Artists who work in two-dimensional visual media regularly face the problem of how to compose their subjects in aesthetically pleasing ways within a surrounding rectangular frame. We performed psychophysical investigations of viewers' aesthetic preferences for the position and facing direction of single, directed objects (e.g., people, cars, animals, teapots, and flowers) within such rectangular frames and examined the role that meaning and context play in some of these preferences.
For the horizontal placement of objects, preferences were measured using two-alternative forced-choice preference judgments, the method of adjustment, free choice in taking photographs, and an analysis of stock photography. In front-facing conditions, preference was greatest for pictures whose subject was located at or near the center of the frame and decreased monotonically and symmetrically with distance from the center (the center bias). In the left- or right-facing conditions, there was an additional bias toward preferring objects that face into rather than out of the frame (the inward bias). Similar biases were evident using a method of adjustment, in which participants positioned objects along a horizontal axis, and in free choice photographs, in which participants were asked to take "the most aesthetically pleasing picture" they could of everyday objects. The results are discussed as affirming the power of the center and facing direction in the aesthetic biases viewers bring to their appreciation of framed works of visual art (e.g., Arnheim, 1988; Alexander, 2002).
Next, aesthetic preference for the vertical composition of single-object pictures was studied through a series of four two-alternative forced-choice experiments. The results reveal the influence of several factors, including spatial asymmetries in the affordances of the object and the typical position of the object relative to the observer. With asymmetric side views of objects, people generally prefer objects typically below the observer's viewpoint (e.g., a bowl and a swimming stingray) to be located below the center of the frame and objects located above the observer's viewpoint (e.g., a light fixture and a flying eagle) to be located above the center of the frame. In addition, people generally prefer symmetric views of those same objects from directly above or directly below to be closer to the center of the frame. We suggest that these results can be unified by the hypothesis that observers prefer the object's "affordance space" to be centered within the frame.
Finally, four experiments examined the role of contextual meaning (through titles) on preference for images with objects at different positions and perspectives. As predicted by a theoretical account in terms of "representational fit," people prefer standard (default) compositions with a neutral title that merely describes the content of the picture, but prefer non-standard compositions when they "fit" a title that has corresponding spatial implications. Thus, there is greater aesthetic value in novel compositions that violate expectations if the outcome is meaningful and coherent. These results support representational fit as an aesthetic theory that unifies fluency accounts, in which the default context prevails (e.g., Reber, Schwarz, & Winkielman, 2004), with classic aesthetic accounts in terms of novelty and expectation violation, in which a nonstandard meaning is intended or inferred.