The 7 principles of design

Graphic design serves an important role in the way consumers interact with, perceive, and experience your brand, so it’s vital that you not only understand the practice but also embrace it within your business. Here’s the thing though: unless you’re familiar with the principles of design and how to use them correctly, then your graphic design efforts will fall short.

We’ve created this helpful guide to teach you everything you need to know about the seven principles of design, and how to utilize them.

Let’s get started…

What are the principles of design?

The principles or elements of visual design are a set of fundamental recommendations graphic designers adhere to create balanced, effective, and visually pleasing designs. They’re like a road map for graphic designers or anyone who finds themselves in the position of creating visual graphics. They help them keep on track and follow tried-and-tested design advice from those with immense wisdom and experience within the field.

It’s important to mention that with design principles, there are no hard-and-fast rules that must be followed under all circumstances. The trick to these design principles is that you must apply those that suit the specific project you are working on while taking into consideration factors such as what they are trying to achieve and the audience their work will be targeting.

The principles of design also address basic human behaviors and allow you to predict how users will likely react to your design. To apply them successfully to your graphic design work, you must first be able to:

  • Anticipate your target audience’s needs
  • Have a strong grasp of their specific pain points
  • Have a good eye for how your audience will accept your solutions in regards to the design

Elements and principles of design

Now let’s distinguish the elements vs. principles of design, as the two play vital, yet vastly different, roles within graphic design.

The elements of design can be likened to essential building blocks, which allow us to form a visual graphic. They are what visually make up a work of art, whether it be a painting, drawing, or digital design.

There are seven elements of design, and you’ll find many, if not all, of these in any piece of visual work:

  1. Line: a long and thin mark, and a group of visual elements arranged in a row
  2. Shape: the form of an object, including its outline or outer boundary
  3. Direction: all visual elements, particularly lines, can have direction categorized as horizontal, vertical, or oblique, depending on the way in which they invite the viewer to move their eyes
  4. Size: a visual element’s proportions, particularly in relation to the area it occupies or the other visual elements surrounding it
  5. Texture: the physical or perceived feel, appearance, or consistency of a visual element’s surface
  6. Color: the aspect of any object that may be described in terms of hue, lightness, and saturation
  7. Value / Tone: the lightness or darkness of a color

We talked a lot about the principles of design previously, but they can be distinguished from the elements of design in one major way: They are what we do to the elements of design to aim to create a successful piece of visual work.

In other words, they are a set of guidelines encouraging us to use these elements in certain ways, to increase our likelihood of a successful design.

The 7 principles of design

There are seven fundamental principles of design, which are significant across the industry:

  1. Emphasis: placing importance, prominence, or value on specific design elements
  2. Balance: ensures the design and its elements has an even distribution in regards to position and weight
  3. Contrast: to make an element strikingly different from others within the design, therefore giving it importance
  4. Repetition: recurring design elements, either to create a motif or pattern within the design
  5. Proportion: the comparative relationship between elements in relation to their size and alignment
  6. Movement: in design, this relates to how the viewer is encouraged to visually scan the design and in what direction their eyes move
  7. White space: the blank area of the design that doesn’t contain text or graphic

Let’s go into more details through these 7 basic principles of design

#1. Emphasis

  • First ask yourself: What is the most vital piece of information your audience needs to know? This should have the most emphasis placed on it in the design.
  • Create an outline of the design in your mind, allowing your brain to organize the information in the hierarchical way it sees fit.
  • Based on this mental design, layout your graphic design to visually convey this order.
  • For the information you wish to emphasize the most, consider utilizing elements of design such as placing it in the center, making it the largest component of the design, using a bold and eye-catching font, or using an attention-grabbing or contrasting color.

#2. Balance

  • Keep in mind that each individual design element placed within your piece carries its own weight, whether it be in the form of size, color, texture, or more.
  • To keep your design balanced, don’t cram all of the design elements in one area, but rather, space them out in a way that is pleasing to the eye.
  • Utilize symmetry to create a design that features equally weighted design elements that are in alignment with each other.
  • Alternatively, embrace asymmetrical design by grouping elements with contrasting weights, such as one large piece of text with multiple smaller pieces of text. While it isn’t symmetrical, it still has balance.

#3. Contrast

  • Contrast allows a design element to ‘jump off the page’ and is best used for parts of the design you wish to remain memorable.
  • Contrast also creates a difference between elements, which can give them the space they need to ‘breathe.’
  • The background color of your design should vary greatly from the colors of the rest of the elements, as this creates the necessary contrast to ensure the text and graphics are legible.
  • Contrast is most vital to text, as it allows you to signal which pieces of information are the most important to the viewer. This text might be larger, bold, or a different color, for example.
  • Contrast among the text is most successful when only one or two different, yet complementary, typefaces are used within the design. You might also consider using a single typeface but in two different weights.

#4. Repetition

  • Repetition of design elements, such as one or two typefaces or no more than three strong colors shouldn’t be seen as boring, but rather, unifying and strengthening to the overall design.
  • Random design choices, such as having a single piece of text in a color not seen anywhere else in the design, can seem like an error as if it is out of place.
  • Repetition creates a motif, and therefore, puts you in control of the design and what you are conveying to your audience.
  • The pattern is a great way to incorporate repetition in your design and currently, beautifully illustrated patterns, are on-trend.
  • Brand identity is another example where repetition in graphic design is necessary. This includes placing your logo on your website, business cards, social media profiles, and more. Additionally, your product packaging design should be repeated across your offering to strengthen your brand identity.

#5. Proportion

  • To get the proportion of your design right, it’s helpful to look at the design in sections, rather than as a whole. Then, determine if each part is balanced on a smaller scale.
  • When you group smaller, yet related elements together, you can give them importance based on their relationship with their surrounding elements. An example would include ticket information on a concert poster, which is often placed inside of a small box at the bottom of the design.
  • Proportion can be hard to master, as all of the elements of the design must be sized perfectly and set out in a way that is visually pleasing. By mastering principles including contrast, balance, and alignment, however, proportion should naturally be achieved.

#6. Movement

  • The positioning of your design elements can create a sense of movement, deliberately guiding the viewer’s eye from one piece of information to the next in the order of importance.
  • Movement is important in this manner, as it creates the narrative of your design.
  • To determine if you have successfully utilized movement in your design, glance at it as a whole to determine if your eyes are drawn to a single element, particularly those that are too large, too bold, not in proper alignment, or in a color that doesn’t match the rest of the color palette.
  • Adjust any element that doesn’t feel right until you finally achieve the level of harmony desired.

#7. White space

  • Since white space is negative space, it encourages you to look at where you haven’t added elements to the design. In other words, it’s the empty spaces within the design, and is vital for giving your design elements ‘room to breathe.’
  • Use white space to create hierarchy and organize your design successfully. A significant amount of white space around an element tells the viewer it is important.
  • White space can also be used to group similar elements together, therefore communicating to the viewer that they’re related.
  • Finally, white space can be used to create a different image or convey a different message entirely, when used creatively.

While learning how to use the principles of design can go a long way in helping you create successful graphics, they should by no means be seen as rules, but rather, guidelines. After all, some of the most effective and memorable designs have deliberately ignored or broken some of these design principle recommendations.

The trick to manipulating these design principles in a way you see fit is to always ensure the most important information is being communicated in your design, above all else. You should view the principles of design as many moving parts that are combined to successfully tell a narrative. It is only once you are familiar with them and how they work, that you will be able to stray from this advice to create your own signature design style.

More specific principles of design can vary depending on the type of design being carried out, such as UX design, web design, or logo design just as an example, and this is what we are going to discover now within the next paragraphs of this guide.

Other principles of design

Hierarchy

Sticking to a hierarchy ensures your information is organized in a cohesive way, which is why mapping out your process in this method is so crucial. A good example of this is the navigation bar that is often found on websites. These feature the main sections of a website and show the primary hierarchy. Visual hierarchy has a similar purpose of organizing your design in a way that flows and features important information in a seamless way. By adhering to these hierarchies, the website flows and makes sense for its user.

Highlight and show importance to certain elements by giving them visual hierarchy. By giving the element extra visual weight, it draws the audience towards this particular detail and conveys that it is important. This can be done through bold text or enlarging the image.

Typography

Font style, appearance, and structure are key components of typography. Being able to create a seamless type that has character and is unique to your brand identity can sometimes be all you need to convey the concepts that drive your brand.

Create balance with typography. With the approach of keeping everything simple, remember that typography can really enhance a user’s experience. Having a good selection of typography can balance out your design and create a more readable interface.

The information you are providing through your website is crucial, so make sure your typography is readable and accessible for everyone. The text on your website also contributes to SEO, which is responsible for drawing your audience in.

Alignment

Alignment draws visual connections and brings together all of the elements that make up your design. Thoughtful and intentional alignment organizes the multitude of texts and images that make up your design in a cohesive way.

Framing

Visual framing which is commonly used in photography and cinematography refers to how the primary subject of a design lay down in relation to the main object.

Gestalt Principles

The Gestalt Principles include figure-ground, similarity, proximity, common region, continuity, closure, focal point.

Conclusion

Armed with this knowledge about the all-important principles of design, you now know not only what successful designs must contain, but also how to implement these in a way that will take your business to a whole new level. Even if graphic design isn’t your forte, take comfort in the fact that you can still hire an independent contractor with immense graphic design experience to assist you and your business to succeed. 

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Daniel

Daniel

Contributor @samcx.com. Passionate about everything Sales, Marketing and Account Management.

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