top of page

Principles of Design - Variety

Old weather shingled roof

It seems a little counterintuitive that one of the Principles of Design should be variety. Remember, Principles of Design are how we organize our work; in that light, Variety seems like an odd way to think about an organizing principle. Variety is also one of the principles we often ascribe other meanings too. If this is all new to you, I recommend you read my first blog on Composition, as it will help establish a base reference for all my composition blogs.

When you include repetition in your work, you make it easy for your audience to see and understand what is happening. On the other hand, using variety requires much more audience participation and will result in more viewers not engaging with your work for as long. This is back to the bane of photography and, by extension, most visual art forms, having been ruined by the four billion images uploaded daily to social media – but I digress. My point is that if you use Variety as an organizing principle, you are going to lose some of your audience as they will not take the time to discover what is going on in your image

The more salient points about using Variety as an organizing principle include:

  • A form of order in which the viewer must discover the organizing principle.

  • Not to be confused with complete chaos. Few people can tolerate total meaninglessness.

  • Parts that are seemingly different from each other nonetheless have something in common.

  • Variety is often expressed as variations on a theme.

  • Often it is sensed before being consciously perceived.

Thinking about Variety in this way allows for some exciting ways of structuring your work. First, and unlike repetition, the meaning in the Variety must be perceptible, and the audience must be prepared to decipher your work and discern the ideas behind your choice of variety. Clever use of Variety will engage the viewer because they sense something is going on, but they may not entirely be able to put their finger on it.

A straightforward form of variety can be in the form of some design elements, like lines. In this image, the lines of light and the juxtaposition between light and dark areas are part of the variety scheme.

Covered bridge with light streaming through boards

The most common form of variety is that of variation on a theme. Not only is this relatively easy to accomplish, but it is also much easier for the audience to discern the idea. Intuitively, if you see something like this, your brain will immediately try to categorize it into some logical context. You may try and look at the colours or the number of buttons. Perhaps your attention is caught by the bottom left corner where the silver patterns all seem the same, or maybe to order them by the brand names.

Showcase of old amps

Regardless of how your brain works – I got you to engage with the picture at a deeper level than you might have done had I just shown you a lovely sunset.

This one likewise represents variations on a theme, and I suspect you again find yourself trying to group like houses together. In this case, you may even imagine living in one of those houses and start thinking about which one, based on their similarities and differences.

Ariel photograph of row houses in the winter

Moving into something which may appear a little more challenging, this image from the Bella Center hotel in Copenhagen can, at a first glimpse, appear pretty chaotic. However, I think most people will intuitively understand that the windows are not placed in a completely random way. I bet you could quickly discover the organizing principle if you took even 20 seconds to look at it. Now, 20 seconds does not seem like much time to ask someone to look at your work. Unfortunately, it is many orders of magnitude more time than most people will ever dedicate to looking at a picture.

Facade of Bella Center in Copenhagen

Of course, things can get much more complicated when dealing with something more obscure, and sometimes it takes a descriptive title to hint at the underlying ideas.

Frozen lake with coloured rocks at the bottom

At first glance, this appears to be a long exposure of a lake and some mountains. But what happens when we make the title something “All Rocks.” Now you begin to see the variety in the rocks, from the huge rocks in the background, called mountains, to all the other small, large, and different coloured rocks dotted throughout the image.


In an earlier blog, I discussed a commissioned work I did in the form of a tapestry. At first glance, this image appears chaotic, but on closer examination, you will begin to discover how the organizing principle of Variety is at the root of this image. If you have not read the blog on what-is-the-meaning-of-this, I strongly suggest you read that as that work is based on the idea of Variety.

Tapestry with Saskatchewan Scenes

This piece falls into two types of Variety I listed as the start. Namely, the reader must discover that the order and seemingly different parts have something in common. To help the viewer overcome these obstacles, a clear artist statement and a good title can go a long way to get the audience started.

Zooming in on a smaller part of this work, you discover the grouping within, which helps bring order to chaos.

Tapestry excerpt with Saskatoon scenes

This part is about the city of Saskatoon and, more precisely, the fact that Saskatoon is a winter city and that the people here embrace that in whatever way they can. My point is that in the overall piece, each of these separate organizing pieces of variety would take time to discover and for the viewer to formulate an idea.


The organizing principle of Variety is hard work for both the photographer and the audience. From a photographer’s point of view, introducing a lot of variety into an image is almost contradictory to the idea of simplification as a way to make the subject stand out better. And, from the point of view of the audience – variety in an image can easily make it appear chaotic, and without a good suggestive title, your intentions could get lost on the audience.

However, a strong image with some barely discernable variety can engage your audience in much more profound ways, making it a well-worth Principle of Design to consider integrating into your practice.


bottom of page