The 7 Principles of Design

person tracing fonts over lighted surface

The principles of design address the way you use your chosen elements in your work. While it is important to take care in choosing each element that you incorporate in your design, how you use them is crucial to the effectiveness of your design. Here are the 7 principles of design and how to use them.

What are the principles of design?

 1. Balance

Balance is one of the key principles of design and refers to the distribution of the visual weight of the elements incorporated in your work such as objects, texture, color and space. Visual weight refers to how much attention an object draws in a design. Every element has weight, and how you distribute that weight will affect how your audience interprets your design. Ultimately, you want your design elements to harmonize with each other to create a design that is pleasing to the eye. There are three main types of balance: symmetrical, asymmetrical, and radial.

  • Symmetrical balance: this type of balance is easiest to achieve. Place objects of the same weight, and kind of weight, on both sides of the central line of the design. The elements do not have to be identical and create a mirror image, they just have to correspond to an element of similar weight on the opposite side. 
  • Asymmetrical balance: though also equally balanced on both sides of the central line of the design, asymmetrical balance is achieved by matching the total weight of the objects as opposed to each object corresponding with another object on the opposite side of the central line.
  • Radial balance: instead of balancing objects across a central line, radial balance balances objects according to a single point in the center of the design. You place objects equidistant from the center, or you can balance them in other ways, such as placing a heavier object closer to the center and a lighter object further away from the center, as long as a line drawn between them would pass directly through the center point.

 2. Emphasis

Emphasis is the strategy of drawing the audience’s attention to a specific element in your design, the focal point. To achieve this, you can place elements where the eye is naturally drawn, or use contrast. There is a multitude of ways that you could make the element stand out such as size, color, shape, or texture. Emphasis helps the viewer establish what the most important piece of information is. Most often, emphasis is used to drive a call to action.

 3. Repetition

Repetition of the elements in your design, such as color, shape or font, creates unity within the work. When done correctly, repetition creates consistency and strengthens a design. Repetition can be used in a few different ways in design. When it comes to aesthetics, the human eye is naturally drawn to images that give something to look at. Repetition can be used to add excitement to a design by adding visual richness to the background while maintaining a clear emphasis on the foreground. Repetition can be used in the form of patterns to create aesthetically pleasing backgrounds for your design.

 4. Movement

Using this principle of design, you can create a path the viewer’s eye will travel as they look at the design. Movement creates motion within the composition from one element to another, serving as a guide to direct what your audience sees next. You can achieve this by creating a literal path using elements such as lines, or more subtly by using elements that progress from smaller to larger or from color to non color and so on. Similar to repetition, movement adds to the unity of a piece by establishing relationships between the elements of the design.

 5. Proportion

Proportion is the relationship of two or more elements in a design and how they relate to one another in regards to color, quantity, and most often size. It can be used to add harmony and balance to the design. Harmonious proportion is when a desirable relationship exists between elements. For the most part, proportion is only noticed when things seem out of proportion, such as when the relative size of two elements being compared is out of balance. When it comes to the size of elements, a comparison can be made between the following aspects:

  • The height, weight and depth of one element to that of another
  • The size of one area to the size of another area
  • The size of one element to the size of another element
  • The amount of space between two or more elements

 6. White space

Most elements of your design are additions to your design, but white space, also referred to as negative space, is what you don’t add to your design. White space is the empty space around the elements in your design and is used to create hierarchy and helps to organize the elements in your design. White space plays a crucial role in the success of your design. There are a few different types of white space, each with different use and purpose.

  • Macro white space: this refers to the empty spaces between core design elements such as paragraphs, graphic elements and columns.
  • Micro white space: this refers to the space between smaller design elements such as letters, also known as kerning, or line spacing, also known as leading.
  • Active white space: this is negative space that you have made the conscious effort to include with the goal of creating emphasis or hierarchy within your design. Active white space helps create movement with your design and can draw your audience’s attention to the focal point.
  • Passive white space: this is white space that occurs unintentionally, or naturally. Kerning and leading are examples of passive white space.

7. Contrast

Contrast refers to the arrangement of opposite elements, such as light and dark colors or small and large shapes, and can be used to create visual interest and establish importance in your design. It can be created by color, size, shape and typography, though a combination of all of those types of contrast will help create a good design.

The 7 principles of design can be used together to create a compelling and effective visual design, though you do not need to incorporate all of them in order to achieve a “good” design. Play around with incorporating the different principles to find a design that suits your needs.

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