Unlike the functions of stage lighting, which outline the specific goals which lighting design must fulfill, the principles of composition are general guidelines which apply to all art forms, including writing, acting, painting…and, of course, lighting design.

These should be applied with flexibility. In art, there is always the danger of becoming overly academic and strangling the creativity with theory; nevertheless, if your design is not working the way you wanted, a good first step would be to consider whether or not you have complied with these principles and, if not, if that might be the problem.

Unity: The creation of a stylistic plan or concept to which all elements of the production or design conform. Note that while there may be an overall concept for the production, each designer will establish a concept for his or her own design discipline. Ideally, this concept will be rooted in the overall production concept; otherwise, the principle of “unity” is violated.

Harmony: The sense of blending and unity obtained when all elements of a design fit together to create an orderly, congruous whole. Note that for some productions, disharmony is appropriate.

What is the difference between “Unity” and “Harmony”? Unity is achieved when each element of a design fits in with the overall concept of the production. It is defined by how those elements relate to the production as a whole.

Harmony, on the other hand, is defined by how those same elements relate to each other.

For example, lets assume that we are doing a show about ducks:
The icons are all ducks and they are all the same shape and color. It may not be very interesting, but that’s due to a lack of variety and contrast, which are concepts that we’ll discuss below.

Now look at this group:
They’re still all ducks and still the same shape and size, so we’re still achieving unity, but the colors clash — they are not harmonious.

Variation: Too much uninterrupted harmony is monotonous.

So what’s the difference between “contrast” and “variation”?

Contrast” is a difference in one or more qualities between similar elements. For example:

In the above image, the ducks are similar — they’re identical in size and shape — but whereas three of them are red and facing Stage Left, one is blue and facing Stage Right.

This is an example of “contrast.”

Compare this to the graphic below, in which all the ducks share the same basic qualities (they’re facing the same direction and are the same color), but the fourth one is a radically different element — this duck is flying, while all of the ducks we’ve seen so far have been swimming. This is an example of “variation”.

Balance: The arrangement of the design elements to bring a sense of restfulness, stability, or equilibrium to the design. There are two types of balance:

Symmetrical Balance: “mirror image”, as in the first example, below.

Asymmetrical Balance: occurs when the composition is balanced in terms of weight and emphasis without one half’s being a mirror image of the other half, as in the second example, below.

Proportion: The harmonious relationship (in terms of size) of the parts to each other and to the whole. Physical beauty in humans (or anything else) is largely based on proportion.

Emphasis: Directing the audience’s attention to a specific place.