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Forces on a Surface Chris H. Vermaas

In this paper, based on thorough design experience and lectures given in various typography courses, Vermaas presents the principles in action for the layout of typography and other visual material.

Introduction The French type designer Roger Excoffon said ‘type is read before it is seen.’ On the other hand, layout is seen before it is read. Layout starts when you bring one element onto a surface; it is that simple. From that moment on, there are many possibilities, and many decisions. More elements and fewer restrictions add to the possible choices, and to the difficulties too. Ultimately, you must deal with what we would like to achieve with the layout. But how do you choose the best solution from several? Which layout will be the answer to the question? In printed matter, the basic elements are paper and ink. From the ink rises text - titles, headings, footnotes - all placed in such a way as to be recognised by our audience. There is image too; if you explore, the image will tell you how it would like to be used. And there is surface, very often paper of a given size. You have to bring these pieces together in the best way.

A composition filled with text.

Layout is about the elements you handle, their combination, and their relationship to the surface used; it is also about elements that are not used. It is about decisions based on knowledge, skill, and taste. To say when layout begins is simple. To put some words about layout onto paper that make sense of the subject is not simple. Describing a layout as a composition is too simple. You can discuss the subject with more variety.

A composition with a cross of images and text.

A composition which is empty except for a small image in the center.


Layout involves handling these elements, the possibilities of their combination, and the possibilities of their arrangement on a surface. There are forces which break down the complexity of composition into easier parts. These forces have a mutual relationship or overlap since you can look at the composition from many points of view. To understand the visual forces active (or inactive) on a surface, you look how they interact. This understanding helps you to see the choices and to make decisions. You can use the forces to build up a layout, but you can also use them to analyze a composition, that whole of which everything is a part. Following is a guide meant to reduce the struggle of finding the layout that is the answer to the question.

Counterform When you put an element onto a surface, you produce contrasts. By producing contrasts, form and counterform arise together. Their definitions are interchangeable since they exist because of each other; what they produce together is the information. The information is the shape of the edge, that edge of contrast; it happens because of a difference between light and darkness, a difference in reflecting or absorbing light. For example, with black type on white paper, you recog-nise absorbed light and consume what you don’t see. So often you don’t realize the opposite form that you really do see. In printed matter, it is also too simple to define everything but recognizable shapes as counterform.

The information is the (edge of) contrast. A solid mass doesn’t inform.

Often, the shapes we recognize are black and absorb light.

On the printed surface, I like to split counterform up into three types. There are forms around the small - mostly typographic - details. I call these forms counterdetail; because of their small size, the edge of information is fragile. It has to produce enough contrast to bring the message from the printed surface to your retina. When you enlarge the counterdetail too much in relation to the details themselves, it will mingle with another type of counterform: the counterpart. This is the form that connects and brings the parts together. It clarifies that parts are aligned or shifted, separate or belonging to each other. It tells the sequence of typography and image and helps you to find your way on the surface. It helps your audience recognize the placement of certain elements.

counterform: 1 counterdetail (detailform) 2 counterpart (constructionform) 3 counterlayout (compositionform)

The constructionforms tell us how to read the four lines.


1) The counterdetails.

2) The counterparts.

When you enlarge the counterpart, it connects to the third and last type of counterform in the layout, the counterlayout. It is this form which produces what you want to express with your composition - harmony, beauty, or balance, etc. This form isn’t present in a ‘horror vacuï’ solution. In general, counterforms are forms around forms. because of that, you need an eye for them. The recognized and its opposite together formbthe composition.

A vacuum

What is the form and what is the counterform?

Form in form in form.

A composition with a cross by four square compositionforms.

A composition with two layers; two layers of counterlayout.

3) The lines surrounded by the compositionform.

An example of ‘horror vacuï.’

The layout.

Two images make three types of surfaces that produce three counter-layouts; and, together they make one image that produces two counterforms.

Transmission It is because of this force that you need a surface for your message. Light makes visible the contrasts produced by the edges of forms. Their message is brought from the surface, through the air, to your retina. This transmission is not an endless force. Beyond a certain point the forms become too vague to be recignized by your eyes, and even further away, they vanish completely.

Given forms of the same size but different boldness will cause a different effect over the same distance. One will vanish, one will lose its shape, and one will still be recognisable over that same distance.


The counterlayout.

Printed objects like books require a certain distance to be legible, and are often restricted to a certain size. Subjects to be seen from the other side of the street or further away need a larger size. The surface is helpful in bridging the required distance, but the transmission is produced by the printing on it. Higher contrasts, larger and simpler forms, and especially the combination of these on a given surface will throw the message over a greater distance. If you enlarge or reduce the size of the printing, you enlarge or reduce the transmission by the same proportion. And because of the transmission, you print on matter.

The size and maximum transmission distance of the given element with a given contrast always have the same proportion.

The size of the printing, not the size of the used surface, produces the distance of the maximum transmission.

Changing the size of the same element is changing the maximum distance; and, reducing the contrast is reducing the maximum transmission distance.

Gesture When you look at a composition, you get an impression. Such a gesture in printed matter has to be simple and clear. A person has to get the gesture in one general view, quick survey, or maybe one saccad (that eye fixation of one quarter of a second). This gesture expresses a statement, a simple graphic solution to the composition which is recognized by your audience; it is not always necessary to please them with it. If your gesture is strong, your layout can attract attention and survive in this crowded and noisy world.

A composition which is empty except for a small image in the center.

A composition filled with text.

A composition with a cross of images and text.

A composition with large grey type.


The layout of printed matter can give impressions. It can also produce the idea of motion. This is abstract; the knowlegde is borrowed from everyday life. An element itself can suggest motion. Its position on the surface can fortify it or express motion as well. To understand this, compare the surface to a window or a screen; when you look at these, you can see an object move within them. When looking through a camera, you can move the window as well, even while the objects you see are also in motion.

An object with motion toward the right.

An object with motion toward the left.

A motion on a surface toward the left.

Motionless on a surface.

Down on a surface.

Up on a surface.

Because of their placement on a surface, elements start to move; the direction of reading defines the viewer’s perception of direction.


Up and out.

Coming down.

Falling down.


Reading in the opposite direction (Arab, for example), the viewer perceives up, up-andout, and down.

On the printed surface, the direction of reading and the general direction of consuming printed matter influence the perception of motion. Because of this, all objects appear and disappear, go up and out, come in and down. Dynamic solutions, such as diagonals, curves, ragged columns and asymmetry, are what make the composition restless. Printed matter never moves by itself.

The text is the object; he surface is the window.


Elements falling down.

Motion by curves and depth.

A motion by perspective.

A motion by a curve of two opposite forms.

A motion because of a rough rag.

Motion by a diagonal.

Rhythm You look at images. You read text. You feel rhythm. This is also an active force on a surface and in printed matter. It starts with more than two of the same elements placed in an ordered alternation. This repetition of related elements produces a rhythm or a pattern, and many things are possible.

Five types of rhythm build up with the same element; one uses another element.

Some disturbed rhythms which could be typography.

They can give order, regularity, arrangement, or structure to the composition. Rhythm guides the eyes of the viewer. With different types of rhythms, you can separate several types of information because you feel the rhythm and see the change. If you would like to make a change from what has been established, it can be interesting to keep in touch with the original rhythm, to feel the base where you came from. Even an interruption like a wordspace or linespace tells us something and gets attention.

Rhythm in and around type characters.


On the dark side of rhythm, you must be careful. A strong, very regular rhythm can begin to tremble up on your eyes. Also, forcing images into the same shapes repeatedly is often painful for their messages. Rhythm can be a positive force on legibility, but you must be careful not to overwhelm the image or the message.

A rhythm for the text and a rhythm for the images.

Two rhythm changes: one is used to separate the introduction from the text; another to separate the images.

A horizontal rhythm that locks two pages to a spread.

Rhythm three times: of the line, of the column, and of the spread.

The rhythm for the typography does not need to be used for the images.

Twice, a rhythm disturbed.

Rhythm is a game of building up and breaking down at the same time; it is meant to keep your audience awake. Become aware of the possibilities of rhythm on a surface. Rhythm is a force you can explore. Is a rhythm with other elements still considered the same rhythm?

Different rhythms for several pieces of typography.

A rhythm and its interruption explain something.

Depth Another phenomenon of everyday life that will not happen literally on a printed surface is depth. Its shadow, however, can be made visibe through the use of perspective, or in representation with images (photos, for example). You know depth from your everyday life; you perceive it in printed matter.


From your daily life, you have other awarenesses about depth: you perception of background and foreground tells you that shadow, sky blue, and interrupted shapes have to be background. On the other hand, forms that produce a shadow or interrupt other forms have to be foreground. Dimmed greys and vaguer colors, if used on a white surface, are background when compared with darker or brightly colored forms. Elements which match their surface produce less depth compared to elements which have a higher contrast with the surface. A photo, if framed, acts like a window which makes the image exist beyond the surface. The photo as a cut-out seems to lie on the surface but can gain volume when shading is added to it.

The shade is the background.

An interrupted form is the background.

The elements in high contrast to the surface stand out more than dimmed greys which match it.

Framed photos act like windows; the image is beyond the surface.

By moving things over or under each other, you develop layering. On a newly introduced layer, you can arrange a composition that harmonizes with, or counteracts the first one. With layering, you can produce economic solutions for the combinations of elements, but it is important how the forms are connected to each other. When the interesting edges of the information are combined together, they will interfere with one another and diminish not only the sense of space, but also the information itself. When layering, every level of the layout can be judged by the forces. Depth is tricky, but it is a nice tool because it does not exist literally upon the surface.

When layering the parts, let the interesting edges be visible.

An economic solution to enlarge an image, if possible.


Structure Structure is an important force that holds parts together - not only in printed matter. Structure is not the parts, but what connects them. It consists of simple lines on a surface. These invisible lines explain how the parts are arranged, and the route for how the composition can be used or consumed.

A structure for the layout by a cross of the text and images.

A structure for the layout by the flushes.

A structure for the layout by using the gutter.

A structure for the layout by a cross.

A structure for the layout by a circle for the images, a cross for the captions, and three flushes for the text.

A structure for the layout by a triangle for the text and a triangle for the images.

A structure for the layout with the picture as the axis; other elements take off from it.

A structure is not the same as a grid.

A structure is not the same as a grid. A grid often prevents bad solutions, but more often, it prevents better solutions. A good structure is evoked by the given parts, serves them, and serves both the producer and the user of the layout as well.


Construction When it is clear which structure you will use for the given parts, and you have considered other questions concerning the given surface, you can start making the layout. Construction is connecting the parts or elements. Within the defined structure, there are many ways to construct the various parts. Often the elements or parts themselves suggest the best solution for their connection.

A construction of images by using the horizon.

A construction of images by using the perspective in them.

A column is not a grey field: it is built up of lines. A framed photo is not only a rectangle, for it contains other graphic structures as well. There are many possibilities for bringing images and typography together; their combinations must express the other forces on the surface. The construction is the area where at least two subjects meet each other. It is an important, striking moment in your layout. Explore that moment.

A construction of elements by placing them:

1. over,

6. in between,

2. in,

3. through,

7. rhythmically,

4. aligned,

8. bleeding,


5. close,

9. counterform.

Three ways to connect two pages to the spread.

Because your field of vision is the same, large can be small.

Construction of images and of images and their captions by a cross, a horizontal, and a vertical solution

Detail Your position can make large things look small, and make small things seem large. This can happen in layout as well. The size of the object combined with your distance from it can permit you to see the whole or only parts of it; another factor is your field of vision, which is defined by your own concentration. An eye fixation with a higher concentration narrows down your vision, so you consume mostly details.

A page number.

A caption.

A drop letter.

A part of a heading.

An isolated detail.

A caption.


A fragment of typography.

Another saccad.

You will never know where in the layout fixations will be made. It is possible to construct details as independent, single objects. But realize that fragments of columns and images are details too. When the viewer develops an impression based upon that first survey, he also takes into account these fragments, overlapping bits, and isolated details.

Many eye fixations consume a layout.

Summation Bringing together the forces onto a surface is hard. They act together or counteract one another, have a mutual relationship or are not present at all. And I cannot address all of them completely. I worked with the forces without defining them. In order to explain my approach to composition to my students, I had to describe and name these forces. My students were helpful, and my approach was helpful for them. I still compose with the forces. But to me it is more important to understand them than to describe them and give them names such as counterform, transmission, gesture, motion, rhythm, depth, structure, construction, and detail. Composing is also about light, measure, and dimension; it is about darkness, proportion, and space. In all of this there is a form which produces thoughts which will be drawn and set in words and printed on matter; there will be text. Like this text about the forces.

Light, measure, and dimension.

[credit] Chris Vermaas (text and drawings) Lay/Out: Forces on a Surface Spirals 91 Book Four RISD Graphic Design Department Providence USA

Darkness, proportion, and space.


The forces on a surface.

Forces on a Surface  

Assignment for Typography class. Master in Editorial Design