One of the most difficult parts of talking about the principles of design is figuring out just how many principles there actually are? And once that’s been figured out, which of these supposed design fundamentals should be included?
Search for “principles of design”, and Google will return results for articles that include from five to more than a dozen individual principles. Even the articles that agree on the number don’t necessarily agree on which ones should be included in that number.
In reality, there are roughly a dozen basic principles of design that beginning and expert designers alike should keep in mind when working on their projects. In addition, there are another dozen or so “secondary” design principles that are sometimes included as basics (for example, the Gestalt Principles, typography, colour, and framing). The main design principles are explained and illustrated below.
Table of Contents
Basic Design Principles
As already mentioned, there is no real consensus in the design community about what the main principles of design actually are. That said, the following twelve principles are those mentioned most often in articles and books on the subject.
Balance is the arrangement of lines, colours, values, textures, forms, and space. There are three types of balance: formal or symmetrical or informal or asymmetrical and radial balance. Formal or symmetrical balance has equal weight on both sides. Informal or asymmetrical balance has a different weight on each side to maintain balance. Radial balance is a circular balance moving out from a central object to maintain balance.
Balance refers to the visual weight of the elements of the composition. It is a sense that the painting feels stable and “feels right.” Imbalance causes a feeling of discomfort in the viewer.
Balance can be achieved in 3 different ways:
- Symmetry, in which both sides of composition have the same elements in the same position, as in a mirror-image, or the two sides of a face.
- Asymmetry, in which the composition is balanced due to the contrast of any of the elements of art. For example, a large circle on one side of a composition might be balanced by a small square on the other side.
- Radial symmetry, in which elements are equally spaced around a central point, as in the spokes coming out of the hub of a bicycle tire.
Every element of design—typography, colours, images, shapes, patterns, etc.—carries a visual weight. Some elements are heavy and draw the eye, while other elements are lighter. The way these elements are laid out on a page should create a feeling of balance.
Emphasis is a way of bringing dominance and subordination into a design or painting. Major objects, shapes, or colours may dominate a picture by taking up more space or by being heavier in volume or by being darker in colour than the subordinate objects, shapes and colours. There must be a balance between the dominant and subordinate elements.
Emphasis is when the artist creates an area of the composition that is visually dominant and commands the viewer’s attention. This is often achieved by contrast.
The use of lines, colours, values, textures, forms and space to carry or direct the eye of the viewer from one part of the design or picture to other is called movement. Movement is created in art by the way the artist uses the elements of design. The arrangement of shapes generally creates movement.
Movement is the result of using the elements of art such that they move the viewer’s eye around and within the image. A sense of movement can be created by diagonal or curvy lines, either real or implied, by edges, by the illusion of space, by repetition, by energetic mark-making.
Variety and contrast
An artist uses elements of art to create diversity and differences in design. Contrasting colours, textures, and patterns all add interest to the artwork. Highlights of colour to the corners or edges of some shapes may be used to add contrast.
Variety in design is used to create visual interest. Without variety, a design can very quickly become monotonous, causing the user to lose interest. Variety can be created in a variety of ways, through colour, typography, images, shapes, and virtually any other design element.
However, variety for the sake of variety is pointless. Variety should reinforce the other elements of a design and be used alongside them to create a more interesting and aesthetically pleasing outcome that improves the user’s experience.
Proportion is one of the easier design principles to understand. Simply put, it’s the size of elements in relation to one another. Proportion signals what’s important in a design and what isn’t. Larger elements are more important, smaller elements less.
The size of one part of the artwork to its other parts is called proportion. Artists use a proportion to show emphasis, distance and use of space, and balance.
Contrast is the difference between elements of art in a composition, such that each element is made stronger in relation to the other. When placed next to each other, contrasting elements command the viewer’s attention. Areas of contrast are among the first places that a viewer’s eye is drawn. Contrast can be achieved by juxtapositions of any of the elements of art. Negative/Positive space is an example of contrast. Complementary colours placed side by side is an example of contrast. Notan is an example of contrast.
Just as larger elements are perceived as more important than smaller elements, bright colours usually draw greater attention than duller hues. For example, if a single sentence in a block of text is highlighted with a bright colour, it immediately grabs readers’ attention.
Consider the above design. Notice how it grabbed far greater attention when the natural tones were highlighted to neon colours? The colour scheme is known as a duotone, an increasingly-popular web-design trend. The effect, which layers a pair of contrasting colours over a photo, lends to striking designs that figuratively pop off the page or screen.
Dramatically contrasting colours can also emphasize specific elements than a spectrum on a more gentle scale. Placing a red object against a green or black background will draw more attention than the same red object on an orange or purple background.
The colour combinations used in a design, and how they relate to one another, are known as its colour scheme. A designer’s choice of colour scheme can create unity, harmony, rhythm and balance within creation, but it can also create contrast and emphasis.
A design that uses too many contrasting colours will often appear unorganized and incohesive. The same can sometimes be said of designs that use a colour scheme that doesn’t adhere to colour theory. But choosing the best palette involves so much more than randomly choosing a monochromatic, complementary or tetradic combination.
Similar colours can be used to group related elements in a design, and colour choice can even suggest weight and distance. Warmer colours, such as red and yellow, advance into the foreground of a design with a dark background, while cool colours such as blue or green usually recede into the background. The opposite occurs with a design over a light background: Cool colours such as blue and green appear closer than warm colours. It’s just how the human eye perceives it.
Therefore, colour choice can truly affect viewers’ ability to identify a figure from the background within a design. Mixing warm and cool colours can create depth, just like perspective.
Effective colour combinations rely not only on each hue’s position on the colour wheel but also its warmth and contrast with surrounding colours. Check out Visme’s tutorial on choosing impactful colour schemes.
Unity is the result of how all elements and principles work together. All parts must have some relation to each other. They must fit together to create the overall message and effect.
Unity/Variety You want your painting to feel unified such that all the elements fit together comfortably. Too much unity creates monotony; too much variety creates chaos. You need both. Ideally, you want areas of interest in your composition along with places for your eye to rest.
Everyone has seen a website or other design out there that seemed to just throw elements on a page with no regard for how they worked together. Newspaper ads that use ten different fonts come to mind almost immediately.
Unity refers to how well the elements of design work together. Visual elements should have clear relationships with each other in a design. Unity also helps ensure concepts are being communicated in a clear, cohesive fashion. Designs with good unity also appear to be more organized and of higher quality and authority than designs with poor unity.
Rhythm is created by movement implied through the repetition of elements of art in a non-uniform but organized way. It is related to a rhythm in music. Unlike pattern, which demands consistency, rhythm relies on variety.
The pattern is the uniform repetition of any of the elements of art or any combination thereof. Anything can be turned into a pattern through repetition. Some classic patterns are spirals, grids, weaves. For examples of different patterns, types see the Artlandia Glossary of Pattern Design. Popular drawing practice is Zentangles, in which an abstract or representational outline is divided into different areas, each of which contains a unique pattern.
Rule of space
One of the most basic tenets of visual composition deals with what you leave out of your design. According to the Rule of Space, an aesthetically-pleasing design requires its fair share of clutter-free negative space, often referred to as “white space,” regardless of the design’s actual background colour.
When arranging the elements of a composition, designers can use the space around the content to draw attention to particular elements—think of a single element on a blank page—or send an entirely separate visual message, such as the hidden “arrow” found within the famous FedEx logo.
Strategic spacing can even draw viewers’ eyes across the page in a targeted sequence by contributing to page-scanning patterns.
White space—also referred to as “negative space”— in the areas of a design that do not include any design elements. Space is, effectively, empty.
Many beginning designers feel the need to pack every pixel with some type of “design” and overlook the value of white space. But white space serves many important purposes in a design, foremost being giving elements of the design room to breathe. Negative space can also help highlight specific content or specific parts of a design.
It can also make elements of design easier to discern. This is why typography is more legible when upper and lowercase letters are used since negative space is more varied around lowercase letters, which allows people to interpret them more quickly.
Readers tend to scan pages based on particular patterns, observable through their eye movements. When designers want audiences to notice elements in a particular order, they often rely on the most common patterns.
Native English speakers, for example, read from left to right. Therefore, they typically present a similar scanning pattern when faced with a page of text. Arabic, on the other hand, is written from right to left. Those accustomed to reading that language are more likely to scan pages in this “opposite” direction. Designers should keep these differences in mind when creating content for global audiences.
The most common eye-movement pattern of English readers is the F pattern. Why? Because that’s precisely how we read a book, a letter or a web page. We scan the page from left to right along the top and again for each line of text until we reach the bottom of the page.
Because of this natural tendency, designers most often utilize the F pattern when composing websites and other illustrations that rely heavily on text. Because reading in some other direction is just uncomfortable when it’s not what we’re used to.
Designs that rely more on images are often composed in a Z pattern. Because the brain processes images faster than text, readers can scan the page by glancing across the top from left to right, then down the page in a diagonal fashion before completing the scan by again crossing left to right (or right to left if the audience typically reads in that direction).
Designers can emphasize certain elements of a composition by placing them along with this common “Z” eye-movement pattern. Think of a heading, an image and a subheading.
Hierarchy is another principle of design that directly relates to how well content can be processed by people using a website. It refers to the importance of elements within a design. The most important elements (or content) should appear to be the most important.
Hierarchy is most easily illustrated through the use of titles and headings in a design. The title of a page should be given the most importance, and therefore should be immediately recognizable as the most important element on a page. Headings and subheadings should be formatted in a way that shows their importance in relation to each other as well as with regard to the title and body copy.
Repetition is a great way to reinforce an idea. It’s also a great way to unify a design that brings together a lot of different elements. Repetition can be done in a number of ways: via repeating the same colours, typefaces, shapes, or other elements of a design.
This article, for example, uses repetition in the format of the headings. Each design principle is formatted the same as the others in this section, signalling to readers that they’re all of the equal importance and that they’re all related. Consistent headings unify these elements across the page.
What constitutes the “basic” principles of design is certainly up for debate. But understanding and implementing the principles covered above is vital to the success of any design project.
Designers should aim to understand how each of these design principles impact their work. Studying how other designers have implemented these ideas to structure their own designs is also an incredibly valuable tool in learning to create better designs.
It’s entirely possible to create a good design without a thorough understanding of these elements and principles of design. However, it’s typically done by “designer’s intuition”. It may take a lot of trial and error in order to create something that actually looks good and creates an optimal user experience. Designers could save a lot of time and energy by practising the principles we have discussed until they become second nature.