The Rule of Thirds: It’s Just a Suggestion

To clear up some confusion, the Rule of Thirds has nothing to do with the minimum number of trips you’re supposed to take through the line at a Las Vegas buffet. Turns out it’s a useful and simple technique for guiding composition!

That said, the word rule can be a little oppressive, so I’m going to write this post about the Suggestion of Thirds. In short, it goes like this: A composition divided into thirds (or fifths) is natural and pleasing to the eye, like a National League pitcher, while a composition divided in half or into an equal number of parts is cumbersome and awkward, like an American League hitter trying to bunt or pull a jersey over his steroid-engorged head. (The Suggestion of Thirds is really just a simplification of the Golden Mean or the Golden Ratio. There’s a good post on that here.)

Some rules are designed to be ignored as soon as you learn them (see speed limits), while others are ignored because some people missed that week of school (see Shea and punctuation). The Suggestion of Thirds is one that you should know, but once you learn it, you may decide it’s not necessary in every occasion.

With all of that as preamble, the Suggestion of Thirds is widely used for good reason. Take the case of the adorable kitty cat souvenir in Greece.

In this original, uncropped version, our adorable kitty cat souvenir is smack-dab in the middle of the photo. It’s not terribly interesting.

Using the Suggestion of Thirds, you might crop it like this.

The lines that occur naturally in the photograph (in this case, the horizon and the wall) fall roughly on the superimposed guidelines that divide the photograph in thirds. The focal point of the photograph (in my opinion, the cat’s eyes) falls on an intersection of one vertical guideline and one horizontal guideline.

This is another possible cropping of the same photo.

This cropping has the advantage that one of the secondary visual elements, the mannequin in the background, falls on one of the vertical guidelines.

The Suggestion of Thirds can be applied to most images. This caterpillar in Malaysia curls around a vertical guideline and a horizontal guideline, with its head landing right at the intersection of two guidelines.

The focal point of this photo is the pillars of Apollo’s temple in Delphi, Greece. The pillars land roughly on an intersection of two guidelines.

And the eyes of this koala outside of Melbourne, Australia, fall right on the first horizontal guideline.

With landscapes, many photographers push the Suggestion of Thirds to the Suggestion of Fifths, as with this photograph of Philadelphia. (Note that the tallest building in the skyline, the Comcast Center, falls on one of the vertical guidelines.)

In instances where the Suggestion of Fifths is employed, the horizon typically falls either on the bottom guideline to show a lot of sky, as with the photo of Twin Lakes, Colorado, above…

…or the horizon falls on the top guideline to show the terrain, as with this other photo of Twin Lakes, Colorado.

The very worst thing you can do with any composition is put a starburst in it. The next worst thing you can do is split it in half, as with the photo of Puerto Rico here. This is one of the reasons we oppose centering things, and it’s one of the reasons we suggest that compositions like interpretive panels and even individual pages be divided into an odd number of columns.

One of your responsibilities as a designer is to edit images that are delivered to you. None of the photos I’ve used as examples in this post arrived perfectly cropped and ready to use. They all had to be cropped in some sort of layout program.

As a designer, you should be thinking about the Suggestion of Thirds at all times, even when you’re watching The Big Bang Theory or combing your goatee. You should use it when laying out compositions, cropping photos, or combing your kid’s hair. It’s easy to remember, simple to implement, and visually pleasing.

But it’s just a suggestion.

Interpreting NASCAR

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On March 9th in the post Hello, is there anyone out there? I made the following statement: “Warning: The creators of IBD.com (Shea and Paul) have the reserved the right to avoid topics such as the 2004 World Series, PC vs. Mac, life with red-headed spouses, east coast vs. west coast rap music, proper use of clip art, and NASCAR.” This post involves NASCAR. Did I foresee a NACAR post in my future? No way. Am I writing a NASCAR post now? I’m afraid so.

Let me get a few things out of the way before I get to the heart of this post. I am not a NASCAR fan, even though I live in the heart of the south. I’m not here to make fun of NASCAR fans either, which is a really easy thing to do. I do respect the sport (a debate for another post, possibly a second NASCAR post in my future) and can appreciate what the drivers/teams accomplish, considering I have more success working on my computer than my car (again, another post).

As a business, NASCAR is better managed than any other sport. The managers successfully handle an insane schedule, give back to the fans, have excellent television coverage and have purposefully improved their product. As a baseball and a New York Yankees fan, the chance of me getting face time with a starting player is slim to none. On any given weekend, a NASCAR fan at a race will have multiple opportunities to meet, greet, scratch and spit with their favorite drivers. Okay, that was one jab at NASCAR fans.

So, the last reason you came to IBD today is to read about NASCAR. I’m sorry. But believe it or not, there is an interpretive design component to this post. Mark Martin is from Batesville, Arkansas, which is not too far from where I live. Recently he has opened a museum and dealership in that area—the museum to honor his career as a driver and the dealership to sell Fords. I had heard many glowing comments about the museum/dealership from several visitors to the park where I work. Being moderately anti-NASCAR for no good reason except for a bias that developed based on several incidents involving persons wearing NASCAR attire, I wasn’t necessarily interested. However, recently while in the area of the museum/dealership and in the serious need of a restroom break, I stopped in to check it out. Needless to say I was impressed with the interpretation.

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The quality and design of the exhibits was excellent. There was a mixture of high-tech and low-tech exhibits. The low-tech exhibits were primarily photo montages filled with a scrapbook history of Mark Martin’s success. I was most impressed with the high-tech side of the museum. The technology and design in the touch panels worked more quickly and efficiently than any other technology-based exhibits that I have ever seen. They all worked too. The layout and design in the touch screens was so simple (insert your own NASCAR joke now) that anyone could use it. The flat screens were situated on beautiful stylistic pedestals. The video clips loaded fast and were well edited to keep even my attention. The cars along with the trophy case were impressive and needed little interpretation. The museum was practically void of text (again, insert your own NASCAR joke now). The technology took care of most of the storytelling along with the scrapbook style panels. The staff was friendly and attentive to answer questions as they diligently polished the cars, exhibits, trophies and glass.

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So what did I take away from the museum? A deeper appreciation for NASCAR? Not really. But because of the non-personal interpretation, I did feel an unplanned emotional connection to Mark Martin and the work that he put into his career that has made him successful. Did I buy a T-shirt?  Nope. But next time I come across a NASCAR race on television, I will stop and see where Mark Martin is in the standings.

Why I don’t use drop caps

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I have yet to see a good reason for using drop caps (unless it is the year 400, you are creating an illuminated manuscript, and you’re just trying to fit in), but they appear everywhere. Drop caps, where the first letter of a text block is enlarged and “dropped” so that it takes the space of three to five lines of text, violate most of the rules of typographic legibility.

First, in the example above, the individual letters in the word “After” are not the same size, which is poor form in body text. Second, the letters in that word do not share a baseline, which forces the reader to mentally piece together the word rather than reading it fluidly. Third, because of the shape of this particular letter, the drop-cap “A” is actually farther from the “fter” to which it supposedly belongs than it is from “days” in line 2 and “phia” in line 3. Because the “A” is closest to and shares a baseline with “phia” in line 3, it looks like the “A” belongs to the word “Aphia” (there’s a prize for the reader with the best suggested definition of “Aphia”). Readers obviously can figure out which letters belong to which words, but they shouldn’t have to work so hard to do so.

Designers are better served to avoid drop caps and use another method of creating graphic contrast, such as setting the first few words of a text block in small caps, bolding or changing the color of the first few words of a text block, or good, old-fashioned white space.

NOTE: The text in the example above was selected randomly online and just happens to be from the October 30, 2008, Philadelphia Inquirer, reset typographically for the purposes of this post.