Design Series: Focal Point/Emphasis

We’re back!!!!

Well, it has been awhile since Sandy and I were able to get together, but we are back in the  saddle. We worked on a new Design Series episode last week. You should be able to hear all about Emphasis/Focal Point today!

You can find the other episodes and companion blog posts by searching the Design Series tag.

Rhonda Ludwico
Rhonda Ludwico

Emphasis/Focal Point is a principle of design.

Emphasis/Focal Point is related to Size/Scale

I have dominance listed separately in my outline for this series of podcasts, but we cannot really talk about Emphasis and Focal Point without talking about dominance, so consider this episode related to the upcoming episode on Dominance.


  • An emphasized element of your design is a focal point (Pentak & Lauer, pg.46)
  • “Emphasis creates a focal point in a design; it is how we bring attention to what is most important. Emphasis is what catches the eye and makes the viewer stop and look at the image. Without emphasis, without getting the viewer to look at the image, communication cannot occur.” (The Elements and Principles of Design, pg. emphasis)
    • This can happen pretty easily with standard block quilts. If you have nothing to draw the attention, e.g. you use the same fabrics for each block and the size of the blocks is all the same, you may have nothing in the quilt to create a focal point.
  • Emphasis can be achieved through the use of color, value, intensity, size & scale as well as other design elements.” (Color & Design, pg. 125)
  • Emphasis gives “interest to one entity or area over others present in a design field, however a focal point is not always formed.” (Color & Design, pg. 125)
  • Focal point: “attracts viewer as a point of emphasis, encourages viewer to look farther.” (Quilter’s Book of Design, pg. 154)
  • “A focal point results when one element differs from the others. Whatever interrupts an overall feeling or pattern automatically attracts the eye by this difference:
    • when most of the elements are dark, a light form breaks the pattern and becomes a focal point
    • when almost all the elements (whether light or dark) are vertical, a diagonal element is emphasized
    • In an overall design of distorted expressionistic forms, the sudden introduction of a naturalistic image will draw the eye for its very different style
    • when many elements are about the same size, similar but unexpectedly smaller ones become visually important
    • when the majority of shapes are rectilinear and angular parallelograms, round shapes stand out
    • the list could go on and on…
    • a change in color or a change in brightness can immediately attract our attention.” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.48)

    Emphasis on Isolation (Source: via Jaye on Pinterest)
    Emphasis on Isolation (Source: via Jaye on Pinterest)

Using Emphasis/Focal Points:

    • “An unnatural contrast of scale in your quilts can also be used to achieve interesting effects. Surrealists such as Salvador Dali used wildly confused internal proportions to intentionally create uneasiness in the viewer. One element that is purposefully out of scale with other elements within the quilt will attract the viewer’s attention and become a focal point.” (Art+Quilt, pg.65)
      • If you have a large Mariner’s Compass in the middle of a quilt, the Mariner’s Compass will be the focal point.
    • “A problem for the quiltmaker is how to achieve both variety and unity. Just adding different elements to the composition may destroy its unity. Adding elements that are similar, but different from each other, can add interest without upsetting the unity of the whole. If one of the variations of the chosen elements is in high contrast to the rest of the piece, it can create a focal point. ”
      • (as an aside, I don’t mean that you are only allowed to use contrast as a focal point; the author means using something to differentiate that area or section from the rest of the piece) (The Quilter’s Book of Design , pg,27)
    • Emphasis by Contrast: “Very often in art the pictorial emphasis is clear, and in simple compositions (such as a portrait), the focal point is obvious. But the more complicated the pattern, the more necessary or helpful a focal point may become in organizing the design.” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.48)
    • Emphasis by Isolation: an element alone in part of a design immediately gets our attention even if there are many of the same shape in another part of the design. (Pentak & Lauer, pg.50)
      • “…a focal point that is too close to an edge will have a tendency to pull the viewer’s eye right out of the picture.”  (Pentak & Lauer, pg.50)
    • Emphasis by Placement: “If many elements point to one item our attention is directed there, and a focal point results. A radial design is a perfect example of this device” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.52)
      • Imagine a Mariner’s compass with a Fleur de Lis in the center circle.
    • Emphasis by Value: “Value contrast can be used to create a focal point in the composition. High contrast will attract the viewer’s attention.” (The Quilter’s Book of Design, pg.66)
    • Structure: There are four different major types of structure. (you might remember this from a brief overview we did in the Balance segment)
      • Focus Structure: Focus structure has to do with placing elements of a design in such a way that the eye of the viewer focuses on it. You create focus by establishing the difference between the featured shape and its setting. (Adventures in Design, pg.117)
      • Circular Structure: “… a central design is the main focus and everything else plays a lesser role, accentuating the beauty of this central design.” In this structure, the artist must ensure that there is “enough continuity between the inner focus and the outer support so that the eye can move throughout the design.” Circular structure uses a circular design “skeleton to move the eyes around the design in a clockwise manner.” (Adventures in Design, pg.118)
      • Triangular Structure: The basis of your design, in a triangular structure, is a triangle (Adventures in Design, pg.119)
      • L Structure: In an L structure “the major design focus should be along one of the arms of the L.” The best placement in this kind of structure is to place the major focus close to the intersecting point of the L.” (Adventures in Design, pg.119)
      • Horizontal and vertical structure: use a “horizontal or vertical line as your structure. This directional structure can be used over the entire design surface” (Example is Layers of Time by Sylvia Naylor- see it on pg. 38 in Adventures in Design or a Chinese Coins quilt design) (Adventures in Design, pg.119). One of the ‘coins’ in a Chinese Coins quilt would have to stand out in some way (be fatter than the others, be a wildly different color, etc in order for this structure to be used to focus attention on one part of the quilt.


Rule of Thirds (Source:
Rule of Thirds (Source:
      • Rule of Thirds:  Joen Wolfrom says “The rule of thirds is an easy way to find a focus range. Simply divide your design into thirds, horizontally & vertically. Four intersecting points will appear. Place your” focal point “in the vicinity of the most appropriate intersecting point.” (Adventures in Design, pg.117) I think you need to place your focal point where it helps you to communicate the message you want to get across to your viewers.


      • “A focal point, however strong, should remain related to and a part of the overall design… In general, the principle of unity and the creation of a harmonious pattern with related elements is more important than the injection of a focal point if this point would jeopardize the design’s unity.” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.54)
      • “Giving dominance to, or emphasizing one design element or area will counteract confusion or the risk of monotony.” (Color & Design, pg. 125)
      • A definite focal point is not a necessity in creating a successful design. It is a tool that artists may or may not use, depending on their aims.” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.56)
      • “How does the designer catch a viewer’s attention? …Nothing will guarantee success, but one device that can help is a point of emphasis or focal point. This emphasized element initially can attract attention and encourage the viewer to look further.” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.46)
      • “You create focus by establishing the difference between the featured shape and its setting.” (Adventures in Design, pg.117)
      • “In past centuries when pictures were rare, almost any image was guaranteed attention. Today,…all of us are confronted daily with hundreds of pictures. We take this abundance for granted,” and have even trained ourselves (sometimes unknowingly) to filter out imagery that is unpleasant or distracting,  “but it makes the artist’s job more difficult. Without an audience’s attention , any message, any artistic or aesthetic values, are lost.” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.46) This is why I rail a bit on drawing the viewer of your quilt into the design field and then rewarding them with small stitches or beadwork as a result of looking closer. At a quilt show, you need to get people to look at your quilt in the midst of hundreds of them.
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        Marie-Hélène Cingal, Bruxelles (Source:

        There can be more than one focal point. Sometimes secondary points of emphasis are present that have less attention value than the focal point. These are called accents.” “…the designer must be careful. Several focal points of equal emphasis can turn the design into a three-ring circus in which the viewer does not know where to look first.” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.46)

        • “…provide a variation in order for our eyes to be attracted to the focus area.” (Adventures in Design, pg.117)
      • “Scale and proportion are closely tied to  emphasis and focal point. Large scale, especially large scale in proportion to other elements makes for an obvious visual emphasis.” (Pentak & Lauer, pg.60)
      • “Emphasizing one element or letting one area dominate others sends an invitation tot he viewer to come in and take a closer, longer look at the work.” (color & Design, pg. 125)


Type “focal point” examples into Google or your favorite search engine and look at the images. As you look at the images, try and figure out what the focal point is.

Art + Quilt
Design Basics by Pentak & Lauer
The Elements and Principles of Design,

Author: Jaye

Quiltmaker who enjoys writing and frozen chocolate covered bananas.