How to create beautiful flatlays with spatial relationships

How to create beautiful flatlays with spatial relationships

Prior to starting Watch Studies, I spent 15+ years as a digital product designer, cutting my creative teeth while designing information architecture and user interfaces that made sites and apps not only pretty to look at but also pleasant to use. There’s no shortage of transferable lessons between design and photography, but that’s a post for another day.

One of the concepts I put to practice often was the idea of spatial relationships. You see, part of what makes an interface effective is its ability to help a user digest its parts efficiently and understand what to focus on (sound familiar?). And by playing with the spacing between elements on a screen, I found that I could help the user instinctively group things together so that they’re actually digesting 2-3 chunks of information rather than 17 individual elements. This in turn helped them comprehend and use the interface with less effort.

As it turns out, the notion of spatial relationships has a lot to do with what makes certain styles of photography – like flatlays – effective as well. And that’s what I hope to cover in today’s tutorial. Enjoy!

This week's challenge

This week, let’s put spatial relationships to work and see some beautiful flatlays! As always, remember to tag #watchstudies to share your work with the community!

What are spatial relationships?

Spatial relationship refers to the implied relationship between two or more objects based on their proximity to each other. The rule of thumb is this:

Objects that are closer together are perceived to be more related than objects that are further apart.

And when objects are perceived to be related, they can be cognitively grouped together and processed as one unit. These groupings can also help the viewer understand the hierarchy and priority of what they're looking at.

Let’s look at a quick demonstration. In this first example, you could describe this image as being made up of 5 boxes.

How to create beautiful flatlays with spatial relationships

Each of the boxes are equally spaced out so each box visually stands independently.

Here’s a second example. In this case, you could describe this image as being made up of 2 groups of boxes; one pair of boxes on the left, and one set of three boxes on the right.

How to create beautiful flatlays with spatial relationships

All I've done in the second example is move some boxes closer together, which creates the perception that those boxes are more related to each other. The value of doing this is that your brain then only needs to process 2 things at a glance, rather than 5. This value increases as the number of elements in view increases.

How does this relate to watch photography?

Like great interfaces, great photos have a clear focus and are easy to process cognitively. By applying what we know about spatial relationships to our layouts, we can more easily guide the eye toward the right things and keep the viewer’s eyes and brains from working harder than it needs to. This is especially helpful with flatlays where there are typically a handful of different elements in frame.

Let's look at a practical example. In this flatlay, every element is more or less equally spaced out, including our focal point (the watch).


It’s not a terrible shot, but the elements feels disjointed and disorderly. If I had even more elements, it would quickly get visually overwhelming. This is because the eyes need to process every element individually and try to figure out what’s most important.

Here’s a second example that creates stronger spatial relationships by grouping the secondary elements closer together.


Now, the eyes see the supporting props more as a single grouping and can more clearly delineate them from the watch. There are actually more elements in view, and yet, the whole shot feels more cohesive and easier to parse because there’s a clearer hierarchy and fewer groupings of things to look at.

Here's another flatlay example that uses this same technique.


What’s the right amount of spacing?

There’s a second concept that relates to spatial relationships that’s worth mentioning here, and it has to do with how much space to place between elements. The simple answer is: it’s all relative.

While this sounds like a cop out, it actually means that the right amount of spacing is relative to the size of the element. Larger things can be spaced out more, while smaller things should be spaced out less. More specifically:

The space around an element should be equal to or less than the size of the element.

How to create beautiful flatlays with spatial relationships

When you’re placing a number of different sized objects together, you should choose the most visually significant measurement from your primary object and make the rest of the spacing relative to that. Let's go back to our watch flatlay demo to illustrate what I mean.

With this example, I feel like the width of the watch case is a good base measurement to use. I use this instead of the full length of the bracelet because majority of the visual weight lies in the watch case. That being said, this is a good time to remind you that all of this is more art than science, so use your creative intuition!

How to create beautiful flatlays with spatial relationships

So with our base measurement identified, we simply want to place all the supporting props at a distance that is equal or less to it. If we spaced everything out more than that, the layout would feel off and the elements fragmented. It would feel like there’s too much space.

Let’s look at the version where everything is appropriately spaced out first.


And here’s the version with everything too far apart.


Comparing the first example to the second, you can see that the spacing in the first looks far more proportional, while the spacing in the second is overly generous.

Here's another example with proportionate spacing.


And finally, just to drive the point home further, here's an example with elements far too spaced out.


Notice how the watch is dwarfed by the spacing around it.

Closing thought

Great work requires intentionality. Only when every detail is taken care of will the whole feel greater than the sum of its parts.

Spatial relationships is one of the key concepts that determines how cohesive your layouts look, how clear your focus is, and inevitably, how effective your final photo is. By being more aware of what goes into spatial relationships, you’re better armed to be intentional about them and, in turn, to create better work with them.

Your turn!

This week, let’s put spatial relationships to work and see some beautiful flatlays! As always, remember to tag #watchstudies to share your work with the community!

Thanks for joining another edition of Sunday Study Club! If you're interested in learning more, here are some related tutorials you may enjoy as well:

PS: If you’ve made it this far, let me know by posting a ↔️ in the comments of today’s post on Instagram!

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Thanks for your continued support, Todd!! 🙌

Verne Ho


Todd Seger

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