The Gutenberg Principle is a lesser-known design principle that describes the general movement of the eyes when looking at a design in which elements are evenly distributed. It’s also known as the Gutenberg Rule or the Z pattern of processing.
Visual designers should understand that the viewer’s eye does not remain static but is constantly traveling across the design surface, looking for visual pathways, landmarks and resting points. It is up to the designer to control the path of travel and therefore the order information is received, by strategically positioning elements (shapes, lines, colors, textures, etc.) The more trained the eye of the viewer, the more of these elements will be found and the more engagement happens. So designers need to present a path of travel if they want the viewer to linger within the design. This is true for print, web, motion and UX.
The Gutenberg principle assumes a design space is divided into 4 equal quadrants. Active quadrants are the top left and bottom right. The passive quadrants are bottom left and top right. The top quadrants are primary over their corresponding bottom quadrants. Left-to-right readers (English, Spanish, etc.) naturally enter the design space at the top left and flow diagonally down to the bottom right before exiting the design. This is a natural path of travel for the eyes. It may be mirrored in right-to-left readers (Hebrew).
The designer can choose to lead the eye in this natural Z pattern, or he may choose to present other entry and exit points. If he chooses to follow the Z pattern, he is working with the flow of reading gravity, moving from top to bottom. He will place key elements and focal points — the most important information — along this path of travel. This results in more comfortable reading and may increase comprehension.
Disrupting this natural pattern leads the eye around the design in different ways. If a very large element is placed at the bottom center, the eye will enter the design at that point, and move to other landmarks from there.
Visual designers, photographers and illustrators should be aware of how the viewer will see their finished work, and plan accordingly. It’s up to the creator to lead the eye on the right path in order to make the most of the information contained in a design.