Creating Different Types of Focal Points

Creating Different Types of Focal Points

Attracting Attention!

We live in a time where multiple venues fight to catch our attention.  Although billboards and television advertising are still players, the Internet is the most significant draw for our attention.

A designer's ability to capture the audience's attention is critical to conveying their message successfully. Understanding and correctly using focal point is essential in good design and communication.

Focal Point & Hierarchy

The focal point in a design is where the eye is drawn first. To create further interest, the designer should include accents.

 Roberto Matta
La Somme d'une Fleur, by Roberto Matta, 1956, (The New Orleans Museum of Art)


Accents are areas of importance, but they are not as important as the focal point. Think of this as a hierarchy; the focal point is most important; the accents have importance but to a lesser degree than the focal point.

Accents play an essential role in focal point. Carefully placed accents will direct the eye from the focal point through the remainder of the design. This movement can be achieved by varying the size of the shapes, the spacing of the objects, the colors, and/or the values, all of which play an essential role in creating movement.

As we will see later, sometimes it's difficult to tell the focal point from the first accent!


Red-green and Violet-Yellow Rhythms, by Klee, 1920 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)


Unity pulls a design together. If a design lacks unity, it can feel incomplete or unintentional. Unity can be created by repeating shapes/forms, colors, values, patterns, textures, etc. Sometimes it's as simple as adding a border around the design or adding a background value. It can be subtle or obvious, but in any case, it should bring a sense of cohesiveness to the overall design.

 Frank Stella 

Lac Laronge IV, Frank Stella, 1969 (Toledo Museum of Art)

 A drawback to unity is that it risks becoming stagnant if a design is overly unified. To avoid an excessively unified design, include areas of emphasis. The image below is an example of an overly unified design!

Dont do this

Don't do this! Example of an overly unified design.


Focal point and accents are a significant part of emphasis. Emphasis is defined as standing out or being different. Like unity, it can be created with shapes/forms, colors, value, etc., but it needs to call importance to itself by being different (think focal point and accents as these all tie together).

Seven Circles
Several Circles, by Vasily Kandinsky, 1926 (Guggenheim Museum)

Ways to Achieve Emphasis

The ways to achieve emphasis, by contrast, are endless. Just some of the ideas you could use include:

  • Change the direction of the shapes or lines.
  • Isolating one element from the other elements
  • Make one element distorted or vice versa.
  • Change in size of one object.
  • Change the shape of one object. Geometric vs. Organic (see the expressive shapes and forms blogs).
  • Change the color of one object.
 Number five
 I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, by Charles Demuth, 1928 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Different ways to develop Focal Points

The focal point in a design can be developed through contrast, isolation, and/or placement.


Developing a visual element that contrasts with the overall emphasis of the composition will automatically draw the eye toward it.

Contrast is used in the painting, Zebra, by George Stubbs. The focal point, the zebra, is mainly black and white and patterned against a predominantly monochromatic background in hues of green. There is only one animal, which adds to the emphasis of the focal point.


Zebra, George Stubbs, 1763 (Yale Center for British Art)

Another example of contrast and focal point is used in the painting, Self-Portrait with Masks by artist James Ensor. The focal point is Ensor. What is so brilliant about this piece is that his self-portrait stands out in a sea of faces. On an unconscious level, we are drawn to the human face, so having the canvas flooded with faces can make a successful focal point challenging. Part of the contrast is how the self-portrait is painted (without a mask) and the size of his head and hat.

James Ensor
Self-Portrait with Masks, James Ensor, 1899 (Menard Art Museum, Komaki, Japan)


Which is the focal point? The white slide at the bottom, or the black, negative space in the middle of the slide?

The focal point is the isolated slide at the bottom of the layout. The first accent is in the center of the slides. The ambiguity between the focal point and the first accent is a great way to create visual tension in a design, but the designer needs to layout the design with a clear intention, as seen in the example.

When creating a focal point with isolation, make sure to have the focal point physically isolated from most of the items on the picture plane.

Poster by designer Michael Bierut 
Poster by designer Michael Bierut

 Below is another example of a strong focal point and first accent. The photograrher is using isolation as the focal point. 

Photo by Ben Klea, courtesy of
Photo by Ben Klea, courtesy of


By placing several elements in a design and pointing them to a specific area or single element, you force the viewer to focus on that spot, creating a focal point.

Example of placement in focal point

The red rectangle is the focal point in thie example of placement.

Photo by David Lam, courtesy of
Photo by David Lam, courtesy of

Things to consider when developing a focal point.

  1. Simplify the Focal PointBefore creating a design, ask yourself what you want to stand out. You're breaking this rule if you want three, four, or five focal points. Don't try to get everything into one design. Instead, try to remove things until you get to the heart of what you're trying to capture. Accents are great alternatives to attempting to have five focal points in one design!
  2. Near the edgeDon't place the focal point too close to the edge of the picture plane, as it will lead the eye off of the plane.
  3. Don't go dead center!A composition can get stagnant when the focal point is placed dead center (think a bull's eye target). Once you've established your focal point, move it out of the center of the picture plane.
  4. Focal points can be created by many compositional elementsIt does not need to be in the center of the picture plane nor clearly defined; it can be a larger shape that pulls the eye into a smaller area, the negative area (see example below), created by value; etc.
Dont do this on the edge

Don't do this! The eye is going off the page.

Absence of Focal Point

Sometimes an artist doesn't want a focal point. They use the repetition of a motif over the entire picture plane, which can create a lack of focal point. For example, the Abstract-Expressionist, Lee Krasner, wanted the viewer's eye to move throughout the picture plane. Focal point is rarely desired fabric and wallpaper designs.

Untitled, Lee Krasner, 1949 (The Museum of Modern Art)
Untitled, Lee Krasner, 1949 (The Museum of Modern Art)

Credits: Some of the information in this presentation comes from the book Design Basics, Seventh Edition by David Lauer

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