal, setting up a state of tension. The greater space on the left seems to be exerting a force that pushes the dot to the right.

We feel as though the dot is struggling to regain the center and symmetry or perhaps moving to the right and off the page.

In the last image I’ve moved the dot closer to the right edge. As the space between the dot and the edge decreases the tension increases until the moment when the dot touches the edge.

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The Structural Skeleton’s of Shapes

There’s something else beside the positive elements and negative space determining the forces at play.

In his book “Art and Visual Perception,” Rudolph Arnheim saw shapes as having a structural skeleton running through them. Above is his structural skeleton for a square.

Elements placed along any of the axis or in the center will appear more visually balanced, more stable. They’ll carry less tension. Elsewhere on the structure there’s a greater sense of tension.

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Multiple Shapes

If we add a second element we introduce new forces and a new dynamic.

Each of the images above contains 2 dots. With this second dot the dynamic shifts from being about the location of each dot to the spatial relationship between them and to a lesser extent the location of the combined dot group.

As we move the dots closer together the space between them decreases and again tension is increased. This continues until the dots touch and overlap.

(Video) The Balance of Design

Overlapping the dots releases the tension in the space between them. However, it now sets up another tension.

We know the two dots can’t occupy the same space at the same time. This is the new tension that’s been created. To relieve it we perceive the 3 dimensional space between them.

The tension (and depth) here is further increased by increasing the size of one of the two dots.

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Additional Ways to Create Visual Tension

As we saw above asymmetrical space is one way to add tension as it creates unbalanced forces on elements.

Another way to create tension using space is through the figure/ground relationship. If figure and ground each carry equal weight it can create tension as each threatens to overtake the other.

Juxtaposition can also be used. Juxtaposing conflicting elements is one of the stronger ways to visually show tension. An ice cube next to the sun for example. The greater the conflict, the greater the tension.

Similarly contrast can be used to create tension. Light and dark, large and small, curves and straight lines. And again the greater the contrast, the greater the tension.

Angular lines typically carry more tension than either horizontal or vertical lines, because the are perceived as less stable.

Breaking rules, such as moving an element off the grid creates an uneasiness, an escape from order. This uneasiness creates tension and naturally draws the eye and adds visual interest.

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Examples

Above is a design from Jan Tschichoild. Tension is created through the asymmetrical balance of elements along with contrast of both tone and color.

The elements in the lower right are all pulled close to each other like the two dots we saw above. Additional tension is created through the contrast between the circle and the straight lines and the contrast between the horizontal text and vertical column of text.

Below is the studio page from the Definium Design Group webs tie. Like Tschichoild’s design above it shows an asymmetrical balance of elements as well as contrasts in tone and color.

Additionally we see the use of a diagonal line running through the upper left corner and a diagonal flow through the logo and tagline.

I think there’s a nice tension and release at play here. If we start in the upper left, there are two dark shapes enclosing the logo. These elements are close together as though there’s an attractive force between them.

On the right a series of links are pulled closely together, yet pushed away from everything else. The text in the content section is also pulled closer to itself than anything else.

In between these areas there’s space for the eye to rest when traveling from one part of the design to another. I wonder though, if more tension/release would be present were the content are pushed lower down on the page creating more space between page title and the black bar above.

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Summary

Tension and release is a very common pattern in all the arts.

Visual tension creates visual interest. It’s more dynamic and leads to more complex relationships between elements. We can use this to evoke feelings of energy, vitality, forcefulness, and even modernism.

More tension leads to more attention, because we feel something is off and we need it to resolve itself back to a more static state of rest. When tension is present we feel something is going to happen and we don’t want to miss it.

(Video) Elements of Design

Varying visual tension throughout a design by creating contrasts in space, pulling some elements closer together and pushing others further apart, creates rhythm and flow through a design. Tension in one area, release in another.

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FAQs

How do you create visual tension in your designs? ›

Additional Ways to Create Visual Tension

If figure and ground each carry equal weight it can create tension as each threatens to overtake the other. Juxtaposition can also be used. Juxtaposing conflicting elements is one of the stronger ways to visually show tension.

What is visual tension in design? ›

Visual tension is a compositional technique that uses framing to create dynamic elements in design – drawing the eye and provoking interest. It's often used in photography to evoke a feeling of suspense, balance, or to pull the eye of the viewer, but it can be used in any type of design to intrigue the viewer.

How do you show tension in photography? ›

Diagonal Lines

Diagonals create visual tension and a sense of uncertainty. Meanwhile, static compositions, made up of horizontal and vertical lines, create a sense of security and safety. Diagonal lines create visual tension and a sense of uncertainty.

What would be an effective use of color to create tension in an image? ›

Complementary colors, such as red and green, put next to each other can create tension too. As Lauer said, “When complementary colors are placed next to each other, they intensify each other's brightness” (238).

How do you create a visual interest? ›

Contrast creates interest. If you want to draw the eye towards something in particular, create contrast in or around it; be that through value, size or shape. Make it stand out.

What is tension in art? ›

tension, a balance maintained in an artistic work (such as a poem, painting, or musical composition) between opposing forces or elements; a controlled dramatic or dynamic quality.

What is design tension in Photoshop? ›

Tension is defined as balanced relation between strongly opposing elements, or the interplay of conflicting elements. This tension or conflict will cause viewers to stop and take a closer look at your design in hopes of uncovering what is making them subconsciously uncomfortable.

Which of the following is an element of design? ›

What Are the Elements of Design? The elements of design are the fundamental aspects of any visual design which include shape, color, space, form, line, value, and texture.

What is the importance of rhythm in fine arts? ›

Rhythm provides a path for the viewer's eye to follow in an artwork. Lines, shapes, color, brushstrokes, light, and space help the artist create this visual tempo.

Why is visual tension important in motion picture? ›

Tension, in filmmaking or video production, usually refers to mental or emotional strain. It can take an interesting plot twist and make it a poignant moment. It can add real psychological weight to a good scare in a horror film. Tension puts your audience on edge and makes them beg for relief.

How do I make my photos more dynamic? ›

To create a more dynamic image, you need to change the angle from which you shoot. Most commonly, this means you either need to get down on the ground and shoot upward, or find a way to elevate yourself (or at least your camera) to aim downward and capture the image using an elevated approach.

What is noise in a camera? ›

DEFINITION of NOISE in PHOTOGRAPHY. Noise in photography is the arbitrary alteration of brightness and color in an image. The onset of this random variation generates what is called “noise”or “grain”, which is basically formed by irregular pixels misrepresenting the luminance and tonality of the photograph.

How can you create contrast in a design? ›

You can contrast with dark and light colors, color hue, and/or color temperature. Contrasting with dark and light colors is pretty simple. Think of light text on a dark background or dark text on a light background. Alternatively, you can put together various color palettes to play with color hues.

What are the principles of design for most design projects? ›

There are twelve basic principles of design: contrast, balance, emphasis, proportion, hierarchy, repetition, rhythm, pattern, white space, movement, variety, and unity. These principles work together to create visually appealing and functional designs that make sense to users.

How do colors affect your appreciation and understanding of an image? ›

Warm colours such as red and orange appear closer to the viewer and cool colours such as blue and green appear to recede. Instant appreciation or disapproval. From time to time the first psychological reaction to the colours is really powerful that it could make us instantaneously like, or dislike, a piece work.

What does visual interest mean? ›

Visual interest is created in a space by variation in the luminance distribution and colour within the space. It is not achieved with simple lack of uniformity, but by using light to attract the attention of the occupant to the things that you want them to see.

How do the elements of a design show unity quizlet? ›

The repetition of elements of design creates unity within the artwork. Emphasis is used by artists to create dominance and focus in their work. Artists can emphasize color, value, shapes, or other art elements to achieve dominance. Various kinds of contrast can be used to emphasize a center of interest.

What is a tension in a short story? ›

What Is Tension in Writing? Tension in a literary context is the sense that something ominous is right around the corner. Building a large amount of tension as a writer keeps your readers engaged up until the end of the story.

How do you create tension in a poem? ›

Unusual imagery, restrained as well as intentional language, connotative and denotative language, rhythm and sound, subject matter, alliteration, and assonance all add to the tension in a poem. Changes, twists, and surprising juxtapositions of images also add tension—the unexpected can unsettle readers.

How do you make a creative design in Photoshop? ›

Open this tutorial in Photoshop.
  1. Get to know layers. Layers are the building blocks of any Photoshop design. ...
  2. Combine images using layer masks. Layer masks are the most flexible way to combine images. ...
  3. Add text and effects. Add text to your design. ...
  4. Include vector graphics. ...
  5. Export and save the design.
25 Aug 2022

How do you explain the principles of design? ›

The principles of design are the rules a designer must follow to create an effective and attractive composition. The fundamental principles of design are: Emphasis, Balance and Alignment, Contrast, Repetition, Proportion, Movement and White Space. Design differs from art in that it has to have a purpose.

What are the 7 visual elements? ›

ELEMENTS OF ART: The visual components of color, form, line, shape, space, texture, and value. may be two-or three-dimensional, descriptive, implied, or abstract.

What makes a good design? ›

Good design is a concept defined by industrial designer Dieter Rams's principles: It makes a product useful and understandable, is innovative, aesthetic, unobtrusive, honest, long-lasting, thorough to the last detail, environmentally friendly, and involves as little design as possible.

How do artist create visual rhythm? ›

To create rhythm in art, artists also use repetition and pattern. Repetition is when an object, shape, form, color, or pattern is repeated over and over again to create a rhythm. It helps unify an artwork.

How is rhythm used in design? ›

Rhythm in design refers to interval-repeating elements. An agreed elements location creates a sound structure. Rhythm can unite, direct, highlight and set the dynamics. There is a repetition of shape, color, tone, texture, accents, direction and dynamic.

What is picture balance in art? ›

Balance is the distribution of the visual weight of objects, colors, texture, and space. If the design was a scale, these elements should be balanced to make a design feel stable.

What is the importance of rhythm in fine arts? ›

Rhythm provides a path for the viewer's eye to follow in an artwork. Lines, shapes, color, brushstrokes, light, and space help the artist create this visual tempo.

What is contrast in drawing? ›

What is contrast? It's a common term used in creative, artistic circles. Contrast, when it comes to art, is achieved when opposite elements are arranged together. Although these elements might be opposites, their arrangement can still be appealing.

What is rule of third in photography? ›

What is the rule of thirds? The rule of thirds is a composition guideline that places your subject in the left or right third of an image, leaving the other two thirds more open. While there are other forms of composition, the rule of thirds generally leads to compelling and well-composed shots.

What are the visual elements of art? ›

ELEMENTS OF ART: The visual components of color, form, line, shape, space, texture, and value. may be two-or three-dimensional, descriptive, implied, or abstract.

What kind of visual balance is used in each? ›

There are three basic forms of visual balance: Symmetrical. Asymmetrical.
...
Visual balance.
[▲]Art Appreciation and Techniques (#ART100)
The visual language: Artistic principlesOverview | Introduction | Visual balance | Repetition | Scale and proportion | Emphasis | Time and motion | Unity and variety | Summary
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21 Jun 2013

What is the use of visual arts? ›

Visual art is a fundamental component of the human experience reflecting the world and the time in which we live. Art can help us understand our history, our culture, our lives, and the experience of others in a manner that cannot be achieved through other means.

How do artist create visual rhythm? ›

To create rhythm in art, artists also use repetition and pattern. Repetition is when an object, shape, form, color, or pattern is repeated over and over again to create a rhythm. It helps unify an artwork.

How is rhythm used in design? ›

Rhythm in design refers to interval-repeating elements. An agreed elements location creates a sound structure. Rhythm can unite, direct, highlight and set the dynamics. There is a repetition of shape, color, tone, texture, accents, direction and dynamic.

How do you use contrast in design? ›

One of the easiest ways to add contrast to your designs is by making one element bigger (or smaller) than the elements around it. The viewer's eye will naturally be drawn to the contrasting page element because it'll appear to be different than everything else they're seeing.

What is a good example of contrast? ›

Obvious examples of contrast are black and white, big and small, fast and slow, thick and thin. Opposites are the easiest way to grasp what contrast is, but when applying contrast to design work it's never quite as black and white.

How do you show contrast in art? ›

The value of a color indicates how dark or light it is. If you were to view a painting on a black and white screen, all light gray and white colors have a low value and the dark grey and black have a high value. By placing colors with a high and low value next to each other, you create a contrast.

What is the golden ratio photography? ›

What is the Golden Ratio in Photography? The golden ratio is a ratio of approximately 1.618 to 1. Artists have used this ratio for centuries to create works of art from paintings to architecture.

What is the 2 3 rule? ›

: a political principle requiring that two thirds rather than a simple majority of the members of a politically organized group must concur in order to exercise the power to make decisions binding upon the whole group — compare majority rule.

What is Golden Triangle in photography? ›

What Is Meant by the Golden Triangle? The golden triangle is a composition rule. This rule is somewhat like the rule of thirds. The way the photo is divided is a little different though. Instead of straight lines, a series of diagonal lines that form right-angle triangles act as a composition guide.

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