5 things graphics designers know that street photographers don’t

How to think like a graphic designer to improve your photography

Following on the “Think like a painter article“, here’s another article that hits much closer to home: How to think like a graphic designer.

When I went to school, the artsy types were relegated to the cave, also known as the basement. In that basement there were only two paths, the right and the left. The left path led to the photography area, the right path led to the design area. My photography buddies got their photo education on the left, I’ve got mine by going to the right, by studying graphic design.

What’s graphic design anyways?

My layman’s definition of graphic design is simple: It’s the purposeful arrangement of elements in order to lead the viewer. When you are a graphic designer, you are given RAW ELEMENTS, up to you to come up with a design. Here’s an example with the latest issue of the Magazine:


There’s only one difference between the right layout and the raw elements (images and text), that is Arrangement. The right is simply the left elements arranged in a certain way. But the way the elements are arranged is not arbitrary, design is part science, that’s where the “Purposeful” in “arrangement” comes from. Using design and psychological principles like the law of continuitysimilarityclosurePragnanz the graphic designer will lead your eye from one point to another, something that is crucial for photographers.

Dividing the visible

Way back, when you and I didn’t know if we were going to be born, the Greek philosopher Democritus saw that matter could only be divided only so many times, there MUST be something that’s indivisible, a basic unit that forms the building blocks of reality. He posited the existence of Atoms.


The visual world also has it’s building blocks: Lines – Shapes – Space – Color – Texture. The graphic designer has these elements from to get go, he or she is free to draw lines and shapes to create a design, but do photographers have raw elements to play with?


Of course they do! When you put the camera up to your eye, you have to bypass what you see and start seeing things in terms of basic lines, shapes, space, color, texture.

Divide & Rearrange

To think like a graphic designer is to first divide the visible world into basic forms, and then it is to rearrange those basic elements. The difference between a snapshot with an intentional photograph is design, the snapshot is an accident, the photograph was purposefully arranged to be so. You and I can’t change the visual world, if something is there, it’s there; but as photographers we have wiggle room when it comes to rearranging the elements.

For starters, there’s just working the scene. In the shots below, I felt like some cool shape was going to come out of the shadows, so I kept following the crowd.


Here’s the shape I got:

And there’s using your point of view and perspective to lead the eye:


And there’s making texture the point of the photograph itself:


Principles and elements of design are explored more in-depth in each issue of Inspired Eye because it’s a very extensive topic. The scope of the article is to learn how graphic designers think, and the way they think is in terms of basic shapes and how they relate to each other. So the question to ask when you encounter a scene is, “what are the basic elements that from this scene?” And then “how do these elements work together?” and finally, “what can I do to make a better arrangement?”

In conclusion

To think like a graphic designer is simple: Dissolve everything you see into basic elements (line-shape-space-color-texture), look at their relationship and use your photographic powers (bend down, move, include or exclude elements, use different lenses, get closer, get on your toes, etc) to change those relationships. Don’t think you are stuck with what you have in front of you, you can change the relationship between the elements and purposefully rearrange them. Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.

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