16 Basic Design Principles & Elements You Must Know
Quality graphic design always follows basic design principles. But what are these, and how do you apply them? We explain it all for design beginners and clients!
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What are principles of design? What are design elements? We’re sharing some basic graphic design knowledge to help designers improve their work and clients make informed decisions about their graphics.
Graphic design is pretty much everywhere. Whether you are a small business owner, working in a startup, or marketing, you probably need design every day. Graphic design is an essential part of advertising and branding. If you are outsourcing or trying to DIY it, you may lack some knowledge of fundamental principles of design.
On the other hand, if you’re a self-taught graphic designer, you probably have some basic knowledge. But what are the principles of design that you absolutely must follow to deliver high-quality results?
Although different sources include additional ones, there are 16 elements and principles of design that must never be overlooked.
We’ll explain each of them in more detail.
We’ll start with design elements: the components that any design piece consists of.
While you may not always use all the elements (e.g., many designs don’t include typography), the absence of specific features should be an informed decision. So to understand how the elements are used (design principles), you must first grasp what they are.
Let’s start with the most basic of elements: the line. Lines, whether done with a brushstroke, a pen, or a digital drawing tablet, create a visual connection between the design elements, lead the eye in a particular direction and create a natural focal point.
Lines can be simple and non-invasive, and sometimes the main elements of a design (think of Art Deco geometric patterns)
The ad was created as part of a digital campaign in 2021. To support local businesses, Coke gave away $2.5 in Mastercard mobile credit that people could use at any restaurant that accepts card payments (preferably buying a Coke, of course!)
Here's an example to illustrate. Coca-Cola's script typography is instantly recognizable. Still, they decided to pair their iconic wordmark with some basic sans serif typography in this ad.
By Anastasia Azarenok via Behance
By Jeremiah Shaw via Behance
One area in which shapes can deliver a tremendous impact is 3D design. The following example shows how combining different forms (rigid and fluid; round and rectangular) creates a unique visual effect. What a great way to elevate data visualization to the next level!
And the change was both subtle and clever. Along with the change in name (which now bears only the more famous founding partner), the logo's color was also changed to match the new, digital era. A more muted shade of red adds a modern touch while still staying true to the brand's iconic visual identity.
A good grasp of color theory can be beneficial in branding design. Here's an illustrative example. The pioneer creative agency Ogilvy & Mather rebranded in 2018 after 70 years!
By Anna Vaiman via Behance
A striking example of where lines can be significant is the design of CTA buttons. A simple line in the form of a frame can drastically change the design and ensure that the CTA copy is more noticeable.
Color is one of the most noticeable components of graphic design. It can be the focal point, the background, used to manipulate depth and proximity, or add dynamic and playfulness.
Color (or the lack thereof) can completely change the way we perceive a design since different colors have different meanings and evoke certain emotions. Color theory and color psychology study the way we see and perceive color.
For example, your designer should know that blue evokes calmness, trustworthiness, and class. Red can bring out hunger, alert the viewer to make an action, or perhaps make them think it is dangerous to take that action if not used in the proper context.
Some superficial knowledge of color theory, allows you to judge whether or not a graphic designer took into account the emotional reaction that a design is supposed to evoke. Does it appeal to the right people with the right message?
You might think that this is an obvious entry; however, shape plays a vital role in the visual appeal of graphic design and in relaying a particular message and spirit.
For example, circles, ovals, and lines that are not straight аrе associated with organic, natural movement and objects that one can find in nature. Rectangles and sharp lines are never seen in nature. They make viewers think that something is concise, organized, and created by humans.
Using different shapes in various contexts, a graphic designer can convey different ideas to the viewer.
Although you can't always touch graphic design and don't feel the texture of a product with your fingers, this element still plays a significant role in the final look. Visual textures help distinguish an object from the background or add depth to an otherwise two-dimensional design.
Packaging design lends itself to the skillful use of texture. You can use this design element to create a sense of different textures without producing packaging from different materials. This simple soap packaging evokes the sense of a wet and soapy surface. Even more impressively, the graphic designer achieved the effect using only black and white.
Typography can make all the difference in graphic design. Different typefaces bring different qualities to the table. Designers need to decide on a font that bodes well with the overall creation, helps it be legible, and works well with the other elements.
Fonts can be sorted into many categories, but the basic ones are serif, sans serif, and script typography.
Generally speaking, sans serif fonts are more traditional, often providing an upscale feel. Sans serif fonts are used most widely in the business world and usually bring more legibility and a modern twist. Scripts can often feel romantic or playful, adding a more humanistic touch to designs.
But these generalizations are a bit like saying: "Italians are louder than Germans." On a very general level, perhaps. But, definitely not always.
So, the choice of fonts in graphic design needs to align with the branding identity, messaging, industry, and purpose of a particular piece of design.
What are the principles of design you need to know about?
Spotting design elements may not be all that difficult. But, making sure that these different elements work together is another thing entirely.
If you don’t know what are principles of design and how they are used in compelling graphic design, keep reading as we go through them one by one.
Pattern is the regular repetition of design elements in a specific way. It's different from repetition (see below), as repetition doesn't always create a pattern. Patterns always exist as an independent component, although they should fit together with the entire design.
Non-designers should be careful when using patterns as these can often make designs look too busy or jeopardize user-friendliness. However, patterns can add much visual interest and create a unique look and feel if used correctly.
There are two types of visual balance in graphic design: asymmetrical balance and symmetrical balance.
The principle of balance in design exists to ensure stability and structure. Every design element has its weight, so the designer has to balance them. It's important to know that weight doesn't equal size. For example, a small red circle can have more weight than a big white circle.
Balance can be either symmetrical or asymmetrical. Symmetrical balance is when the weight of all the elements is evenly divided into both sides of the design (left and right, up and down, diagonally), whereas asymmetrical uses scale, color, and contrast.
Proximity, or visual closeness between two objects, is achieved when the designer aligns elements so that the eye can perceive a connection or distance between them.
Proximity is mainly focused on the relationship between the elements. It can be achieved with different colors and textures, shapes, movement of lines, different scales, etc.
Hierarchy is a design principle that means arranging elements in a certain structure so that the viewer can absorb the information in a simple and comprehensive manner.
A graphic designer knows how to accentuate one element over another and dictate the visual focus and natural movement, leading the viewer's eye to the centerpiece.
They can achieve this either by putting extra visual weight on the critical elements with a different color, texture or putting them closer. Perhaps even by using completely different typography to help viewers focus on what they need to read or see.
The contrast principle in design creates a drastic difference between the two opposing design elements. It can be achieved with color: opposing elements in dark or cold colors versus strong, warm, and light elements.
Although some other principles (balance, hierarchy) are also fundamental principles in art, contrast is perhaps the most critical one in graphic design.
Unlike art, graphic design always needs to fulfill a specific purpose, and contrast is often the tool by which this is achieved.
Contrast also helps guide the eye of the viewer to some key elements. For example, CTA buttons on websites are usually created in a different color so viewers can spot them easily.
As of late, designers often create stark contrasts by playing with different styles, like contemporary versus old-fashioned, smooth versus rippled texture, etc. It's another clever hack to help your brand identity become distinctive.
Repetition is a movement principle in design that means the repeated use of design elements such as colors, shapes, lines, etc. It is significant for branding design since it helps viewers learn and remember the visual language and symbolism.
With the consistent use of colors, logos, symbols, imagery, and messaging, graphic design helps audiences recognize branding images and advertisements. In the long run, this leads to creating a brand image (how audiences perceive a brand) and builds brand recognition and loyalty.
Variety means adding elements that jump out of the image at you or are visually striking to ensure a design isn't monotonous and boring.
It might seem the complete opposite of balance and repetition, but adding unique and unseen elements in the design will keep the looks of a brand fresh and never boring.
Even corporate brands that have a decades-long history of enforcing the same branding and marketing image add new symbols, colors, and imagery once in a while. Launching a new product could be an excellent opportunity to experiment a bit and add more variety to your brand image (e.g., the black can of Coke Zero).
Emphasis is achieved when adding extra visual weight to a design's most crucial element or message. It can be done by using various techniques: larger or bolder fonts to highlight the title, putting the most important message higher or in front of the other elements, adding a hot color in a generally colder design, etc.
So you may be wondering what exactly the difference between emphasis and contrast is?
Simply put, while contrast often creates emphasis, it's not exclusively the case. A great example of emphasis made without stark contrast is underlined text. Or placing something in the center of the design.
The principle of proportion relates to adding visual weight and size of the elements in a design. It helps determine the relationships between the different elements and how they interact. This principle of design is also called scale.
You can use elements of a different size to create a focal point or highlight the importance.
Proportion is especially important in mobile UI/UX design. Scaling everything properly ensures that users have a pleasant mobile experience. And since half of the world's website traffic comes from mobile, you can see why proportion can be such a vital design principle to observe!
The space that is left blank is called negative or white space. It is the area between or around the elements.
If used creatively and effectively, it can create a shape around the elements (e.g., the hidden Arrow in the FedEx logo) or highlight parts of a design. It also gives some space to the design to breathe and help the viewer know what to focus on. It's crucial to add white space to the focal point of any design.
It's also one of the most vital principles of design when it comes to creating a positive user experience. Negative space allows users to take in vital information or absorb the general feeling.
Non-designers often think that a successful design is one where every pixel is used. But with too much going on, designs will always look oversaturated and fails to fulfill their intended purpose.
Extraordinary designers know that while you must observe the basic principles of design, there are also opportunities to break the rules.
This is called the principle of harmony or the principle of unity. Harmony (or unity) refers to the marriage of all the aforementioned elements and principles of design: how they all should be used at the right time in the correct measure.
It is easy to create a design by tying the elements together, but true skill is knowing when to leave your comfort zone and paint outside the lines. The principle of harmony should guide designers so that even when rules are broken, the design maintains visual unity.
Graphic design is often misunderstood as a matter of style preference. When assessing graphic design, it's essential to check whether the most vital design principles have been applied. This allows design clients to provide better feedback and vet out professional designers from the wannabes.
Of course, it takes more than reading a couple of blog articles and doing a course online to use the fundamental elements and principles of design well. Along with the theory, experience plays a vital role in helping designers deliver quality results.
If you want to work with vetted, professional designers without having to break the bank, look no further than ManyPixels!
With over 1.7 million design hours under our belt and thousands of happy clients served, our team can take care of all your design needs!
Having lived and studied in London and Berlin, I'm back in native Serbia, working remotely and writing short stories and plays in my free time. With previous experience in the nonprofit sector, I'm currently writing about the universal language of good graphic design. I make mix CDs and my playlists are almost exclusively 1960s.