The Principles & Elements Of Graphic Design

In this article, we’re going to discuss the fundamental building blocks of Graphic Design. These essential components are known as the principles and elements of design. They are the basis of which all art and visual media is created.

Principles of Graphic Design

Like all art, Graphic Design uses the principles of design to create cohesive imagery. These design principles consist of rhythm/repetition, balance, contrast, emphasis/hierarchy, unity, white space, & movement.

Emphasis/Hierarchy

This image demonstrates how emphasis by choice of size, colour and weight of words, is able to provide hierarchy in graphic design.

Graphic Designers and artists purposely emphasize specific areas of their designs that they wish to draw the most attention to. For a graphic designer this is used to create a hierarchy in the information that is being conveyed. 

There are many ways to create emphasis such as using depth of field, contrast, colour, size, and positioning. A simple example is if a graphic designer places a white ball in the centre of a black background, you won’t be able to help but to look at the white ball.

Well executed hierarchy effortlessly guides your viewer through your design from beginning to end.

Balance

design principle balance is shown in 3 ways: symmetric, asymmetric, and radial.

The elements of design; colours, shapes, images, typography, & patterns, etc, all carry what is known as visual weight. How a graphic designer lays out these elements will effect the overall unity of the composition.

A well balanced design offers a sense of stability whereas an unbalanced design creates a feeling of unrest. Depending on the message the graphic designer is attempting to portray, both outcomes are acceptable.

Rhythm/Repetition

A rotating pattern of the same shapes and colours giving us a visual demonstration of how rhythm and repetition can be used in graphic design.

Rhythm and repetition are able to unify and strengthen design. Graphic Designers will use rhythm to dictate the distribution of elements throughout their work.

Take a look at how I have organized my headings. It’s an easy example of how I have implemented repetition in the design layout of this article. The use of headings and sub headings informs the reader of the relation and importance of each section.

Graphic Designers use these principles to create different feelings, one of which being consistency in their designs.

White Space

This is a side by side example of a page layout design where one page has no white space and the other does.

White space, or “negative space”, is the area in a design that does not contain any design elements.

Negative space offers a design breathing room while giving a place for your eyes to rest. It can be used artistically, to allow elements of a design to be more easily discerned, or to create visual hierarchy.

Contrast

This Design Illustration depicts contrast in colour, size, and shape, by having a large green square in the middle of smaller white circles.

When design elements in close proximity have different qualities, it creates contrast that forces them to stand out to the human eye.

Graphic designers are able to create contrast in different ways. There is contrast in colour, contrast in shape, and contrast in size.

Using a lack of contrast, especially when it comes to typography, can make your designs less easy to read. On the contrary, too many elements of contrast can dilute your design and confuse your audience.

Unity

An example depicting the graphic design element "unity". It shows several stacked rows of circles that are the same colour and size, and on the other end of the design has 3 rows of the word unity.

Unity is the visual relationship between elements in a design. When a design has elements in unity, it depicts feelings of harmony.

You can create unity in your designs by use of similar tones, shapes, repetition and proximity.

Movement

A design of a runner with fading lines behind her to depict her movement as she runs towards the logo of Nicholas Romanakis, Vancouver Graphic Designer.

“Movement”, in Graphic Design, can have two definitions. It refers to how the composition of elements in a design, lead a viewers eyes from one piece of information to the next. It also refers to how a designer depicts visual movements.

The image above shows how a design using only a few simple lines simulates movement. Look here to see how I created movement & rhythm by including sound waves in a design I did for a college’s music department.

Considering the psychology of how people absorb visual information helps to understand how to guide a viewers eye through a design. For example, certain colours attract the eye more than others. To see how elements in a design are able to lead a viewers eyes, look back at the hierarchy section.

Elements of Graphic Design

Now that we have gone over the principles of graphic Design we can talk about the elements of graphic design. The special ingredients that graphic designers use to create art, and to showcase the principles mentioned above. These design elements are line, shape, form, texture, and colour.

Line

a simple illustration showing the design element of lines in different forms such as wavy, straight, thin, thick, and rough.

The number one element of graphic design and design in general, is the line. A shape that connects two or more points. It can be fat, skinny, bold, fine, rough, smooth, straight, or curved. Lines are able to create both textures, mood, and motion in your designs. 

Shape

An image created by Vancouver Graphic Designer nicholas Romanakis. It depicts the difference between organic and geometric shapes.

Shapes, another basic element of graphic design, fall into two categories: geometric and organic. 

Geometric shapes are things like circles, squares, rectangles, ovals, octagons, etc. They are very precise, mathematical, and usually found in man-made designs. 

Organic shapes are irregular and more difficult to describe. Think of shapes designed by nature itself. Clouds, leaves, rocks, & plants. 

Form

A design that shows the difference between a one dimensional square and a 3 dimensional block.

Form also appears in both geometric and organic designs. It’s quite similar to the design element, shape. The difference being that form is three dimensional. Essentially, form is a shape that shows length width and height.

Graphic Designers are able to create two dimensional form through illustration by using light and shadow to control the perception of depth.

Texture

A design of wood vibrant blue wood texture on a desaturated black background.

Texture, in graphic design, refers to surface quality. Everything has some kind of texture whether it be smooth, rough, shiny, soft, etc.

When something feels just like it looks it should, this is “actual texture”. If a graphic designer makes an object look like it has a texture it doesn’t, it’s referred to as “implied texture”. Texture in general adds interest and depth to a design, allowing it to appear more tactile.

For another example of how texture is able to take your designs to the next level, have a look at this vehicle illustration.

Colour

An image of an Owl's face of which a graphic designer has desaturated everything, leaving only the eye in colour.

Colour is one of the most important elements of graphic design. I’ll write an article on colour theory in the future but until then, just know that it has the power to transform the mood and feelings that your designs portray.

The three characteristics of colour are hue, saturation, and brightness. Graphic Designers are able to create harmony and contrast by using colours with different relationships.

If you want to dive a bit deeper into colour, you might enjoy “Interaction of Colour”. It goes into complex colour theory and has a selection of case studies. A nice look at color intensity, temperature, color relativity, the illusion of transparency, & vibration.

Composition

The principles and elements of design are simply the tools that a graphic designer uses to create a composition. Go ahead and challenge yourself by taking an art piece of your choice and finding each of the topics we discussed within the design. Here are a few helpful resources to help jumpstart your design career:

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Nicholas Romanakis Graphic Design's Blue logo mark on dark background.

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