The Elements and Principles of Design
I ask myself, is there a language to graphic design? Are there governing "rules"? What makes a good design, good? How can the pros make it look so easy, yet when I try designing, it looks unorganized, full of clutter, unsettling, boring, and something I like to call digital vomit?
Okay, enough with the questions, here are some answers.
What are the governing bodies in design?
There are two basic governing bodies in design: elements and principles. Everything in a design falls into these two buckets, and more often than not, a design utilizes several of both, tying each one back to another.
First learning the vocabulary of design and then realizing how to practically and creatively apply the pieces, is part of what separates a professional from an amateur. It's the skillful use of the elements and principles in design that bring our concepts to life.
Entering semester one of design school…
What are the basic elements of design?
The elements of design are the basic building blocks of any idea. To make the concept of 'elements' simple to understand, think of them as the physical attributes of a design, such as line, shape, or texture.
Line: used to define shape, the path of a point, has many characteristics of its own such as direction, width, and length.
Shape: a perceivable area, when a line intersects itself to create a contained and defined area, can be geometric or organic, any positive shape creates a negative shape, edges of shapes create lines.
Type: if graphic design is the synthesis of content and form, then we must have type! Type not only communicates with written words, but it is also a powerful design tool and can be used to create other design elements, such as shape and texture.
Texture: a surface quality, can be real (not in the realm of web design) or implied, the actual or simulated tactile quality of an object in a design.
Value: the range of lightness or darkness of color.
Color: also known as hue, has three properties - chroma (pureness of hue), intensity and value.
Space: the illusion of depth, the areas around, between, and within a design - both positive and negative.
What are the basic design principles?
The principles of design can be thought of as the application of those design elements, or how we actually use them in a design. A lot of this skill comes from natural intuition, but it's crucial to be able to understand the philosophy behind design. You must be able to speak intelligently about the concepts and creatively use them to build and rationalize impactful designs.
Balance: the concept of visual equilibrium, equalizing visual weight of elements, can be symmetrical or asymmetrical.
Scale: overall size of an element(s), proportional relationships of design elements, can be used to create dominance and emphasis.
Unity: relating design elements, the sense that everything in the design belongs, creating harmony.
Pattern: keeping your design to a certain format, using similar elements throughout the design to create cohesion, can also be thought of or described as rhythm.
Movement: the illusion of movement, suggests action and/or direction.
Contrast: juxtaposition of opposing elements, refers not only to the difference of color but also scale and direction, used to create interest, focal point, movement.
Emphasis: the focal point of a design, used to create a visual hierarchy of elements and/or information.
This list is not comprehensive but it at least gives you the basics.
The differences between elements and principles
Thinking a little more in depth about the philosophies, it's easy to point out that principles of design are a little more complicated than elements of design. In my opinion, that's because principles are more conceptual and objective, while elements are more tangible and subjective.
Certain interpretation of principles can obviously mean multiple things seeing as the definition of anything objective can be blurred. For example, using pattern in a design creates 'rhythm', yet many times you will even see rhythm as being defined as its own principle. Confusing, I know, but don't pull your hair out. Seeing examples of these elements and principles being used in application should only help you.
So let's take a look-see at a few design pieces, and I'll point out some of the dominant factors and how they compliment each other, or tie back to one another over and over again.
Examples of elements and principles in practice
Here are a few logos. They are simple and easy to understand.
If you had to guess the dominant design element being used in this piece, what do you think it might be? Line maybe? Yep, it's line!
I love the beauty and simplicity that the basic use of line can create. As for a dominant principle, this piece is a perfect and simple example of symmetrical balance. That's easy, right?
Here are a few more, great, logo designs that utilize simplistic beauty from the concept of line alone (well okay, and type too):
Now, notice how the use of variations in the width of the line creates interest, direction and drama.
Okay, moving on to some more complex examples, we go to another logo…
First of all, how cool is this logo? Let me just answer for you. Really cool! There are some great elements and principles working together. Watch how the pattern - or repetition - and close proximity of these shapes form such a tight unity within the design, that it creates a texture. The dark background provides a really nice contrast as well.
This poster design relies heavily on the use of a simple line, which creates shapes and textures. The use of space, more specifically negative space, catch the viewer's eye and plays an important role in this piece as well. The watercolor washes behind provide color, contrast, texture and shape, which helps define the negative space shapes. It has asymmetrical balance but feels like the weight of the visual elements are evenly distributed.
This magazine cover design is another good example (though less obvious than previous examples) of line usage, creating a heavy sense of movement and direction. The edges of the geometric shapes are where the use of line really plays out in this piece. Bright primary colors add to the sense of movement by creating contrast, not only with each other but also with the darker less saturated background.
This also creates contrast is the mix of smooth vs. gritty texture. The use of negative space that is made by the runner's silhouette creates emphasis - again with contrast and scale - and becomes a focal point.
Typography plays a large role in this design by displaying information, being used as a design element, and by giving emphasis to certain pieces of information.
So can we begin to see how heavily the relation of design elements and principles rely on, and play off of, each other?
The table of contents design in this magazine shares many of the same elements and principles as the cover (creating a nice unity and rhythm to the overall design of the magazine), but the dominant element here is line by way of shape, which creates definite direction and movement. Secondary principles created by the use of line are repetition, rhythm, and unity. It is truly a work of art.
What dominant elements do you see in play here? If I had to pick three, I'd say color, shape, and type. Texture is another big one being used. The swirls at the top create nice shapes with playful movement while the large scale and white color of the text, which creates contrast, helps to give the type emphasis. Texture lends unity to the piece. The amount of contrast and space around the text vs. the swirly shapes at the top, give it an interesting balance.
Okay, okay, for the sake of not getting into novel territory (because I could do this all day), let's take what we have learned so far and see what elements and principles are being utilized in the following examples. These do create an impression.