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What is a Focal Point?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 01, 2024
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You’ll find many definitions for the term focal point. Some are scientific in nature, and others relate more to the arts and home design. In science, the term may be defined as the place where rays of light converge. It can also be used, as in work with lasers, to discuss the area onto which a laser is directed. If you were having laser hair removal, for instance, each hair follicle would constitute a focal point.

These more recent definitions are derived from the term as used in art, principally in painting and drawings. The focal point in a painting is the place to which the eyes are drawn. This is often the most dominant or interesting part of a picture. Though you can examine other details of a picture/photograph or other works of art, your eyes will continually lead you back to the main or focal point. The focal point may be used to express something important thematically.

The term can then be applied to architecture and design, both interior and exterior. A house or building may have an exterior focal point, one that attracts your attention. Rooms can also have a specific area of interest or include a dominant feature. When you don’t pay attention to design, you can sometimes inadvertently have unattractive focal points, like large furniture installations, holes in walls, places where paint doesn’t match and et cetera.

Advertisers work very hard to create visual focal points in print ads and television, and so do people who work in merchandising and store display. If you’ve ever seen the television show, America’s Next Top Model or others like it, you know models are frequently taken to task when they don’t do enough to showcase items that might be featured in an advertisement. In one commercial for Cover Girl&reg: foundation, for instance, one contestant picked up a large cocktail while entering a party scene, thus diverting focus from the makeup. The drink instead of the makeup became an undesirable focal point. Focus in an advertisement attempts to be product-centered and tries not to distract from the main thing being advertised by creating mixed messages.

You can additionally apply the term focal point to describe the points or a main point a writer wishes to focus on in a piece. When the writing is good, the actual point or points the writer wishes to make emerge well and become the dominant themes. “Having a point” in writing is synonymous with creating focal points, which will be remembered by the reader.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By bagley79 — On Apr 30, 2012

When I went to my Lamaze classes they told all of us to pick out something to take with us when we went to the hospital that would be our focal point.

It could be a picture, an object, or anything that we could focus our mind and thoughts on during delivery.

I remember taking a picture with me, but don't remember what the picture was. All I know is it didn't work for me.

Looking at a picture for a focal point did nothing to take my mind off the contractions and pain I was having. All I wanted to do was take that focal point and throw it against the wall.

By Monika — On Apr 29, 2012

@sunnySkys - You might be able to rearrange the room some how to downplay the couch. Maybe with lighting, or another very noticeable piece of furniture? Maybe. From your description the couch does sound pretty attention grabbing.

That said, if your living room was an advertisement for that couch, you would have done an excellent job! I had to laugh a little at the model described in the article who covered up the makeup she was supposed to be advertising. That's definitely not what she's getting paid to do!

By LisaLou — On Apr 29, 2012

We have a large wood-burning fireplace that is the focal point of our family room. When you walk into our house, this fireplace is immediately seen along the wall, and the first thing your eyes gravitate to.

The stone facing goes all the way up to the ceiling. The fireplace by itself is the focal point, but I also wanted the mantle to look nice.

I change the decorations on the mantle with the seasons. This way it always looks different throughout the year and I don't get bored with the same look.

By sunnySkys — On Apr 29, 2012

I'm actually having a focal point problem in my living room as we speak. I have this gigantic plum colored couch, and it is definitely the focal point of the room. It's huge!

I bought it when I was 20, and I had two roommates. I like purple, and I wanted a couch that we could all sit on comfortably. The couch worked back then.

However, now I'm a little older, and I actually care about how my home looks. I'm thinking about just getting rid of the couch and getting something else. I'm a little attached to it though, so I'm not really sure what I'm going to do.

By julies — On Apr 28, 2012

I have one large, open wall in my living room that I had a hard time figuring out what to do with.

Because this was such a large space, I wanted a large focal point that would match with the rest of the room.

I didn't want this to be a space where things were just thrown together to take up all the space.

I looked through magazines and watched home decorating shows until I finally decided how I would decorate this space.

In the middle of the space I hung a large, decorative mirror. On either side of the mirror I found paintings with the color scheme that was in my couch and pillows.

This is something that can be easily changed if I get tired of the paintings, but the mirror will probably always stay as the main focal point.

By strawCake — On Apr 27, 2012

@StarJo - I have a degree in art, and I disagree with your professor. I don't think there are really any hard and fast rules as to where the focal point can and can't be. It might not always work to put the focal point right in the middle of the piece, but sometimes it does.

And actually, I can't recall any of my art teachers giving much lesson time to the "focal point" or a work. We concentrated more on the overall layout and design of the piece, rather than on one focal point.

After all, in most pieces of art, there might be a focal point, but hopefully your eye is drawn to look at the entire piece.

By Oceana — On Apr 27, 2012

@seag47 – See if your husband would be open to having some of the photos scanned and reduced to fit a smaller frame. That would give you some variety to play with when finding a focal point.

You could then arrange them by size, either staggering them in a zig-zag pattern, with the big ones on the bottom, or arranging them in a circle. You could have several big ones surrounding a few small ones, or you could put one big one in the middle, encircled by small ones.

There are many possibilities for creating a focal point when you have different sized objects to work with. You might even want to arrange them from smallest to largest and have them lead up to something altogether different, like a big piece of artwork or a decorative clock.

By seag47 — On Apr 26, 2012

I moved into my husband's house when we got married, and it really needs some redesigning. His walls are the main catastrophe. They are covered in photos, and they have absolutely no focal point.

He has so many 8x10 family photos, and they are arranged in two rows across the living room wall. Your eye doesn't get led anywhere, because everything is the same size.

How can I help this wall? I would love to give it a focal point, but with these photos, I don't know how that would be possible. I don't want to suggest taking them down, because I know that he treasures them.

By StarJo — On Apr 25, 2012

@OeKc05 – This reminds me a little of my college art professor. She absolutely hated when students made the focal point of their paintings in the very center of the canvas, and she would really scold us for this in front of everyone.

She said that every focal point in a painting should be at least slightly off-center. If we put it right in the middle, she said that a person's eyes would be so drawn to that point that they would ignore all other aspects of the painting. It would act as a kind of bullseye, with the viewers eyes landing on the target right in the middle.

I do agree with her that art looks better when the focal point is elsewhere, and it also helps if there is a secondary focal point to lead the eye around the painting. Sometimes, even a third focal point is good, because it lets the eye relax a little more as it travels to the background.

By OeKc05 — On Apr 25, 2012

My creative writing teacher really harped on focal points. He always said that even if your word choice and sentence structure was perfect and flowed beautifully, a piece of writing would be useless if it didn't have a focal point.

I think we all learned this the hard way. On the first day of class, he had us each compose a short story without telling us first how important it was to have a focal point. He was able to bash just about every piece because we didn't maintain focus.

At first, it was insulting to have my work criticized like this. However, I know see how right he was. My writing greatly improved because of his teaching methods, and now, I can't stand to read an article without a clear focal point.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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