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The Basics

Principles of Effective Design

  • Topic
    Design Principles
  • Reading Time
    7-9 minutes

Design Principles

The Core of Great Creative

At the very least, the principles of design are tools to build upon. Knowledge of these fundamentals, as the stepping stone of your craft; and will ensure you produce the best quality designs.


The video from Art Heroes effectively shows the basic principles of design. These are the building blocks for any creative. We will go more in-depth into these below and discuss them one by one to get a better understanding.

These principles are paramount in all designs you'll create. As the saying goes "to break the rules, you first need to know the rules". These guidelines are how we master our craft and push the boundaries. You first need to know the limits before you can go beyond them.


Back to the basics

The fundamentals:

Below is a list of the 8 most important principles you need to familiarise yourself with. These can either be applied in unison or separately depending on what the design calls for. Generally adhering to these guidelines will assure pristine and crisp Graphics.

  1. Balance - A distribution of equal visual weight.
  2. Alignment - An arrangement forming a straight line.
  3. Emphasis - An accentuation of importance.
  4. Proportion - A scaling of objects in relation to each other.
  5. Movement - A directed path of optical motion.
  6. Pattern - An orderly repetition of an object.
  7. Contrast - A juxtaposition that accentuates difference.
  8. Unity - A harmonious arrangement of elements.

One of the most significant design principles is to omit the unimportant in order to emphasize the important.

Dieter Rams
Balance example image


Balance gives design its form, and ultimately it's stable structure. The weighting of elements either equally or asymmetrically. Keep in mind though, that balance doesn't necessarily mean of equal height or weight. What it means is pleasing unison between elements. That one element won't overpower another. Symmetrical balance weighs objects evenly on either side of a design, whereas asymmetrical balance makes use of contrast to even out the flow of elements. These could be dark versus light, negative space versus used space and so on.

The main objective of balance is to make your design feel stable rather than flimsy and unappealing to the eye.

Alignment example image


Alignment creates more ordered designs. Connecting elements through layout and symmetry. This Principle comes through in most magazines and newspapers. Where elements work in complete unity, cleaning up the potential of visual clutter. By adjusting elements to fit on the same axis as other elements in the design, we create pleasing unison and group our objects together. This comes in especially handy when we create artwork that needs to be simple yet effective.

One of the basic mistakes designers tend to make is to not assure objects fall either on a straight line or, are in correlation with the rest of the elements. This immediately sticks out like a sore thumb.

Emphasis example image


This does not exclude design. The golden ratio is often used to put emphasis on text or objects that need to be viewed first and thereafter the eye can drift. The jellyfish clearly jumps out on the plain gradient backdrop. This is Emphasis through use of contrast. Where our plain background pushes our other elements to the foreground.

Other ways of achieving this are through weighted elements, contrasting colors, or through making use of blurred/focused sections. An example of this would be when our main object is clear and our other elements are out of focus.

Proportion example image


Each part of the design, be it objects relevant to each other, or negative space surrounding those objects in comparison to the weight of each object. All form the sum of a whole and are considered proportional in regards to context or the final artwork. What that means is each element and it's weight also determines the weight of the entirety of the design. This is paramount in lessening clutter and weighing elements either equally or with the objective of placing emphasis.

Another word for this is called scale. How certain elements weigh up to their counterparts.

Movement example image


Movement in graphic design is the art of directing your viewer's eye where you want them to look first. Another way of looking at it is by considering when people have said they paint to music. Also considered the flow of your final artwork. This is how your elements work together to tell a story from the beginning until the end. The beginning would be considered where someone first looks and the end would be where the eyes end up at. The term "a picture tells a million words" comes to mind. This would be what we are trying to achieve, an experience rather than a mish-mash of elements.

Also called rhythm, the final design acts as something vibrant and lively with its very own persona..

Pattern example image


The use of recurring elements is an extremely important factor in design as it ties together different elements and helps them remain organized. Pattern is especially useful when it comes to branding as this keeps a consistent look and feel and makes it instantly recognizable.

Also called repetition. This is a very powerful way to reinforce an idea. By repeating elements, you place emphasis on them and justify the importance of those elements.

Contrast example image


Contrast, in short means definition. The object of which is to clearly set one element aside from another. The purpose is to either communicate difference or to push a certain element to the foreground. Often used in black and white photography. Clear contrast will create depth and set your subject matter aside from the rest of your visual. A simple example of this is a faded background with bright text on top of it. Similar to the hero banner of this post. We still have our background image yet the elements don't fight for attention.

This is a very powerful principle that you'll find yourself using more often than not. Also considered definition, contrast not only plays a role in faded/non-faded elements. In short, it is the use of conflicting elements while still remaining harmonious.

Unity example image


Unity defines the relation of one element to the elements in the rest of your design. Whether or not an object is out of place or works in unison with the rest of your subject matter. overall, the design should always be considered with this in mind. Unity is the one factor that clearly sets the low standard design apart from quality creative. Each element has a purpose and should hold true to that very purpose. If an element is out of place, merely added as a space filler. It will mess with the entirety of the final visual. That means cleaner negative space, more purposeful design elements, and pleasing end products.

This can also be considered harmony. The elements clearly work together rather than fight for attention.


There you have it


The basics that'll get you going. Exploration is the key ingredient to quality creative.
Make sure to do a bit more research on each principle and add these to your arsenal!

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