Dominant and subordinate qualities create various levels of interest and emphasis among all visual elements. Think of the term dominant as meaning the same as primary and think of subordinate as meaning the same as secondary. This sensibility can apply to all of the design elements. How much intense red vs. how much muted red vs. how much white? How much movement vs. how much stability? How much order vs. how much randomness?
From the upper left, few examples to illustrate the point: ■ Hammer Museum detail reveals a dominantly curvilinear direction, balanced by multiple subordinate directions – the curved shadow beneath it, the diagonal and horizontal edges framing the curve, and finally the slender, repeated horizontal shapes at both top and bottom; ■ the Beef Consumption poster’s composition has a dominantly diagonal direction of cattle and a subordinately horizontal direction reinforced by multiple horizon lines. The composition remains dominantly diagonal in it’s overall direction despite the horizontal nature of the format itself.
Shown below: ■ Figaro is Alive! is dominantly excited and subordinately benign; dominantly rational and subordinately chaotic; dominantly vertical and subordinately horizontal and subordinately random; dominantly red and subordinately black; ■ Elysian Park Morning has a dominantly red foreground and pinkish sky, subordinately green middle ground; and is dominantly horizontal and subordinately vertical in direction. ■ To Our Shareholders is dominantly vertical and subordinately horizontal in direction (but with a pinwheel’s promise of movement); dominantly black body text vs. subordinately green and other bits of color. ■ Los Descarbonadores has two diagonal axes but it’s most dominant diagonal direction is the one with the more vertical, upright axis. Blue and white dominate the color palette and are contrasted by subordinate accents of black, magenta and yellow.
Compositions that have multiple dominant directions or movements have a tendency to edge toward chaos. Having multiple subordinate directions or movements are fine as long as you have at least direction or movement one that is clearly subordinate. Otherwise, competitive counterpoints foster chaos – which is fine if that’s what you’ve intended.
It’s your turn! Exercise: view the examples on this page and ask yourself how each image exhibits one form of dominant/subordinate relationships; whether it be in terms of compositional directions, color or grayscale balance; order vs chaos; geometric vs organic; soft vs hard; etc. (For example: the Beef Consumption poster has a dominantly diagonal direction and subordinately horizontal direction. What happens to the compositional balance if the horizontal lines were made considerably heavier?)