If you are a design amateur and need a basic understanding of how to judge whether or not the graphics produced for your needs are good, here are the 15 basic design principles that will help you distinguish good design.
Graphic design is pretty much everywhere. Whether you are a small business owner, working in a startup or in marketing, you probably need design done every day. Graphic design is an important part of advertising and branding, and if you are outsourcing or trying to DIY it, you may lack some knowledge of fundamental principles of design.
This simple checklist will give you an idea of what are the most important elements and principles of graphic design so that you can have a qualitative criteria system to rate your designers’ work. “I don’t like it” and “It just doesn’t work for me” are never good, constructive criticisms, so this will help you relay good feedback and improve the working relationship with your design team.
Let’s start with the most basic of elements: the line. Lines, whether done with a brushstroke, a pen, or digital drawing tablet, are the key elements that create a visual connection between the design elements, as well as lead the eye in a certain direction and create a natural focal point on certain objects.
Lines can be simple and non-invasive, but also sometimes the main elements of a design (think of Art Deco geometric patterns).
A good designer will know what kind of line and in which measure and direction will create a well structured and balanced overall design.
Color is one of the most noticeable, important and obvious components of graphic design. It can be the focal point, the background, used to manipulate depth and proximity, or simply add dynamic and playfulness to the design.
Color, and also the lack of it, can completely change the way we perceive a certain design, since different colors have different meanings, as well as evoke certain emotions. Color theory and color psychology are studying the way we see and perceive color, and designers also know how to utilize each and every color as a strong element in their creations.
For example, your designer should know that blue evokes calmness, trustworthiness and class. Red can bring out hunger, alert the viewer on making an action, or perhaps make them think that it is dangerous to take that action if not used in the right context.
Through some superficial knowledge of color theory, you can easily learn how to judge whether or not the graphic design you are supplied has in mind the emotional reaction to that color, and hence, does it answer the needs of it? Does it appeal to the right people with the right message?
You might think that this is an obvious entry in a list about the most important principles of visual arts, but shape plays a vital role not only in the visual appeal of graphic design but also in relaying a particular message and spirit in it.
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, and they make viewers think that something is concise, organized and made by humans.
By the use of different shapes in different contexts, a graphic designer will be able to convey a different idea to the viewer.
Although you don’t touch graphic design and don’t feel the texture of a product with your fingers, this element still plays a great role in the final look. Visual textures help you distinguish an object from a different background, or add depth to an otherwise two-dimensional design.
Typography can make all the difference in graphic design. Different typefaces bring different qualities to the table, and designers need to decide on a font that bodes well with the overall creation but also helps it be legible and fit well with the other elements. Fonts can be sorted into many categories, but the basic ones are serif, sans serif and script typography.
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In graphic design, the final look needs to be well aligned with the branding identity, messaging, industry and even current policies of the brand. The image audiences see forms a subconscious picture in their head that a company is friendly, youthful, corporate, trustworthy, traditional… Anything the company itself wants to position as and showcase, a graphic designer will know how to translate into visual branding.
Another important reason why typography cannot be overlooked as a basic instrument in creating graphic design is that it helps form an instantaneous first impression. If you see a classy serif font, you think a company is traditional, proven to be successful, classy. If you see Comic Sans on a product… would you buy it? Probably not.
There are two types of visual balance in graphic design: asymmetrical balance and symmetrical balance.
The principle of balance exists to ensure stability and structure to the design. Every design element has its own weight, so the designer has to balance them out. 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 in a way that the eye can perceive a certain connection or distance between them.
Proximity is mostly focused on the relationship between the elements and can be achieved with different colors and textures, shapes, movement of lines, different scales, etc.
Hierarchy is a 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 put the visual focus and natural movement, so it leads the viewer’s eye to the centerpiece. They can achieve this either by putting extra visual weight to the important elements with a much different color, different texture or putting them closer, perhaps even using completely different typography to help the viewer focus on what they need to read.
Contrast means a drastic difference between the two opposing design elements. It can be achieved with color, where opposing elements can be designed in dark or cold colors versus strong, warm and light elements.
Another way to achieve contrast is to have some elements small and others very big, in which case the balance will again be achieved with colors and shapes.
As of late, designers often create stark contrasts through playing with different styles, like contemporary versus old-fashioned, or a smooth versus rippled texture, etc.
Contrast also helps guide the eye of the viewer to some key elements.
Repetition is a fundamental design element, especially when it comes to branding. This principle helps the viewer learn the style and recognize the visual language and symbolism.
Through a predetermined usage of colors, logos, symbols, imagery and messaging, graphic design helps branding images and advertisements be easily recognizable by audiences, hence helping brands achieve loyalty, recognition and memorability.
Variety means adding different elements that jump out of the usual 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 certain 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, which allows their graphic design to stay fresh, noticeable and trendy.
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Emphasis is achieved when we add extra visual weight to the most important element or message in a design. It can be achieved by using various techniques: larger or bolder fonts to highlight the title, putting the most important message higher or in front of the rest of the elements, adding a hot color in a generally colder design to the most important part of the text, etc.
The principle of proportion relates to adding visual weight and size of the elements in a design, conditioning how they interact with each other. Proportion is also called scale.
You can use elements of a different size to create a focal point or highlight the importance of each element to the overall composition. Using elements of different sizes creates a point of focus and visual proximity.
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 or highlight the important elements in a design. It is also needed to give some space to the design to breathe and the eye of the viewer to know what to focus on.
Designers who have studied design theory are aware that white space is needed to give your design elegance and good user experience. It is also crucial to add white space around the focal point of the design; otherwise, the viewer’s eye doesn’t know what to focus on, and it massively improves readability.
But non-designers often want every single pixel of a design to be effectively used, hence oversaturating and drowning the design completely. A good designer should know how to use the white space and create a natural, free space around the design elements.
The true talent of great designers will be shown when they manage to produce a creation through respecting all of the basic principles but also ignoring the conventions and rules when they see they can do something great with it.
It is easy to create design by tying together elements, but true knowledge is needed to know how to make it all work together. Sometimes, a designer needs to pace themselves, and sometimes they need to encourage themselves to go out of their comfort zone and paint around the lines.
Harmony refers to the marriage of all the aforementioned design principles, about how they all should be used at the right time in the right dose.
Graphic design is often misunderstood to be a simple craft or simply the presence of an artistic talent that can be manifested digitally.
However, there are many learnings, rules and conventions that have formulated graphic design as it is today. It takes more than reading a couple of blog articles and doing a course online.
If you need quality, but affordable graphic design, here at ManyPixels we can take care of all your needs. With more than 30 designers in our team and internal quality assurance, you won’t need to learn about graphic design yourself.