This is a full guide to learning the basics of layout design and creating an efficient, creative process for your team.

The million-dollar question—what’s the secret to good design? 

We can go philosophical about this, but generally speaking, the proverbial ‘secret’ to good design lies in how you organize visual elements within your canvas in relation to each other.

We've just described layout design—which is everywhere you look when you think of it.

Take the layout of a magazine, for example. Their design layout follows a classic grid system (we’ll learn all about grids in a minute). Everything is usually aligned left, right, or at the bottom. 

The columns especially have a distinct justified alignment that makes the page visually appealing, easy to read, and authoritative. The large headings attract the viewer’s attention, while the subheading contrasts in size to create a visual information hierarchy.

An image showing a magazine layout of mountains in snow
Image source: Linda Gaom

All these key elements make the page attractive to readers. When content is easily digestible it automatically becomes more appealing to your audience.

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What’s layout design?

Effective layout design concerns the arrangement of various graphical elements. These elements work together to capture the reader’s attention and convey a particular message in a visually appealing way.

So, we’re not talking about logo design here. But the design of print material, like newspapers, magazines, posters, and their digital counterparts, as well as web, app, or UX/UI design.

The word ‘layout’ gives us a lot of hints. It means an arrangement of predetermined elements on a page.

When a layout is effective, it looks good, has visual balance, and guides the viewer to understand the message the design is trying to convey. Understanding layout is the key to creating engaging, effective, user-friendly, and pleasing compositions.

If a layout doesn’t convey its message well to the audience—or, in other words, it doesn't "read well"—the design will be ineffective no matter how trendy it looks. In the realm of layout design, content supersedes trends and gimmicks.

The purpose of layout design

There are many reasons why layout design is used in the digital marketing and design industries, some of the main ones include:

Conveying a message fast

This is key. Layout design establishes the relationship between graphic assets to achieve a smooth flow of eye movement for maximum effectiveness and impact.

One of the primary goals of layout design is to create a visual hierarchy. This involves arranging elements that naturally guide the viewer's eye through the content, from the most important element (like a headline or a key image) to secondary items. 

A layout that works well in a printed brochure might not translate effectively to a digital format, and vice versa. Understanding the nuances of different mediums—like print, web, and mobile—is essential in ensuring the message is conveyed effectively in each context.

Bringing balance

Using the principles of layout design is the most straightforward way to create a sense of balance and symmetry in your design concept without becoming boring.

The balance between different elements—text, images, white space—is crucial. A cluttered layout with too many elements or information can confuse the viewer. Conversely, too little content might fail to communicate the message effectively. The key is to find a balance that communicates the message.

Creating cohesiveness

The layout helps you arrange the various elements of your design in an easily digestible, cohesive, and logical way.

Consistent use of design elements like fonts, colors, and styles within a layout helps reinforce the message. This consistency aids in creating a cohesive and understandable design, making the message more impactful.

An image depicting an organized design layout
Image source: Hachette UK

Elevating beauty

Balance and structure naturally create beauty. If your layout design is done correctly, it’ll automatically become visually appealing to the viewer.

The less effort the viewers need to put into understanding a message, the more attractive your design composition and individual elements will seem.

The elements of layout design

To truly understand how to apply the concepts of layout design, we need to know how to use its most important elements.


This includes the text body or paragraphs and headlines, subheadings, headers, and footers. Your choice of typography, color, and size will affect how your layout will translate to your audience.

A legible font size, sufficient contrast between text and background, and a font style that aligns with the tone of your content are crucial.

For example, a serif font like Times New Roman might convey a more traditional and formal tone, while a sans-serif font like Arial imparts a modern and clean look.


The most common types of images are photographs, illustrations, or infographics. 

Photographs capture real-life scenes, people, places, and moments, making them ideal for conveying authenticity and realism.

They’re extensively used in journalism, advertising, and social media. Photographs evoke emotions and connect with the viewer by showing actual subjects.

Illustrations are often more abstract and stylized compared to photographs. They’re used to explain concepts, tell stories, or add a decorative element.

They can be tailored to fit a particular style, tone, or brand identity, making them great for books, websites, advertisements, and educational materials. 

Infographics use a combination of graphics, charts, and minimal text to explain concepts, present data, or summarize content.


Shapes can be geometric, which are very angular, or organic, mimicking the natural world.

They can also be abstract. Abstract shapes have been trendy in the past year as web designers have incorporated them into complex and sprawling compositions.

Shapes can replace an image. Or they can add graphic elements to a page, highlight text, or delineate the space between other visual elements.

Geometric shapes are often associated with order and consistency, making them ideal for designs requiring stability and professionalism. 

Organic shapes are used in designs that evoke comfort, creativity, or natural beauty. Abstract shapes depart from reality, often representing real objects or figures in a stylized or simplified way.

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White space

Any layout design will have a certain amount of white space, allowing your elements to breathe and stand out independently.

The additional space reduces cognitive overload, allowing the viewer to focus on the content without distraction. Brands aiming for a high-end image frequently use layouts with generous white space to convey luxury and sophistication.

White space also ensures that a layout adjusts smoothly to different screen sizes. It provides flexibility, ensuring that elements don't become too cramped or disjointed on smaller screens.

The golden principles of layout design

You’ll notice that the principles of layout design follow many of the fundamental principles of design. Like using a color palette in a certain way, typography, repetition, contrast, hierarchy, cohesive composition, and balance.

Principle #1: use grids

Grids help graphic designers position various design elements like text and images in a way that looks coherent and easy to follow.

They provide a sense of order; they keep elements from overpowering each other, and, most importantly, grids will also correct your alignment. Make your design project feel cleaner and more professional.

Image of a grid layout design
Image source: HGM Legal

The anatomy of grids

You might think it’s just vertical and horizontal lines, but a grid comprises several parts. Here's the most important terminology you need to know in a basic grid:

  • Format is the full area of your final design. So, if you design something for print, the format is the page, and if you’re a web designer, the format is the web page or the browser window.
  • Margins are the intentional empty spaces between the format and the design.
  • Flowlines are the horizontal lines that separate your layout into parallel sections. Flowlines help with the readability of your design and guide the reader to follow the content correctly.
  • Modules are the blocks formed by any grid's horizontal lines and vertical flowlines. If you think about it, they are the building blocks of any grid. All your vertical modules create your columns, while all your horizontal grids create your rows.
  • Regions are groups of connected modules, either vertical or horizontal. There are no rules as to how you decide to organize these.
Image of grid layout with different sections
Image source: Radversity

Types of grids

Layout grids were first used to arrange handwriting on paper.

They date back to the 13th century when French artist Villard De merged the grid system with the golden ratio to produce printed page layouts with margins. As most printed book and magazine layouts prove, you can see this grid system to this day. 

Publishers, editors, and designers prefer to use standard grids because they look good and because readers have come to expect certain design elements to be in a particular place.

Grids can be designed in two ways: symmetric or asymmetric. Symmetric grids follow a centerline, where the vertical and horizontal regions are equal, and columns have the same width.

As the name suggests, the margins and the columns are not all identical in an asymmetric grid.

Based on this classification, there are five main types of layout grids used worldwide that you can rely on:

Manuscript grids are the most common kind of document grid. They separate the header, footer, and margins and create a rectangle inside the format (or the page) that provides the boundaries of your text.

They are the base for magazines, newspapers, and books. It's probably the layout you are most familiar with.

An example of a manuscript grid
Image source: UX Planet
An example of a manuscript grid
Image source: Radversity

Column grids are another appealing layout in magazine publishing. A typical magazine layout uses column grids to separate text into easy-to-read sections. But they are very popular for websites as well. You can use anything from two to six grids. 

More is possible, yet not common. A very important thing about column grids is that the spacing between the columns, or the gutters, is equally distanced.

Symmetrical column grids are used by newspapers, for example, while an asymmetric column grid is preferred in web design for asymmetrical balance.

An example of a column grid
Image source: UX Planet

An example of a column grid
Image source: Radversity

Modular grids are similar to the column grid but account for the horizontal flowlines. This type of grid is needed when you have to organize various elements in your layout, and the column grids are simply not enough.

Modular grids have equal size modules, making it easy to visualize your spatial zones differently.

An example of a modular grid
 Image source: UX Planet
Image source: Radversity

Baseline grids are fantastic for text-based compositions. A baseline is the line where text rests when you type, and leading is the spacing between two baselines—wondering how big your heading or subheadings should be?

Baseline grids are here to help give your text a flowing rhythm.

An example of a baseline grid
 Image source: UX Planet

Hierarchical grids look less like a grid than all their counterparts. Nonetheless, they're very useful when organizing design elements in their order of importance. Hierarchical grids can be based on modular grids, or you can even create your own. 

Websites use this grid a lot, especially digital magazines and newspapers, which tend to rely more on hierarchical grids rather than column grids in their transition to digitalization.

An example of a hierachical grid
Source: Radversity

Principle #2: use negative space

We often think emptiness, silence, or lack of color is bad. But we don't consider how they are the solid foundation of the contrast in an attractive layout.

Also called white space, negative space is an area in your design with no actual decorative elements. It's the area left empty. It doesn't just surround your assets; it also creates the necessary bonds between them.

It is because negative space is a rightful design element and has a massive impact on how effective your layout design and user experience are.

An example of good vs bad layout design
Bad vs good negative space, source: Dubai Monsters

Negative space will help separate elements in your design while allowing your layout to breathe.

It helps with visual hierarchy and visual balance; it sets the user's focus on the core elements; it reduces the level of distraction; and finally, it adds style and elegance to your design.

Inexperienced designers might fill out as much of their canvas as possible by scaling up text or blowing up a logo or an image. But giving your elements room allows viewers to pick on certain information cues faster and more comfortably.

"If everything yells for your viewer's attention, nothing is heard."–Aaron Walter, Design for Emotion (2011)

An easy way to determine your negative space is by using a modular grid. By placing that on top of your design, you can easily visualize which modules remain empty and which should be filled in.

An example of white space in design layout
Designer by Brunswicker. Image source: Codesign Mag

Principle #3: choose a single focal point

Has a client ever asked you to make the logo bigger? And then to make the headline even bigger?

You can't emphasize everything—it defeats the point of good design.

Just like time, focus is relative. For one element to stand out, another has to serve as the background. Some elements must dominate others for your design and arrangement of content to display a visual hierarchy.

The focal point in a design is the one element with the greatest visual weight and key function. It's the largest element that attracts the eye first, more than anything else in your layout.

A focal point will announce to your audience where their viewing journey starts on your design. So the beginning of your story captures the viewer's attention.

This can usually be achieved by using a large image or a large source of typography. Notice how effective the below focal point is

An example of bold typography
Designed by Braulio Amado for Bloomberg Businessweek. Image source: It's nice that

While a focal point will draw your audience's attention, the next rule will help guide it.

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Principle #4: think of proximity and flow

The principle of proximity is simple. Ensure that graphic elements that are related to each other are placed together.

Proximity indicates that the visual assets are connected and become one visual unit that helps organize your layout.

So, cluster design assets that have a relationship with each other and use pockets of information on your design guide your audience to the piece of relevant content that they need to consume. This is also called the flow principle.

A design with good flow will easily lead the viewers’ eye throughout the layout, from element to element. Your focal points will pull the eye and become the resting place while other elements impart direction.

A simple way to understand this is by taking the example of our website. Graphics are separated from the text, and so are the calls to action, so the viewer’s attention is navigating from one cluster of information to the next.

Principle #5: use contrast

Make sure you have enough contrast in your design.

Contrast helps organize your design and will establish a much-needed hierarchy and emphasize what is important.

More than that, using contrast also adds visual interest throughout your design. Let’s face it: a basic layout where everything is the same size, shape, or color will look boring. Contrast spices things up.

Your first thought might be color contrast, such as warm versus cool color palettes, dark versus light, and blue versus orange.

But while color is an essential principle of contrast, there are also type, alignment, and size contrasts.

And remember, contrast is also relative—it only has meaning in juxtaposition with other elements.

Here are some examples of ideal layouts that use this rule in a smart and beautiful way. Notice the contrast in typography, color, and even the contrast in the size between elements.

An example of negative space and attractive typography
Image source: IAG Reconciliation Action Plan

Principle #6: repetition, pattern, rhythm

When we think of repetition, we think of the same element repeatedly.

But it's different in design. It's not as boring as that. Repetition can empower your design and create a visual impact when used correctly.

Identify and reuse a motif throughout your layout so that various areas feel connected and part of the same composition.

It will help your design have a theme. By repeating elements, you not only deliver according to the expectations of your audience, but you will also improve the user experience.

Having a consistent design makes the users feel more comfortable.
Typography examples
Image source:

You can do this by repeating shapes or symbols. Or even a color scheme, a typeface, and the same style in general.

A good habit to get into is to use a typeface with a large family. Limit the different number of patterns, line weights/styles, and colors, and repeat throughout.

Also, try to keep the style of images and graphics the same. For example, use illustrations by the same artist.

The final layout

That’s it. These six basic principles will help you organize your creative design idea and achieve a cleaner, more professional, and balanced layout.

But your journey does not end here. Graphic design isn't an exact science and shouldn't be limited to tips and principles. As is true in all areas of creation, there is no hard rule of thumb. Breaking out these tips subtly will add depth and variety to your design process.

Despite the importance of experimentation, starting with the basic principles is always recommended. They provide a safety net for beginners and a structured approach to understanding the core of good design. As you gain more experience and confidence, you'll find experimenting and developing your unique style easier.

Design trends and technologies are constantly changing. Continuous learning, experimenting with new tools and techniques, and staying updated with the latest trends are essential for growth and relevance in the field.

Frequently asked questions

What's layout design?

Layout design is the arrangement of graphical elements such as text, images, and shapes in a coherent and pleasing manner. This is about creating a visual hierarchy that guides the viewer's view of the content.

Why is layout design important in branding and marketing?

To communicate effectively, the layout must be excellent. It not only conveys a brand’s message clearly but also impacts the audience's perception, making the content more engaging and the brand more memorable.

How does a grid system benefit layout design?

The grid system provides a structured framework for placing elements to ensure alignment and consistency. Keeping the design balanced and proportionate is essential for its readability and appearance.

What role does typography play in layout design?

Readability and mood are influenced by the type of font. The font, size, and color choice can significantly influence the audience's perception and interaction with the content.

What's the significance of white space in layout design?

White or negative space helps prevent confusion, improves readability, and focuses the viewer's attention on the essential elements. It is an essential element to create a clean, neat layout.

How to create balance in layout design?

The visual weight of the layout is distributed in a consistent manner to achieve balance. Strategic placement of text and images and the use of color and white space can be used to achieve this.

Is there room to bend or break some layout design rules for your design?

While layout design principles are important, experimentation and sometimes circumvention of these rules can result in novel designs. To ensure that the content remains accessible and meaningful, however, this should be done with care.

A comprehensive guide to layout design | Linearity
A comprehensive guide to layout design | Linearity

Ben Barnhart

Content Lead

Ben is a Content Lead for Linearity living in Berlin. His hobbies include board games, cooking, reading, and writing.

Ben Barnhart