(Last updated on March 29th, 2021)
Have you been using the seven principles of design in your graphic design work? More importantly, can you name those principles and why they’re essential? If you’re unfamiliar, read on to learn about some of the crucial aspects of graphic design.
It can be easy to peer at the many posters, publications, and graphic design displays in our culture and think it comes so easy. Being overwhelmed by such media may lead to believe it’s mere smearing of colors, shapes, and typography that can conjure up compelling art.
Despite an artistic angle to the career, graphic design very much has a science behind it. There are certain aspects that we often recognize in design but may not be able to describe. Knowing such terms can make it easier to communicate and understand the best graphic design process.
Certain principles have acted as the foundation for graphic design. So if the thought had ever crossed your mind of what makes a poster more engaging than a random Kindergarten fingerpaint, these principles could help explain why.
Listed below are seven different principles of graphic design. Each of these should be kept in mind to some degree when you find yourself assembling everything from posters to packaging. You may even be able to spot some of these aspects in current forms of design all around you.
The clashing of forces within the art can often lead to the most dynamic of designs. There’s a stark difference in either color or shape that draws the eyes immediately. Whenever someone looks at a graphic design piece and proclaims it as something bold or pops, they’re most likely referring to the contrast.
Contrast is all about the balance of different graphical elements. This includes pairings of light and dark colors, big and small shapes, and even the simplicity of black and white. The balance of these forces can narrow the eye to what will catch the viewer’s attention the most.
One area to be mindful of when it comes to contrast is font types. You don’t want to confuse your audience too much in your messaging, and contrasting typography can often hinder that message. Try to keep your typefaces the same or use ones that are similar in design to avoid confusion.
You can see contrast at play in some of the boldest of eye-catching designs. Take a look at the poster for the 1989 Batman movie. The background is entirely black, while the foreground features a bright and golden Batman logo outlined to allow for more black inside.
Notice how even the film title is framed similar to the logo, with a golden outline and dark background. This poster doesn’t feature much but tells us a lot about the tone of the movie. The black suggests it’ll be dark, but the golden logo and title suggest it’ll still be vibrant and dazzling.
You can even see how this contrast of color plays out in the film as well. The city streets are portrayed as being bathed in shadows, but then you have Joker’s tacky nature in his loud white makeup and purple outfits. There’s a clashing of colors throughout.
Not every piece of graphic design has to be sold bold to feature contrast. The battle between warm and cool colors may not have to be as pronounced but still present. You can amass a slew of colors and shapes to have a bit of a balance between the two forces, working more in harmony than crowding the page.
This element is present in most branding. You’ll notice more color and simple shapes than text on the labels of iconic sodas because they rely more on these notable traits. We associate Coke Cola with red and Pepsi with blue that these hues become the dominant part of the design.
The color overwhelms the packaging design and contrasts sharply with the rest of the packaging. But it’s that contrast that also brings attention. A customer is more likely to go for the big blue bottle of soda than look precisely for Pepsi by title.
The important thing is to find out how much your differentiated designs need to be present to lead the eye. A valid contract can make your work look like the most attention-grabbing of graphics. It may also determine which of your work will live or die in the memory.
As mentioned in contrast, the key to making such differentiating forces work is balance. Balance is not just limited to which conflicting forces share the same space. There’s also an aspect of assembly on a more hierarchical level.
An excellent way to achieve balance is to avoid the clutter and crowding of the various graphic elements in your work. You may have a lot of information that needs to be communicated within one image. It’s essential that this type of graphic not feel overly intimidating in inviting the eyes.
A classic example of finding balance can be seen in most movie posters. Most theatrical movie posters contain quite a bit of info. You’ll notice they not only list the title, release date, and maybe a tagline but also the information about the cast, crew, studio, and copyright.
The posters that feature all of this info don’t feel as intimidating because there’s a delicate balance to how the text is presented. The poster’s main point is to communicate what this movie is, what it’s about, and when it’s coming out. The title, tagline, and release date can make this clear, making these fonts the largest of the occupied space in descending order.
That information may be enough to get the point across, and most modern movie posters opt only to show this information. But the older posters will often list additional info about who is in the film and which studio produced the movie. This can be essential information as well.
The poster credits are thus reduced to much smaller text placed at the bottom of the poster. It’s readable up close but can disappear when seen from a distance. The eye is led downward to this listing of credits for those interested enough in the film to peer further.
Though modern posters have steered further away from this type of balance, this type of credit listing has become more common in DVD and Blu-ray packaging. Take a look at the back cover, and you’ll notice that the exact formatting of credits is listed. You may have to take off the slipcover to see it.
Much like movie posters, video packaging has to convey the same information but has more real estate. The back cover is a handy place to list a synopsis, show off more reviews, list technical features, and showcase images in addition to the credits. There’s a balance here as well.
Balance is one of those broad and sprawling elements that should always be kept in mind. To make sure your design has this element, try taking a step back from your work and noticing how the visuals and text are showcased. Do they seem balanced, or are they cluttering/crowding the space?
Every piece of graphic design has a crucial idea seeking to be communicated. It could be an event via a flyer or a product via a magazine ad. In either case, there’s a core component present in both when it comes to getting the message across Emphasis.
Emphasis is what will stick out most in your work. It’s where the eye will be led too quickly and should represent what the graphic is all about. This can range from anything to an image to the title to a logo. It all depends on what needs the most focus.
Take a look at the advertisements for Sony’s Playstation 5. The Playstation 5 console itself appears in the ads with its white case and white controller. It’s this critical aspect that helps differentiate the console from the Playstation 4.
You’ll also notice that just about every ad for the product has the same background: blue. The often blue background appears dark enough so that everything in the foreground is more apparent. In this case, the console is front and center as the beacon for our eyes.
The white console sticks out immediately when contrasting with the blue background. The console also appears to occupy most of the screen in most ads as well. Everybody who views these ads will be staring more at the console and less so at the PS5 logo.
The brilliance of emphasis is that it stresses an association that viewers will hold with them. Those who witness the Playstation 5 advertisements will know what the console looks like. It also helps that such design reflects the box design, making it easier for customers to find the product visually.
Emphasis also plays a massive aspect in shrinking the small stuff. If you look at just about any advertisement for medicine, be it in television commercials or magazine ads, you will see a lot of fine-print located at the bottom. This info includes side effects and medical information on the drug.
This is essential information that needs to be included, but it can become quite daunting when communicating the product. Advertisers often want to make sure both the name of the medication and a visual of its importance stick out most.
For this reason, you’ll see the heftier text of such ads reserved to smaller fonts and located below the central emphasis of the ad. This is known better as de-emphasis, where the essential info is still present but not as prominent on the page.
Deciding where to emphasize and de-emphasize can be the difference between an eye-catching ad and a confusing mess of info. It’s crucial to determine what aspects are most important that require such sizing. More often, however, you’ll find yourself sizing down typography.
Sizing also plays a hefty portion in deciding what will carry that aspect of emphasis. Something significant may be a fascinating aspect, while something small may not catch our eye. It also is the inverse, depending on your graphic design is staged.
Sometimes it’s not a matter of big and small but a shifting of size throughout. Take a gander at classic TV Guide advertisements for shows and movies appearing on television. The goal of these ads is to communicate what will be airing and when it will air.
In most ads, a still from the show/movie has the most significant emphasis. Since these ads are usually small, the image often engulfs the space where the text must be placed over it. This massive use of space leads the eye quickly within mostly lists, grids, and columns.
The second most crucial aspect is the title of the program. People need to know what this production is called to look for it in the guide. It better identifies the program, which is why it’s no surprise this is generally the most prominent text of the ad.
The third most important part of the ad is the time and channel. Now that people know what the program looks like and is called, they want to find where they can see it. It’s why this info is generally just slightly smaller than the title text.
Finally, with some TV ads, there is minor text. This is usually reserved for either a plot synopsis, critic review, or tagline. These aspects may interest some viewers, but they’re not the central point of what needs to be stressed most.
But sometimes, graphic design can have distinctly massive proportions where the sizing is most apparent. You can see this aspect in many two-page magazine spreads, where a central image may entirely dominate one page while the text will be present on another.
It is for this reason why proportions are an aspect of great importance in the realm of publication. The eye is often in competition when flipping through a magazine or book with many visuals and information present.
Proportions apply to all forms of graphic design, though. It works in tandem to tell the viewer what is most worthy of their eyeballs in such a format. Always be thinking if something could be a little bigger if it’s essential and smaller if it holds less value.
Many of the previous principles all relate to the crucial aspect of leading the eye. That being said, you still need a sense of organization to make the larger and louder central concept most pronounced. You may have a large type for your product that is the most crucial aspect, but if it’s housed at the very bottom of the page, that may not be a good fit.
Similar to emphasis and proportions, hierarchy is all about showcasing the importance of the design. It’s all about making sure the most prominent elements look the part by taking their place in the space they occupy.
Where hierarchy plays the most significant role is in the design of websites. Websites require a firm grounding of where graphics and content will be located. Even the most free-flowing of designs have to keep this aspect in mind, lest the visitor is unsure where to click.
True, there was a time when websites were more of a mishmash of radical design via Flash. Since Flash has been depreciated, web design now has to work in concert with the current HTML and PHP forms.
With websites, titles and headings are some of the essential parts. Most websites rely on a hefty amount of textual information, and it’s crucial to make sure which parts of that content are front and center. Nobody wants to hunt for a page title or headline on a web page.
It’s easy enough to find the hierarchy in headings considering the level of importance labels them. Headings are generally recognized from Heading 1 to Heading 6, marked accordingly in the code. Heading 1 appears the most prominent on the page.
The further down you go in headings, the smaller they get. Of course, the size can be tailored with CSS stylings, but you get the idea. But the numbering of headings doesn’t just relate to the size of the type by descending order.
Headings also play a heavy role in search engines finding the website. Websites with the vital information in headings and titles will have that information display first on search engine results. You want to make sure the critical info is present in such formatting.
Hierarchy plays a role in every aspect of graphic design, ranging from the placement of titles to the occupation of heftier paragraphs. You can see it in the nutritional facts on a can of soda to the fine print on flyers. It’s all of a matter of organization.
6. White Space
Sometimes the best graphic design isn’t just about how you use your canvas but how little of it you use. This is what’s known as white space or negative space. It’s a space of seemingly nothing, yet it can add to your design’s overall flow.
The idea of white space can best be summed up by the common phrase “less is more.” Your design may not have to be a pixel-to-pixel smash of color and design to be compelling. Sometimes all you need to do is give your design some space to breathe.
The lack of anything in the white space can be an effective way to center specifically on the central point. For example, if you’re designing an ad for whiskey, you may just place the bottle front and center with nothing surrounding it. The goal and focus of the ad couldn’t be any more clear.
White space isn’t just a means of leading the eyes, though, as it can be used for better visibility. Such a space’s emptiness can make the text easier to read when occupying a less dynamic landscape. If you find yourself working with a lot of text, white space can be your friend when it comes to readability.
White space can also be used rather creatively. The FedEx logo is a perfect example of using white space uniquely. Look closely at the close lettering of the “Ex” portion of the logo, and you’ll see the white space present forms an arrow.
You’ve seen patterns everywhere. From the tiles on kitchen floors to the repeating elements of wallpaper, patterns can be spotted in many places. Patterns also play a rather prominent role when it comes to graphic design as well.
Patterns, however, span far more than just the duplication of elements over and over within the same space. It can only refer to the uniformity of various designs. It’s a sense of branding that becomes noticeable and iconic from design to design.
You can see the repeating patterns in the labels for Heinz ketchup products. Heinz makes numerous versions of their ketchup, but nearly all have the familiar shape and lettering for the label. Line them all up together on the grocery store shelf, and the pattern becomes apparent.
Patterns are essential when it comes to designing numerous or repeating design formats. These patterns become most apparent in such interfaces as that of restaurant menus and websites. Having a pattern to these designs helps make it easier for the viewer to read the design to find important information.
Websites are among the most important when it comes to patterns. Most websites rely on a central theme that will often repeat similar design elements on every page. Recognizing this pattern allows for pages to have different layouts yet still look similar enough, so the viewer still feels they’re navigating the same website.
Frequently asked questions
The 7 principles of design include Contrast, Balance, Emphasis, Proportion, Hierarchy, White Space, and Pattern.
There are sometimes 12 principles of design that are recognized as Contrast, Balance, Emphasis, Movement, White Space, Proportion, Hierarchy, Repetition, Rhythm, Pattern, Unity, and Variety.
The elements of design can be thought of as the tool used for crafting graphic design while the principles specify how those elements are used to create.
Emphasis is designed to lead the viewer to the appropriate part of the graphic.
Mark McPherson has been working as a video editor and content writer for over ten years. His background started in animation and video editing before shifting into the realm of web development. He also branched out into content writing for various online publications. Mark is an expert in video editing, content writing, and 2D/3D animation.