The Principles of Design: A Beginner’s Guide

The Principles of Design: A Beginner’s Guide main article image
Posted on September 17, 2021 by Zeldi Smulders
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You might wonder if this is relevant for you, and the answer is most likely yes. If you are a design learner, a graphics designer, or any other type of designer or crafter (no matter the level), you will work with basic designing; therefore, you ought to learn about principles of visual design. Follow along to get clarification of design principles and their uses. 

Apart from the explained theoretical information of principles of graphic design, you will find:

  • what designers should know about each one of the principles
  • distinctive images for each principle to help you understand and remember the basics of design
  • an explanation of how these basic design principles are applied to designs.

Discover the Principles of Design: A Beginner’s Guide!

Table of Contents

– What are the principles of design?

-Why are the principles of design important?

-List of design principles
12 principles of design:

  1. Contrast
  2. Repetition
  3. Alignment
  4. Proximity
  5. Rhythm
  6. Balance
  7. Emphasis
  8. Harmony
  9. Unity
  10. Hierarchy
  11. Movement
  12. Proportion

-What is the most important principle of design?

-Using the elements and principles in design

What are the Principles of Design?

A principle is a way something is done and this meaning pulls through to the world of design. In other words, you can know how to use design elements by following certain guidelines (or principles). While some of the principles appear to be much the same, there are slight variations that are worth noting. Doing so can also help you find the one that’s best suited to your challenge. But more on that later.

In order to define the principles of design, you first need to know about the elements of design. So, if you haven’t heard of them yet, now is a good time to find out more about them. Design is defined as a plan and that is exactly how design principles work – they allow you to have a plan when it comes to what you are doing and how you are doing it.

Why are the Principles of Design Important?

Much like the importance of knowing about the elements of visual design, the principles of design are important because they simply make your design better.

Let’s say you find a design-related problem and don’t know how to solve it. You can refer to the relevant principles of design definition covered below and gain more knowledge that allows you to do some troubleshooting. That’s a good place to start. When you want to become more advanced, you can build a style guide or create a design system to aid design optimizations – anything from ads to a website’s UI components.

With this knowledge at your disposal, there’s no reason why you can’t put together something for your business that can be compared to the design principles of famous brands.

Start improving your designs today by learning about these principles:

12 Principles of Design:

A wall showing contrast through the rough and smooth areas

Photo by Natalia Y on Unsplash 

1. Contrast

What it is

Contrast is found when there is a dissimilarity between two ‘rival’ design elements. The principle is applied by placing two different elements close to each other in a way that underlines the differences.

Although contrast can be compared to the design principle emphasis, there is still a notable twist. Where emphasis makes one element stand out more than the rest, contrast makes more than one element stand out but in different ways. Although, contrast can still determine which one is focused on first.

It is the differences that make the elements distinguishable. This can also be seen in the well-known figure-ground perception.

How to use it

A simple way to use contrast is by comparing light to dark or big to small, but there are many more ways this can be implemented, for e.g. varying directions or textures. You will also invite some diversity to the design while controlling which elements you want to have in the spotlight.

Contrast can make the viewer curious about what’s being communicated visually but you will leave the viewer unsatisfied if you miss one important use of contrast – making elements comprehensible. When overused, especially if it can be seen all over a design, contrast can demolish the idea that the design elements form part of a bigger picture. Basically, it distracts the viewer. So, unless that’s what you’re going for, take the time to plan the zone where you want contrast to be used to its full potential and avoid using it anywhere else. 

A building showing repetition through the shapes used in its design

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

2. Repetition

What it is

Repetition involves using elements that are the same (or almost the same) throughout a design. Using regular or irregular patterns, repetition has the role of strengthening your design by making it appear more dynamic. At the same time, it can also tie everything together.

How to use it

In a scenario where there is a collection of related designs (like in branding), repetition can help make the brand or idea identifiable. It’s also not too difficult to incorporate repetition as it can be as simple as adding a logo or using the same background again. Another example of what might be done is selecting a colour palette and finding ways to use it throughout your artwork. 

Try to add variety if your design starts looking monotonous. Even if it is a slight variation (which is often seen in nature), it can make repeated elements more captivating. That is because you are less likely to take everything in and comprehend it effortlessly when there are differences between them for you to notice and reflect on. Essentially, this method improves the engagement level of the viewer. 

Keep in mind that repetition can also create patterns. The type of repetition to use depends on what you want to do with the design as this form of repetition where you use the exact same elements can be a point of comfort for the viewer as opposed to making them think more.

A design including toast slices that align with each other

Photo by Amy Shamblen on Unsplash

3. Alignment

What it is

With the principle of alignment, elements are arranged to form a straight line. You can align blocks of texts to images, or images to shapes, for instance. They can be aligned in relation to each other, or the entire page, like centering a heading. The elements have an agreeable association with each other and thus it leads to a well define or distinct look for the design.

How to use it

When done right, alignment ensures a smooth visual link between the design elements. It provides structure, whether it be for shapes, images, or text. A handy tip in getting the alignment right (and avoiding the disorder a lack of alignment creates) is being consistent. Make use of the invisible line certain elements create or look at the white space to determine if alignment has been applied correctly.

A design showing proximity through the grouping of robotic pieces

Image by MMT from Pixabay 

4. Proximity

What it is

With this principle, the idea of a united collection comes about when elements are seen in nearness or close proximity. This is because proximity assists in establishing a link between elements that are connected to each other, and arranging them with that plan in mind. Proximity can also be recognized as one of the Gestalt principles.

How to use it

The goal of proximity is to group similar things and so contribute to how the design is understood by simplifying it. Grouping can be done by using things like size, colour, or visual space. An easy example of where it is used is when you make a list. The rule of thumb is that if the elements are associated with each other they should be assembled but if not, they should be parted.

A design that shows rhythm through the repeated use of shape design elements

Image by ML Santander from Pixabay 

5. Rhythm

What it is

When a design makes use of one or more design elements over and over again, and it then also generates structured movement, it has rhythm. This will determine how your eyes move when looking at the design.

How to use it

Rhythm can determine the feeling that your design projects. If you want to create excitement and movement, the key is to stay away from sameness, and vice versa. Elements that are used repeatedly are what creates rhythm. They should be used strategically to guide the eye movement of the viewer in a favourable way.

A balanced design of stacks of rocks with different colours and a contrasting background

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay 

6. Balance

What it is

Usually, when you talk about balance you are referring to the distribution of weight. The same idea applies to this design principle as it revolves around visual weight and what needs to be done to make your design more steady.

There are two ways to define balance – symmetrical and asymmetrical – and they both revolve around an axis. The first is when elements that are alike are used on both sides of the design. The latter encompasses elements that are dissimilar but are nevertheless balanced in appearance. 

How to use it

You might think that balance means that the elements should be mirror-like or dispersed in equal values, but this is not necessarily the case. The axis can for instance be assigned to an off-centre position. Then, some factors can make an element seem ‘heavier’ by making it larger or darker. And so, asymmetrical balance is often supported by applying contrast and finding balance in that.

However, if you are going for a more conventional or uniform style, then symmetrical might be the best choice for you because the viewer will not find anything too unpredictable. Even still, you might need to scrutinize the design to see where you can switch it up so that you don’t lose the viewer’s attention.

In balance, one element is not overwhelmed by another. Rather, it gives the impression that the elements on either side of the design are equally important. This results in a sense of reliability and order, and the viewer will find this easier to digest. 

A yellow line that is emphasized by its distinctive colour

Image by Hebi B. from Pixabay 

7. Emphasis

What it is

Emphasis highlights the significance of a specific element in an artwork. In doing so, it makes sure the observer will notice that chosen element. 

How to use it

With emphasis, the idea is to attract attention and this is done by showing a striking separation in terms of factors like colour, size, texture, patterns, or shape in design. Alternatively, the placement of the elements can also create emphasis as it will create a focal point. Notably, the viewer will be unclear on the intention of the design if unintended areas are emphasized.

A harmonious group of trees that work together to complete a picture of its own

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

8. Harmony

What it is

Harmony uses allied elements or elements that are alike together to create something that is pleasing to the eye. This is done so that the viewer knows that the elements used belong together. In other words, these elements are set out so as to give the impression that all the pieces are part of a complete picture. 

How to use it

Think of adjacent colours, or shapes and textures that are alike – they are the ones to use. Harmony makes the viewer feel at ease because the design consists of elements that belong to the same theme or mood. Yet, if you exclude principles like contrast, harmony can become boring and that is why there is a place for both principles. Still, being subtle can be better in a lot of cases.

A sign where unity is displayed in the repeated use of world in the same style

Photo by Gary Butterfield on Unsplash

9. Unity

What it is

Looking at it from a visual and conceptual perspective, it is a feeling that everything that should be there is there, and you can find it exactly where it should be. There can be unity in one design or unity between different designs. Of course, unity and harmony can be confused. Unity creates harmony but harmony does not necessarily institute unity (which is more closely related to repetition).

How to use it

Unity works hand-in-hand with proximity, alignment, and repetition. This principle cannot be applied to each design element on its own. Since it is concerned with the union, it is more applicable when it comes to the joined effect of all the elements. Think of how elements are connected visually. As with other cases, variation is good, but too much will distract from the idea of wholeness. 

Pieces of different colours showing visual hierarchy

Image by Gaby Stein from Pixabay 

10. Hierarchy

What it is

This principle points to the chief ideas or elements found in a design to create a visual hierarchy from most important to least important. These highlighted elements are usually more distinct and that is why they get noticed on a conscious or unconscious level.

How to use it

Hierarchy is often used when there are many elements present in a design, and there are some things that need to stand out more than others. Remember, if everything’s made to stand out, you might find that nothing stands out and it’s just a little overwhelming.

Firstly, you need to determine what’s more important, e.g. a heading. A simple solution to create hierarchy would be to make use of larger or more striking fonts, while other methods involve using shapes, colours, size, or even just looking at where you place the element. This will help the viewer know how to go through your design.

Showing a piece to someone else can help you determine if you applied this principle successfully because they can let you know what they noticed first. 

Lines on a road showing movement and leading to a focal point

Photo by Anders Jildén on Unsplash

11. Movement

What it is

This principle creates a line for the viewer’s eyes to move in as they look at a design. A lot of times it leads to a focal point in the piece. There is usually a particular direction or a visual course to follow and the designer can attempt to steer it with the elements they use.

How to use it

You can use elements like lines, shapes, or colours in various forms (often repeated) to achieve this. Some designers even make use of blur effects to display this principle.

Your design can be dynamic or static and this will determine the optical movement. Consider where the innate eye motions will take place. Two common lines of movement for the eyes are the Z- and F-pattern.

Showing proportion by displaying the sizes of doorways together with a human figure

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

12. Proportion

What it is

With this principle, pieces are joined as a whole when the different bits work well together. Proportion is applied by scaling elements in relation to each other, like drawing a human figure and making sure the size of the neck matches the size of the rest of the body. It works by comparing the pieces of a whole with each other and determining their relative dimensions.

How to use it

Proportion is implemented by looking at certain relevant factors that have an influence on the whole, like the size or number of elements. It works with the different connected elements, which are also the pieces that create the bigger picture. Keeping in mind how the elements relate to each other, a great variation in proportion can make smaller elements disappear and in the same way, larger elements will be more striking.

What is the Most Important Principle of Design?

Some say there are only 8 principles of design, some say more. But the most important principle is the one that is most relevant to your situation or more specifically, the purpose of that important design you’re working on. Your work of art might not use all of the principles at the same time, but a good design will use at least one. It is important to know how to explain what’s your intention with your design features by referring to the principles you applied. This will help you determine the most important design principle in your case and share this knowledge with the relevant parties in a well-thought-out way.

Using the Elements and Principles in Design

After you have determined what you want to achieve with your design, you can start using the elements to apply principles. Keep on referring back to principles of design examples and see if you can pick up on some of the visual design principles you learned about in this article. When you attempt to find a principle of design pattern in artworks, advertisements, magazines, and other mediums, you get good practice in identifying them and seeing how they can be implemented in different designs.

If you want to start small, there are many things you can start doing that will help you work with elements and principles in your design, whether it’s building up a pattern library or finding your go-to fonts. Try using tools like ShapeCloud to practice implementing graphic design principles by playing around with elements like typography, shapes, and colour.

Want to know where you can learn more about this topic? This article used research from fantastic educational and inspirational sites like Getty, Medium, Adobe, Canva, Dribble, and John Lovett.

Do you have any questions about design principles? Drop them in the comments below!


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