The principle of scale in graphic design

In 1959, Volkswagen released a groundbreaking print advertisement that’s been called “the ad that changed advertising” and one of “the greatest print campaigns of all time.”

Titled “Think small,” the ad veered from ostentatious car ads of the time and instead showed its product as a tiny image in a sea of white space. Rather than printing a flashy, in-your-face ad, Volkswagen took a minimalist approach and focused on the practicality and accessibility of its vehicle.

Volkswagen Ad, The principle of scale in graphic design

Image via Design Shack

As a result, “Think small” helped transform the public perception of Volkswagen from a German vehicle built by Nazis to an American novelty. As Joshua Johnson wrote for Design Shack: “The Volkswagen Beetle was a small, slow, ugly, foreign car that the folks at [advertising agency] DDB turned into an iconic piece of American pride.”

So, how did DDB and Volkswagen do it? With the power of scale in graphic design. They made a simple but bold decision: Pull the lens away from the product they were promoting. And it paid off. Instead of diminishing the power of the car, this shift in scale actually ended up drawing more attention to it.

All designers can learn from Volkswagen’s revolutionary campaign and its innovative use of scale in graphic design. Still, this is just one example of how scale can transform an ad and make an impact among an audience.

That’s where this guide comes in. We’re going to break down the principle of scale in graphic design—including what scale is, why it’s so important, and how you can start using scale in creative, innovative ways.

Let’s get started.

What is scale in graphic design?

Scale refers to the relative size of a design element in comparison to another element. As designer Steven Bradley wrote, “A single object has no scale until it’s seen in comparison with something else.”

In the Volkswagen ad, for example, the car is small in relation to the white space of the ad. And the title, “Think small,” is large in relation to body copy of the ad—demonstrating that text and typography are also subject to scale.

Let’s look at another example. Leo Burnett, Dubai created these posters to promote the fact that McDonald’s sells coffee all day long. While McDonald’s is known for its big, bold logo, that logo takes a backseat in these ads to a more important element: time.

Leo Burnett McDonalds ad,

Leo Burnett McDonalds ad, The principle of scale in graphic design

Image via Adeevee

Create your own posters in Canva with templates like these: Young and Older and Groove Black Dress. You can easily play with scale by customizing the elements provided and even adding your own images, graphics, and illustrations from Canva’s varied collection. With just a few clicks, you can use scale to transform your design and discover new compositions.

Why is scale in graphic design important?

As one of the core principles of graphic design, scale can affect the meaning, tone, and entire composition of your design. Scale is responsible for creating a visual hierarchy among elements of your creation. It tells viewers which elements to look at, in what order to look at them, and what’s most important to focus on.

Take this Ogilvy & Mather ad for the peace organization, Adot. The company wanted to promote peace between Russia and Ukraine with its “Words Kills Wars” campaign. To illustrate how words can be just as powerful as weapons, they scaled up a pencil to be the size of a bomb and placed the two objects right next to each other.

Adot Words Kill War campaign, The principle of scale in graphic design

Image via Trend Hunter

Scale can also tell a story, create a visual journey, and portray rhythm and movement. If two objects are scaled to the same size, we may start to consider their similarities. If one object is bigger than the other, we may start to consider status, tension, and sequence. If elements are scaled realistically, they can relay a sense of structure and order. On the other hand, playful use of scale can build whimsical or surreal scenes.

Scale can also be used to shift perspective and create a depth of field. This Coca-Cola ad, for example, uses scale to create a smile out of soda bottles. If the bottles were all the same size, this ad would look quite different. By using scale, however, the brand was able to turn over 20 versions of the same graphic into a new image that effectively conveys its campaign message: “open happiness.”

Coca Cola Open Happiness ad, The principle of scale in graphic design

Image via Pinterest

It can be fun to play around with scale, but if you do start adjusting the elements of your design, just remember to consider the “why.” Why are you making this element bigger than the other? Why is this object in the foreground and that one in the background? The answer should always tie back to the overall message of your design.

What are creative ways to use scale in graphic design?

Scale can be used in a variety of ways and for a range of purposes. So if you’re feeling intimidated about using scale in graphic design, just look at the work of designers before you who’ve successfully experimented with this principle of design.

The cover of Neon in Daylight, a novel by Hermione Hoby, uses scale to make it look like the title of the book is painted on a large, brick wall. The perspective of the text, along with the relatively smaller staircases, helps achieve this effect. It’s a bold yet simple cover that conveys a specific message with just a few key design elements.

Cover of Neon in Daylight, The principle of scale in graphic design

Image via Paste

Design your own book covers in Canva with templates like Pink and Yellow Creative Craft Book Cover and Colorful Illustration Kindle Cover. Whether you’re looking to self-publish or pitch your book idea to agents and publishers, you can use templates like these to make a strong first impression among your readers. The eye-catching typography and built-in graphics are ready-made for your book, or you can personalize them by adding your own images and color palette.

Up next, artist Matt Needle used creative scaling techniques to design this poster for the TV show, “Mad Men.” The main character Don Draper is sized larger than the Empire State Building and is seen walking above the New York City skyline. This illustrates that the fact that he was a powerful figure who was taking the city by storm. Scale is then used again to create an even bigger silhouette of Draper, which actually envelops the whole skyline. Altogether, this design helps paint Draper as a larger-than-life advertising titan who was taking the world by storm.

Mad Men poster by Matt Needle,

Image via Slash Film

Jing Zhang of Imaginary Factory used scale in graphic design to create a whimsical set of infographics that showed how certain objects work.

“Ever wondered how your iPhone/Camera works? How the best cuppa/coffee is made? Or the mechanism of a pendulum clock, a toaster etc,” she wrote. “Perhaps some elves inside working it out for us.”

Zhang creates a little elvan industry inside these objects to illustrate their inner workings and convey information in a fun and easily digestible way. As a result, the objects themselves seem more formidable than they do in reality, and we start to imagine what it would be like to explore their mechanisms for ourselves.

Jing Zhang infographic, The principle of Scale in Graphic Design

Image via Behance

Design your own infographics in Canva with templates like these. You can easily plug in your own data and change the size of the icons and graphics—or insert new ones—to create shareable, downloadable assets that get your ideas across. As you build, remember the power of scale and how it can be used to create a narrative and flow for large visuals like infographics.

Similarly, Oreo played with scale for this series of fantastical images from 2015. The brand used its product to create miniature landscapes filled with tiny figurines. It’s tough to keep finding creative ways to market one little cookie, but Oreo makes it happen with strategies like this one. And these graphics aren’t just fun to look at; they also communicate the idea that Oreo can be a big part of someone’s life.

Oreo Instagram post, the principle of scale in graphic design

Image via Instagram

The use of scale should be evident in these 2015 billboards from Sonic, promoting the food brand’s slushes. Instead of just including an image of the slush on the billboard, the company made the entire canvas look like a giant slush drink. The point is driven home by the big, 3-D straw coming out of the top of the ad.

Sonic 2015 billboard,

Image via Adweek

The cover of Heidi Durrow’s novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, incorporates scale in a subtle yet impactful way. The text size for the title remains uniform all the way down the cover, making it look like the words are falling, echoing the title. While the image of the girl could’ve been made larger, it was instead scaled to be a similar size to the text. So she looks like she’s falling along with the text. In fact, she’s the final link in this falling chain of imagery.

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky Poster

Image via Amazon

Scale can be particularly important when designing email newsletters. These visuals have to stand out in a crowded inbox and catch the eye within fractions of a second. That’s why Lyft considers scale and visual hierarchy when composing its email newsletters. While the logo is up top, the largest element of this design is the offer: “10% off 10 rides.” The next largest element is the call-to-action button, “RIDE AND SAVE,” which readers can click if they’re enticed by the offer. The smaller text between these two elements is secondary, providing additional information about the special offer—information that is necessary but shouldn’t crowd the main offer.

This hierarchy and use of scale allows Lyft to include a lot of text without overwhelming or confusing the reader.

Lyft Ad, The principle of scale in graphic design

Image via Really Good Emails

Design your own email newsletters in Canva with templates like White and Blue with Grayscale Photos Email Newsletter and Light Green Fashion Email Newsletter. They can provide the perfect foundation for building your next email blast or update. Just input your own images, text, and logos, and arrange the sections of the newsletter as needed to best tell your story. You can also take a page from Lyft’s playbook and create a visual hierarchy for your text—making the most important statement the biggest, even if it’s not the first element at the top of your email.

Scale up your use of scale

Think of two black dots—both the same size. It’s a static, standard image, right? Now think of one dot being much bigger than the other. All of a sudden, the image starts to tell a story. Is the bigger dot more important than the smaller dot? Does it contain text that the viewer should read or a logo that the viewer should see? If you drew a scared face on the small dot, would it now look intimidated by the big dot? Would that be sad or funny?

It’s a simple example, but one that illustrates the power and importance of scale. Because once you start playing around with scale, you can begin asking these questions and finding new and innovative ways to tell your story through design.

Remember the Volkswagen ad and the principles it demonstrates:

  • Scale is relative. You can only scale a design element relative to another element.
  • Bigger isn’t always better. Small-scale elements can also have an impact.
  • Scale can be transformative. Subversive even, and crucial to the success of your designs.

Ready to use scale in graphic design? Browse these Canva templates and start building your next creation.

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