The elements and principles of design are guidelines intended to organize the various components of a design. If you’re just starting out, or if you remember when you first began designing, you may have fallen into the trap of combining the multiple typefaces or colors that were eye-catching in an attempt to produce a fresh and innovative design. If this is the case, you’re certainly not alone. Without adhering to or understanding the elements and principles of design, you’re more likely to produce a muddled, unfinished, or just plain ugly design.
Following the elements and principles of design helps you create an effective composition that delivers a clear message to your audience. The essential elements and principles of design include emphasis, balance and alignment, contrast, repetition, proportion, movement, and white space.
Like any discipline, graphic design is built on rules that help you create an effective composition that delivers a clear message to your audience. If your design or process is lacking that balance, you will be left with a weak and ineffective design. Without the basic elements and principles of design that help users intuitively understand or connect with your message, you are at a huge disadvantage over your competitors. We’ll let you in on a little secret - the best designs are simple, consistent, and clean. In this article, we will define principles of design and the 6 crucial elements and principles of design so you can master the art of design.
What are the principles of design?
First things first, what are the principles of design? If you pull up Google and type in, “elements and principles of design”, you’ll come across endless articles that include anywhere from five to even a dozen individual design principles. Even articles that agree on the number of design principles don’t all necessarily agree on the design principles included in that list.
The 6 crucial elements and principles of design
Although there are arguably a dozen or more elements and principles of design that designers should keep in mind when working on their projects, we’ve narrowed down the top 6.
As with any design, there will be aspects of it that are intended to really stand out and catch the viewers attention. Emphasis then, refers to the most important information that the design is meant to convey. Before you even begin your design, ask yourself: what is the first piece and the most important piece of information the audience needs to know?
Emphasis is typically indicated by using contrast, color, shape or texture. It’s also often the point of focus. It often will break, or interrupt the flow of the composition in order to draw attention to it. Emphasis can also be used to deemphasize a certain aspect of the design, such as with “fine print”. Discrete and small typography that’s hidden away at the bottom of a page will carry far less weight than most other elements in a design.
With that in mind, construct a mental outline. Organize the information and then lay out your design in a way that communicates that hierarchy. Place the essential information at the center, make it the biggest element, or use the strongest, boldest type.
Balance is all about visual stability and our physical sense of balance. Bold or strong compositions achieve balance either symmetrically or asymmetrically, and help reconcile opposing forces. Symmetrical designs create balance by using elements and principles of design of equal weight on each side of an imaginary center line. Asymmetrical balance, on the other hand, uses elements of varying weights which are typically laid out in relation to an imaginary line elsewhere within the overall design. Asymmetrical designs tend to be bolder and can bring real visual interest and movement to your design.
Every element of a design either contributes or detracts from the balance. Keep in mind that every element carries its own visual weight, including typography, colors, images, sizes, textures, shapes, and patterns.
Some elements are heavy and catch the eye, while other elements are lighter. The way you choose to layout elements in your design should create a feeling of balance. Don’t crowd your design by placing a lot of heavy elements in one area of your composition, as it will throw off your balance and cause your audience to feel as if their eyes are sliding off the page.
Contrast is what really makes a design “pop.” When different elements in a design are more easily discernible from one another, that’s contrast. Contrast is an essential part of creating accessible designs. It is intended to draw the audience's attention clearly to an element, create space and difference between elements in your design, and above all, making a lasting impression. Poor contrast can cause your text to be difficult to read, for elements to blend together, and are often easily forgotten.
If you’re planning to use type to create a strong contrast, understanding contrast is essential as it means the weight and size of your type are balanced. How can your audience discern the most important aspect of your design if everything is in bold?
If you look up examples of strong, effective design, you’ll likely notice that most designs feature one or two typefaces at most. Why? Effective contrast are more often achieved with two strong fonts, sometimes even one strong typeface in different weights. As you add various fonts, you often run the risk of diluting your message and confusing the purpose of your design. Similarly, color is another effective way to create contrast. It’s important for your background to be significantly different from the color of your elements. This way, they work harmoniously together and any text used, is readable.
Another one of the top 6 crucial elements and principles of design is proportion. It is also one of the easier design principles to understand. It is the visual size and weight of elements in a composition, relating to size, color, quantity, or degree, and how they relate to each other.. To put it in the simplest terms, it’s the size of elements in relation to one another and signals that larger elements are more important, and smaller elements are less important.
It is achieved when all of the elements of your design are well-sized and thoughtfully placed. Good proportion adds unity, symmetry, or balance among the parts of a design. Once you’ve mastered the art of, balance, contrast, and emphasis, proportion often emerges organically. To start, it advisable to approach your design in sections, rather than as a whole. Grouping related items can give them importance at a smaller size, which can help with hierarchy.
The proportional differences between the tiny type and large images clearly delineates which elements are the most important on each of the wedding invitation mockups outlined below.
Movement refers to the way the eye travels over a design. When done well, your eye should naturally flow through a hierarchy of important elements seamlessly. Movement creates a story or the narrative of your work like sentences on a page leading the reader through the story. Each important element should lead to the next most important comfortably. The elements we’ve already covered, particularly balance, and contrast, will work in conjunction with movement to achieve your goal. It can often be achieved by using the principles of repetition, gradation, and alternation. Repetitions can be subtle elements at a foundational level, or they can be more boldly using distinct elements in a composition.
Without proper movement, your design might be confusing or unappealing. The best way to determine this is by taking a step back and viewing your design. Does it feel like your eye gets “stuck” anywhere on it? Is there an element that is too big, too bold, slightly off-center, or not a complementary color? It’s important to tweak these and adjust your design until everything is in harmony and there is a visual rhythm within the design.
Hierarchy and white space
The last of the top 6 crucial elements and principles of design may seem out of place as it is unlike the previous 5. While all of the above elements deal with what you add to your design, white space, also referred to as negative space, specifically deals with what you don’t add. White space is exactly as it sounds - the empty space around the elements in your composition.
White space may appear to be unimportant or a passive part of a design, but it’s an essential in the elements and principles of design. White space actively helps define the hierarchy and organization of your design. Our brains naturally equate luxury and importance to an element with ample white space around it. It signals to our eyes that objects in one region are purposefully grouped separately from objects elsewhere.
The way you balance your white space can make or break your design, especially in typography. Consider how each element or letter relates to each other, and give them the precise breathing room required.
White space, or negative space is part of your design so use it well! Space can make a huge impact and be a powerful tool that helps your viewer to navigate through your design. It can also be a place to rest the eyes. Finding the right ratio between positive and negative space allows you to create clean and effective designs.
Use it wisely and keep in mind that too much space will cause your design to look unfinished, while too little space will cause your design to seem too crowded.
Seamless designs with CloudApp
We get it, producing a design that effectively executes all of the elements and principles of design is easier said than done! Creating a powerful design isn’t easy, so fail fast, and iterate often. We believe that the time you take investing in creating a simple and clean design is well worth it. Don’t underestimate the power of design principles. With careful attention to the 6 essential elements and design principles, you will have the key to mastering the art of design.
At CloudApp, we offer our basic features for free. Take advantage of our online design tool. Whether you work in an office, or you do a lot of remote work, CloudApp is perfect for collaboration or sharing your work. Integrate it with other tools, such as Sketch, Adobe XD, Asana, and Slack for the ultimate internal communication tool.