Design Principle: Face-ism Ratio

If you go to Google Images and type in “Time Magazine,” you’ll notice a glaring visual trend: on nearly all of the covers, a large face dominates the visual space.  Very few of Time‘s covers show the full body (or even anything below the chest) of any of the people they are highlighting. Type in “Vogue” into that same search engine, and you’ll get a completely different response.

I know what you’re thinking: “well, sure, of course Vogue shows more body. Aren’t they all about cleavage?” But what about magazines that aren’t simply about women’s fashion? Why doesn’t Time show more of the body, hardly ever? Wouldn’t a full body shot of President Obama in a nice suit look appealing? In news media, there is a common design principle: the face-ism ratio. This principle uses a mathematical ratio, comparing the size of the face to the rest of the image. The higher the ratio, the larger the face. And when you’re trying to convey a particular message, you don’t want to get this principle wrong.

Evaluate this image from the book Universal Principles of Design:


What you’ll clearly notice in this image is that the rhetorical message changes with each view, even though the picture is of the same woman zoomed out. If you were to come across the image on the left on website, what kind of business would you expect her to be advertising? And the image on the right? If you are like most people, you probably see the image on the left advertising some kind of intellectual company, like a bank or investment firm or law office. And you probably thought the image on the right would be useful for something related to physique, like an exercise equipment firm or a diet pill or Special K.

Researchers have found that when images of faces are zoomed in, we tend to evaluate that person’s personality and intellect. When the image is zoomed out, we have a tendency to notice more sensual features and body type and personality means much less.

So what does this mean for you? Well, if you’re designing a flyer for a graduate school program, you probably don’t want to use full body shots of students (although this happens a lot). Intelligence and personality won’t shine through to your viewers; you’ll want a larger face-ism ratio. It isn’t that the full body shot will necessarily be anything sexual, but it won’t deliver a message about intellect and getting to know students. If, however, you are creating a flyer to advertise a gym, larger body shots, a small face-ism ratio, is probably your best bet.

2 thoughts on “Design Principle: Face-ism Ratio

  • June 27, 2013 at 2:17 am

    I love your blog! I think this concept explains, for me, why I prefer headshots when I have my picture and family pictures taken. I want intellect to be most obvious! 🙂

  • June 27, 2013 at 3:56 am

    That’s definitely true, Emily. Unless the photo is intended to highlight athleticism, health, or sensuality, head shots are almost always preferred. Unfortunately, we often don’t think about it when we take the pictures 🙂

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