Design 101: How Big Is Big?
By Jan v. White
Bigness is like shouting. The louder you shout, the more important your message. We assume that anything that is big in print is important. This implication of "value" is a vital means of emphasis and must not be wasted. If it is, it loses its impact and we lose credibility. So we have to reserve loudness/bigness for those things that matter, not just because they are pretty and we like them, but because they are significant to the story, helpful in getting its point across, and relevant for our reader.
If you whisper first and then follow it by shouting, the contrast in tone gives the loudest part more dramatic emphasis.
The perception of size is a relative value. Everything on the printed page is seen in context and clues as to "scale" are based on comparing one element against its neighbors, or the unknown against the known. So: If you want to have impact on the page, manipulate the elements so that they work with, or against, each other and help you establish relationships.
How big is a ball?
It is a golf ball compared to a hand.
...but it is a beach ball compared to a seal.
Train yourself to think laterally: To call attention to an object, don't make it bigger - make the surroundings smaller instead.
Big pictures / small pictures
Bigness and smallness are relative concepts: bigness exists by contrast to smallness. The top picture below lacks size, scale, and impact because it is not compared to anything. To make it look big and impressive, place a small one next to it (bottom) and suddenly it appears to have grown, even though its dimensions remain the same. We also provide a more in-depth guide on how to leverage design contrast.
If, on the other hand, you want to reduce a picture's apparent size, place a big picture next to it and it will shrink as if by magic. Here, just the size relationships do the trick. As a principle, these are much simpler than the ball comparison, because the "meanings" of ball or seal are absent. Unfortunately, only pictures of fog are plain gray rectangles, so you have to take the subject of the pictures into account and judge its value as well as its relationships.
The usual printed page is intimately tiny and everything on it is miniaturized. Pictures are an illusion we enlarge in our imaginations and interpret as reality. But they aren't real - unless we deliberately come as close as possible to realism. In a story about tea, don't show a miniature teacup and teabag if you have the space to show it life-size. A big image makes a bigger impact within the page's miniaturized context.
Even more powerful than life-size is the incongruity of enlargement. We are used to seeing it in fashion magazines - a gigantic close-up of eyes revealing a new style of makeup, as well as logically showing necessary how-to details. The technique applied in a different context can be startling - like this butterfly, which illustrates "lightness" in a technical report on light materials.
Display type / text type
The headline summarizes the gist; the text gives the details of the story. The headline is fast. It catches attention, hooking the potential reader into the text. Text is slow. The bigger the display type (the louder it screams), the more important the event. The visual contrast between the look of the two sets of words is a clue to their separate functions. This is obvious but fundamental.
Large type / small type
You know - without having to study or think - that the left-hand page has far more important information on it than the right-hand page. The type is bigger, the texture is darker, the lines are long, and it overwhelms the itsybitsy insignificant little stuff at the right. It would be even more obvious if the big type were placed across the tops of the pages and the small stuff were, footnote-like, across the bottom.