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Posted by on Aug 12, 2013 in Bootcamp, Stars and Stamps | 14 comments

Relationship Advice (Creating Strong Relationships in Your Designs)

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Hello and welcome to the August Design Bootcamp! I hope that you’re enjoying your summer. For you cold weather lovers it probably can’t go fast enough but as a warm weather person I’m savoring every moment.

In our Bootcamps this year we’ve been exploring both the Elements and Principles of Design. Though I have intentionally not approached these lessons in too formal manner I thought it might, at this point, make sense to take a few minutes to discuss them. The Elements of Design (line, shape, form, color, texture and space) are the building blocks or tools of visual design. The way in which they are organized are referred to as the Principles of Design (Emphasis, Variety/Repetition, Balance, Rhythm/Movement, Proportion and Unity). So now you’re thinking ‘okay, it’s August and you’re just telling us this stuff now?’ Well, yes. I believe when it comes to design and art the vast majority of us are ‘visual’ learners so instead of telling you what they are I’ve been showing you samples and talking about many of these Elements and Principles and how they translate in actual designs. Does knowing the formal terms matter? Not really, but the concepts do.

WARNING: If you’re easily offended, please skip the next paragraph. 🙂

Like me, you’ve heard it said ‘who is to say what’s good and what’s not’ and I’m sure you’re all familiar with the phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, and while it is true that taste is subjective, good design is not. The Elements and Principles of Design are not about ‘taste’  and they are not something new.  Does this mean you must follow all these rules to create a good design? No, experienced designers, after they learn them, will often bend or even break some of the rules. The best analogy I can think of is cooking. If you’re a new cook you’re likely to follow a recipe exactly as it is written. As you become more experienced you may start to experiment, maybe substitute some ingredients for others. If you know what you’re doing the result could well be fantastic but, if you don’t it might very well be inedible. But wait you say, maybe I like the taste of my dish and you don’t. Yes, as I said, taste is subjective. You might like that chicken casserole really spicy while it’s not for me, but neither of us would want to eat it if it was completely undercooked. There are some basic guidelines that both the experienced and the brand new cook will want to  to obtain a successful result.

This month we’re going to talk about creating strong relationships between the various pieces in our designs which would fall under the Principle of Unity. Simply put you want to make sure the different parts of the design work together to create a pleasing and cohesive design. In a good design the designer (you) controls how the viewer sees the piece. As we discussed in the February Bootcamp, creating a strong focal point forces the viewer’s eye to it. It creates the starting point for the viewer’s ‘trip’ through your design and how you place the other pieces in relationship to it should hopefully lay out the route they take.

Let’s look at some examples.

Please note that the samples I’m using  today, both the Before & After versions were created by Sandy and me strictly for the purpose of using them as teaching tools. No one at Operation Write Home will EVER under any circumstances be reworking your designs. We have a great Pinterest Board of Before & Afters with lots of great visual examples and a great resource if you have a design that just isn’t working out as you’d hoped.


Dora 1


Some of you may remember this Dora card. In this before design it looks like I was more concerned with filling up my space in as equal a manner as I could. Nice papers and cute stickers but there isn’t any real relationship between them. They feel separated against a sea of purple.


Dora 2

Here I’ve changed the relationship of the pieces by placing the next to each other. I’ve used the white circles which adds contrast and both white circles and green ribbons show Repetition at work. The stickers are not identical so the principle of Variation is being used as well.


christmas 1


Again I have a bunch of randomly placed snowflakes. Maybe I was aiming to make it feel like real falling snow but the pieces don’t have a strong relationship with each other and the design lacks a deliberate focal point. Some viewers might look at the sentiment first, others might see the ribbon, the snowflakes or even the green bar at the top.

christmas 2

In the after version everything is much more deliberate. The stamped snowflakes relate to each other and create a background for the upper portion of the design. The layered die-cut piece gives the design a focal point and it overlaps the plaid just enough to lead the viewer’s eye down through the rest of the design down to the sentiment.


bird 1


In this before I placed my white bird against the dark color which in itself makes sense, it gives me the contrast I need to be sure it doesn’t blend into the background, but the floating sentiment is off on its own and the viewer’s eye is faced with a visual ‘fight’. You’re probably going to look at one then the other and then back again. It’s creating an uncomforatble tension between the two.


bird 2


By bringing the two closer together I create a relationship between them. Adding the paper to the top of the design allowed me to keep the contrast between the bird and the background. I intentionally place the bird (the smaller of these two pieces) above the sentiment block (which is bigger and visually heavier) so would give the feeling that my bird is free to fly away instead of being crushed by a big block.




Sandy’s before Safari has some nice elements but again the question we’re exploring is how do they relate to each other in the design? The giraffe and the tree are both grounded by the stripe along the bottom. That’s about it.


By adding the strong yellow background with its black frame and placing the elements against it she’s created a scene. Now we see the giraffe trotting along the warm brown earth and the silhouette of the tree against a blazing sunset. Oh and that flying Cheetah isn’t aiming right for our sweet Giraffe’s head. 🙂


floral 1


Pretty flowers and some nice variation is their sizes and patterns but again they feel scattered. They’re evenly spread out but not really related to each other in any deliberate way.


floral 2

By repositioning them together, along with knot of my ribbon they become one unit. A bouquet with a strong relationship between each of them. The sentiment in the lower right adds some balance, but by keeping it on the yellow band (which the flowers and ribbon overlap), instead of say sticking it in the upper right open corner, I’m creating that ‘route’ for my viewer. The flowers and ribbon guides your eye across that yellow strip to the sentiment. The brown background provides some contrast and frames the other pieces.


I hope these before and after samples help you to better understand how you might be able to make your designs stronger by taking some time to consider how the pieces relate to each other.

I will be the first to admit that looking at our own work with a critical eye can be difficult, especially when we’ve invested a lot of time or effort in our creation. Further complicating matters is this high-tech world we live in where we might see something that everyone seems to ‘like’ and we immediately equate it as a sign that it must mean it’s good. We might even see it as an example of what we should be doing. It could be a great design (in which case it’s guaranteed to employ at least some of these timeless Elements and Principles of Design), or it could be encouragement among friends. Each of us as artists, are at a different point in our ‘learning journey’ and anyone who has given themselves a goal of becoming a better designer deserves praise and encouragement as they make that trip.



I’m going to leave you with two options for homework this month. For those brave enough to do it, dig way back to some of your very earliest work and share a card with everyone here and tell us what changes you’d make if you were going to create it now with the experience and skills you’ve gained since you made it. If you don’t have any early work to look back at or just can’t bear it, make a card and tell us your thinking behind it in terms of how the pieces are all related to each other.



  1. These Boot Camp posts don’t come near enough, or fast enough for me. This was a great one. Thanks Paula!

  2. Just a question: what happens to the cards that people send in that are judged “poorly designed?”

    • I’m sure Sandy will chime in, but I’d guess they become Anyhero notes. I don’t think the shippers are “judging” our work as much as making sure that it’s what our heroes want. I think it’s our job as volunteers to do our best work.. and gosh yes, there is a learning curve, but these lessons are such a great thing to help us learn!

    • Linda, Cards sent in are never judged for ’design’. If a card is not staying put togtether and cannot be ’triaged’ that would not be sent. Also cards that don’t meet the guidelines (glitter, inappropriate images…scantily clad women, sexual innuendo, alcohol references, handwritten sentiments etc.) would not be included under any circumstances. Our shippers have contact with the heroes who receive the packages and I am sure they do whatever they can to send the types of cards they request whenever possible. Also, I do suspect that some cards sent in boxes could potentially go unused but if everyone is doing their best work I imagine that would be rare.

    • Ditto all that Paula and Jen said. These bootcamp posts are helping us become better card designers. Though of the before-and-afters shown that I make, or the sneeze ones I create for OWHtv, I toss ’em. LOL! I won’t put my name on that stuff! 🙂

  3. This was a fun one to do. It all ties togethr in the end. 🙂

    • “together”. Need more coffee.

  4. Thank you so much, Paula! This is so, so, so helpful! I just finished making some cards and I kept feeling there was something not quite right about them. Now I see what it is! Of course, gonna have to go back and try to correct my mistakes but I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t liking them. I was not at all offended by that one paragraph…I think you explained what we all need to know to grow in our designing perfectly. I just LOVE these Bootcamp lessons…would have to pay big bucks at a college or art class to learn this without you♥

  5. You are so right, and looking back at the cards I’ve made I can see how my work gets better because I understand more about how to put the elements together into a cohesive whole. I see a lot of cards while blogging and googling for inspiration that don’t speak to me style-wise, but are well-made design-wise. It makes sense and nothing to get your panties in a twist over. 🙂 Great job, Paula!

  6. I don’t agree that all the afters are better than the befores. You seem to have a desire for symmetry and not everyone likes that. The snowflake card is the one I noticed the most. I prefer the asymmetry of the before card.

  7. Thanks, Paula and Sandy, for another fabulous session!

  8. I love to learn. I can honestly say that I have improved over the years both as a scrap booker and a card maker. I think I have developed my own style or maybe it is my own comfort zone. I really appreciate the challenges, the boot camps, and any other advice given on this site. I feel like if I am learning than I am growing as a person. While I secretly hope someone finds my cards cute, my main goal is to make a quality card that might appeal to our military heroes.

  9. This is an important lesson; thanks, Paula! I’m still chuckling over the flying leopard!

  10. Terrific lesson! I love the before-and-afters. This is one of the hardest areas for me in trying to improve my designs. I know when something doesn’t quite work, but I can’t always tell why, and it looks like a lack of relationship of the elements may be a big factor. Great paper and nice images are a start, but how to make them into a cohesive whole? I also have a tendency to “balance” one section of a card with another, and this lesson makes me realize that I may just be confusing the viewer’s eye. I love the way you explain the elements and principles without getting lost in a lot of jargon (although the formal names can be a kind of shorthand for the overall concepts). Thanks again!

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