The ELEMENTS and PRINCIPLES of DESIGN
Updated: Jan 21, 2019
Design is a formal response to a strategic question. - Mariona Lopez
To better or further understand Graphic Design, it is important to be conscious of the elements and principles that make up design, including; colour, line, shape, texture, space, form, and size. Used in conjunction or opposition with each other, can create visually striking and impactful designs, as well as the principals of design; balance, emphasis, movement, pattern, repetition, proportion, rhythm, variety and unity.
Consider the KISS principle, making designs sparse and simple, so the design elements are few to convey the intended message. A design cluttered with too many elements may confuse or overwhelm the reader, therefore consider:
limiting the amount of images used,
use white space (said to be more pleasant to read and better attract attention),
use colour sparingly (too much colour can be counterproductive),
ensure the colour palette is consistent and reflective of the brand and mood,
limit the use of font styles (i.e. one typeface and size for body copy, and one typeface for headlines),
clear, comprehensible copy, short rather than long sentences, avoiding jargon and clichés, as well as vocabulary appropriate for the audience you are trying to reach.
Alignment refers to how text and graphics are placed on the page. Alignment creates order, organizes page elements, indicates groups of items, and emphasizes visual connection. Interestingly, good alignment is rarely noticed by the reader, while misalignment is immediately detected. Alignment can be either edge and centre. Edges can be aligned along the top, bottom, left or right, centre or horizontal or vertical. Therefore, each element (text, graphics, photographs) has a visual alignment with another item.
Proximity describes the distance between individual design elements. Close proximity implies a relationship between the elements; conversely, lack of proximity separates them. Like alignment, proximity is a tool of visual organization, and when placing elements in close proximity, unifies them and communicates a sense of order and organization or by the unity between two elements using a third element to connect them.
Contrast adds interest as well as organization to the page and is created when two elements are different including varying size, colour, thickness, shape, style or space. The greater the difference between elements, the greater the contrast. Besides adding interest to the page, contrast can be used to direct the reader around the page and to emphasize importance or differences. Contrast is only effective when it is evident.
Repetition brings visual consistency to page design and when the same design elements - such as uniform size and weight of headline fonts or use of initial caps to begin a chapter are used, it becomes clear that the pages are related to each other and part of the same document. Essentially, repetition creates unity.
Design brings content into focus; design makes function visible. - Jennifer Morla
The Elements of Design
Lines: Straight, curved, wavy, thick, thin - when it comes to lines, the possibilities are limitless. Lines allow designs to divide a space or separate content in a layout. They can also be used to guide the eyes of the viewer, or make other elements follow a strategic path for added find-ability, to get the viewer easily from point A to point B.
Shapes: Shapes offer a variety of ways to fill spaces creatively, to support text and other forms of content, and to balance a design. Shapes can be created out of nothing, using white space to give a design structure and clarity.
Colour: Colour, or the absence of colour, is an important element of any design. With a solid understanding of colour theory, designs can amazingly influence a design and a brand, seamlessly integrating colour boldly or with brilliant subtlety. See more about Colour Theory and Psychology here.
Type: Type can transform a message from mere text to a work of art. Different fonts, combined with customized alignments, spacing, size, and colour, can add power to the point you are communicating to the world.
Texture: Even a smooth and glossy advertisement can seem tangible with texture. It gives a sense of a tactile surface through its visual appearance and adds a sense of depth, enhanced by selection of appropriate background, overlay, paper and material.
Graphic Design is the fiction that anticipates the fact. - Michael Bierut
The Principles of Design
Balance is the distribution of the visual weight of objects, colours, texture, and space. Think of it as if the design was a scale. These elements should be balanced to make the design feel stable. In symmetrical balance, the elements used on one side of the design are similar to those on the other side; in asymmetrical balance, the sides are different but still look balanced. In radial balance, the elements are arranged around a central point and may be similar.
Emphasis is the part of the design that catches the viewer’s attention. Usually the artist will make one area stand out by contrasting it with other areas. The area could be different in size, colour, texture, shape, etc.
Movement is the path the viewer’s eye takes through the work of art, often to focal areas. Such movement can be directed along lines, edges, shape, and colour within the work of art.
Pattern is the repeating of an object or symbol all over the work of art.
Repetition works with pattern to make the work of art seem active. The repetition of elements within a design creates unity within the work of art.
Proportion is the feeling of unity created when all parts (sizes, amounts, or number) relate well with each other.
Rhythm is created when one or more elements of design are used repeatedly to create a feeling of organized movement. Rhythm creates a mood like music or dancing. To keep rhythm exciting and active, variety is essential.
Variety is the use of several elements of design to hold the viewer’s attention and to guide the viewer’s eye through and around the work of art.
Unity is the feeling of harmony between all parts of the work of art, which creates a sense of completeness in the overall composition.
Design is in everything… but it’s also between those things; it’s a mix of craft, science, storytelling, propaganda and philosophy. - Erik Adigard
In summary, whether your task involves the design of a brochure, display ad, or newsletter, the purpose is the same: to communicate a message to an audience and produce a desired response. Therefore, the “design” is not just about appearance—it is also about the wanted or expected performance of the target audience, measured by form and function.