There is a set of fundamental principles in design that every designer should know about if they want to better understand their craft. Even the simplest looking designs come from hours of experience, training and consideration to make them as impactful and memorable as they are, and it all starts with the design principles.
These fundamental design principles relate to theories behind colour, shape, texture, and space, blending to convey a message.
This article will discuss some of the primary principles of design to help you gain a better understanding of how design should never be bound by rules, but rather acknowledge some best practices.
Every element in a design carries visual weight, and for the design to be pleasant to look at, it’s important to keep those weights balanced. Imagine your design as being a pair of scales – too many big and heavy elements on one side will cause unappealing lop-sidedness, which is something you want to avoid. There are of course exceptions, but balanced designs are typically best for captivating your audience’s attention.
Using symmetry is a reliable way to achieve balance, but there are a few other good ways too. Asymmetry works just as well as symmetry if done properly, and there’s even something called radial balance where elements are arranged in an ordered fashion around a focal point. How you create your balance is entirely up to you, it’s just important to make sure it’s there in one form or another.
Contrast relates to how you create and use differences in your design to make it more impactful – and we’re not just talking about colour here! Colour contrast can help your design pop so to speak, but other things like the density, size, and position of your elements can also be used effectively to create contrast.
Designs that look too plain and lifeless are boring, so getting some contrast in there will help with grabbing your audience’s attention. Just be careful not to overload your design with too many contrasting elements otherwise the desired effect will be lost, and you’ll just be left with something that’s too noisy and chaotic for an audience to fully absorb.
Eyes are naturally drawn to things that stand out, so Emphasis is all about taking advantage of this to centre your audience’s attention on one particular part of your design. The first thing you need to always ask yourself when considering what to emphasise is the most important information you’re trying to convey. Is it a text, illustration, an icon or even colour? Whatever it is, it needs to be presented in such a way that your audience’s attention is immediately drawn to it. This can be achieved in a few different ways.
One way is by using contrast, as mentioned above. Contrast is great for emphasizing two or more elements, through colour, size, texture etc.
Putting white space around a visual element is also an effective use of contrast, sometimes the most impactful design uses the ideology of “less is more”. When used properly, white space is fantastic for emphasising a visual element’s importance by giving it room to stand out among the rest of the design.
Hierarchy is a design principle that extends from emphasis, relating specifically to an order of significance. Consider you’re advertising a Taylor Swift concert through a poster design. What’s the major selling point? You’re going to want to put Taylor Swift’s name or image as the focal point that draws the eyes in over the venue name or ticket link correct? This is Visual Hierarchy.
Drawing attention to your design’s elements in a certain order is to convey a message through design and ensures you don’t lose your audience’s attention before you get your most important pieces of information across to them.
You can read more on visual hierarchy in our “6 Principles of Visual Hierarchy” article here.
When talking about scale, we’re not just talking about the size of visual elements; we’re talking about their size in relation to other elements. An ant is considered to be regular-sized when next to other ants, but compared to a person, it’s tiny. That’s what we mean when we talk about scale.
Scale is typically used in a visual design to create impact and draw your audience’s attention to a primary point of focus. Both emphasis and hierarchy utilise scale to get their desired effects, making it a crucial part of most visual design. Not only this, but scale can also be used to convey power, drama, and status, by making an element larger than life in proportion to its surroundings.
06. Repetition and variety
Repetition is great for creating unity within a design and keeping things ordered and pleasant to look at. As humans, we love familiarity, so using consistent repetition in a design can be a great way to draw attention.
Though repetition can be effective if done well, too much of it can also make a design feel lifeless and boring – two things you want to avoid at all costs. Therefore it is smart to introduce variety into the design, but having too many unique elements can also have a negative effect and cause chaotic and confusing design. Balance is key. By combining repetition and variety in a pleasant pattern, you can keep things interesting while providing your target audience with something easy to take in at the same time.
On the topic of repetition, let’s talk a little bit about rhythm. Rhythm as a design principle refers to how elements are spaced on a visual design, creating a pleasant flow that your audience can follow. Some examples of different types of rhythm are listed below:
- Regular rhythm: Elements are repeated at regular, predictable intervals e.g. a crosswalk.
- Flowing rhythm: Elements flow into each other in an irregular yet organic way e.g. zebra stripes and dunes.
- Random rhythm: Elements are repeated randomly, following no discernible pattern, much like raindrops.
- Progressive rhythm: Elements follow a gradually changing sequence e.g. a colour gradient
- Alternating Rhythm: Alternating rhythm is when two or more motifs are alternated throughout an artwork. There is an odd repetition so whilst there is familiarity between elements, there is variety through the alternating repetition, a bit like a chessboard.
By integrating rhythm into your design, you can help build a sense of consistency and familiarity, giving the viewer a more comprehensive message from the design.
The principle of movement refers not to the elements in a design moving, but rather to the path a viewer’s eyes take when looking over a design and taking in information. Using movement in your design helps you to tell a story, and it’s a fantastic way for keeping your audience engaged for the whole time that they’re looking over your design.
The use of lines or strong colour gradients is a great way to guide your audience’s gaze, but more subtle visual cues, like perspective, can also be used to get the desired effect more organically.
Unity is achieved by ensuring that all elements in a design are in agreement with each other. This doesn’t mean that variety should be thrown out the window though. A unified design does not lack variety, but rather one that has a balance of different elements without falling into chaos.
Colours should complement each other, visual weights should be carefully arranged, and the most important messages should be easily communicated. Visual Unity is the ultimate goal when creating a design, and applying the principles of design you have read about in this article will help when combining all the elements in your design to achieve visual unity.
There are many more different design principles out there with varying levels of importance and use, but one thing is for certain – understanding them will give you a great basis for delivering on any design project. Experts in the design field have adapted and refined these principles over many years, so you know you can rely on them.
The best part though is that even while following the design principles you still have so much room to be creative and express yourself or your brand. They’re only guidelines after all, and there are many ways in which they can be used together to create many different designs to effectively communicate a message. Every principle is just one part of a whole, and if you can use them together effectively to create something unified and captivating for your audience, then you’ve struck gold.
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