20 Important Design Principles and Elements

Design is an intricate, complicated, fun and exciting business.

There's always a lot to learn, a lot to do, and a lot to consider when you're a beginner - not to mention the fact that technology is constantly evolving, new software is being released, and new trends are coming at you rapid fire. Truth be told, it can get a little overwhelming.

So, let's slow things down a little bit. This article will take you through 20 principles of design to hopefully give you a head start in this creative environment. So, stay tune, get comfy, and let's discuss some principles.

1. Line:

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I'm sure we're all aware of what lines are, but just to be sure, lines can be defined as any linear marks. So, when you think about it, lines make up just about everything. Even these words and letters you're reading right now are made up of thousands of curved, angled and straight lines.

Lines can channel certain ideas too. Straight ones can evoke order and neatness, wavy lines can create movement, and zigzagged lines can imply tension or excitement.

A technique applied a lot in photography is the use of "leading lines" which do just what they claim - they lead the eye. Finding and emphasizing strong leading lines in your piece can allow you to direct the eye through the entire piece or to certain focal points.

Let's look at an example of leading lines in web design. This web page has a cool diagonal grid with very strong leading lines that take you down the page, from section to section, in a swift zig zag shape.

Strong use of lines is a great way to stylize your illustrations. Consider emphasizing your use of line in illustrations to create an intriguing effect. Lines are versatile, simple and effective graphic elements that you certainly should not take for granted! Experiment with them today, and see what cool things they can add to your design.

2. Scale:

Scale is a large part of design, sometimes literally. In a very basic definition, scale is the deliberate sizing of individual elements.

Scale can help us make sense of designs and images. Think about if you were to draw a mouse next to an elephant, you'd probably draw the mouse much smaller than the elephant, which would help viewers instantly understand your drawing.

In this way, scale helps us make sense of things. But, scale doesn't always have to be based on realism. You can size your elements dramatically large or small to create stunning effects and to signal which parts of your design are more important and which are less.

For example, check out this poster by Gabz Grzegorz Domaradzki for the movie Drive. In this poster, the lead character has been scaled up dramatically, drawing attention to him first, and the other faces second.

While this scale is not technically based on realism as people's faces are generally the same size in real life (and Ryan Gosling is not a giant to my knowledge), the dramatic scaling up and down of faces help viewers to get a quick grasp on each character's level of importance in the film, as well as making for an effective design.

This scaling of elements to signal importance is often called "hierarchy" which we will discuss more in depth later on, fear not! But, for the mean time, le's look at an example that uses scale to signify importance.

3. Colour:

I know I don't really need to preach about how important colour is to designs, but I'm going to anyway. Colour is paramount. Colour creates specific moods, atmospheres, channels emotions and each shade has certain specific connotations associated with it. In short, colour can make or break your design.

Let's look at two branding examples. First up, we have a design for women's skin rejuvenation. This design has opted for light, soft and pastel colours. Whites, light greys, soft blush tones and a copper / gold foiling. These chosen colour complement each other gently to create a calm, elegant and feminine design.

On the other hand, we have this branding for juice. Unlike the previous example which chose a palette that gently complemented itself, this branding has chosen a colour palette that sharply contrasts, creating a much more vibrant, energetic and playful design.

Colour isn't a principle simply limited to branding elements though, colour expands into everything, even photographs. Filters and image adjustors have given us unlimited ability to adjust our photographs' colouring and tone.

Are you designing a sleek and sophisticated poster? Why not run a sharp, noir-inspired monochromatic filter over your image, like Canva's "Street" filter. Or perhaps you're going to a whimsical look? Consider dropping the contrast on your image a little to mute your images' colours a bit and make it softer and calmer.

4. Repetition:

Think about any big name brand, Cola-Cola, Google, Apple, Nike ... I'm sure you can all think of their logo, their general tone of voice and their general colour schemes used. Why are these things so memorable at the drop of a hat? Yep, you guessed it ... repetition.

Repetition is a crucial element when it comes to branding design, both in terms of keeping your branding consistent and in terms of tying your items together.

Lets have a look at the following branding example. As you can see, this identity uses a consistent colour palette and consistent logo application, right down to consistent margin spacing.

Repetition is a key element when it comes to branding, but it can also make for beautiful one-off designs. For example, repetition is a key ingredient when it come to creating patterns and textures.

Check out this packaging design that uses repetition to create a beautiful pattern. Patterns don't have to be dull and floral like dusty old curtains, they can be fun and effective. So, why not implement repetitive patterns into your next design?

5. Negative Space

To put it bluntly, negative space is the "space in between", the area between or around other elements that form its own shape.

The widely regarded king and path-forger of negative space was artist M.C. Escher, whose work I'm sure you've seen and been baffled by before. Escher did a number of tessellations that focused on one shape leading into the next via negative and positive space, like this woodcut print "Sky & Water I"

See how Escher has used the space in between the birds to create the shape of fish? This is negative space at work - considering everything around and in between your physical design, and manipulating that space to form something new.

Negative space when used strategically and cleverly can help create truly stunning and clever designs. Have a look at these simple animal icons that use simple, clean shapes to render clear depictions of each animal.

6. Symmetry:

As a species, human beings are scientifically proven to be drawn to symmetry. We find symmetrical faces, patterns and designs generally more attractive, effective and beautiful.

Symmetry is used a lot in logos in order to create a harmonious and balanced design. Some examples of large brands with symmetrical logos are Target, McDonald's, Chanel, Starbucks, etc.

Of course, symmetry is not always an option for every design, and nor should it be. There's a fine line between a design looking balanced and symmetrical, and looking like one side was copied, flipped and pasted to the left. So, instead try to introduce subtle elements of symmetry into your design.

For example, this wedding invitation uses a high degree of symmetry, but it's not perfectly mirrored. Instead, the designer has chosen to adjust the illustrations to fit the type and the message in subtle ways that keep the design symmetrically balanced and ordered, but not too blatantly mirrored, creating a delicate, romantic and balanced design.

Symmetry isn't always as obvious either, sometimes it is subtle, sometimes you may not even notice it. A prime example of invisible symmetry can be found in editorial design, and more specifically text boxes. Open up any magazine you have laying around and chances are in a longer article you will notice that the body copy has been split up into columns of text, and these columns are often symmetrically sized to keep things legible, neat, as well as visually appealing.

Check out this annual report spread design that draws attention to the symmetrically of the text columns by mirroring them on either side of the spread.

By using a bit of symmetry in your layout, you can create a sense of balance and order. So, next time you're designing a publication design, or a design with a lot of type, pay attention to how much (or how little) symmetry you're using. If your design doesn't look quite right, have a go at toying with your symmetry, whether this be increasing it or decreasing it.

7. Transparency:

Also occasionally known as "opacity", transparency refers to how "see-through" an element is. The lower your opacity, the lighter and less noticeable your element is, and the higher it is, the more solid the element is.

Let's look at an example that uses transparency. This stunning example layers various shapes of different colours, sizes, and opacities to create a truly beautiful graphic. In this way, adjusting and toying with transparency and transparency effects can allow you to emphasize your layers and shapes in a unique and striking way.

Transparency is also a great technique for generating a sense of movement in static images. For example, check out this poster that layers various images with different levels of transparency to create an engrossing effect and sense of movement.

8. Texture:

Clean, sharp and sleek graphic designs can be wonderful, but sometimes, roughing it up a little with some texture can be even better. Texture can add tactility, depth and can add some pretty interesting effects to your design.

However, as with many things, be sure to use this technique in moderation, as too much texture can quickly overwhelm your design. Remember: there's a fine line between shabby-chic and just plain old shabby.

See how too many textures can create a muddy effect? The more textures applied, the harder type and other elements are to see without a stroke effect around each letter.

Of course, if you're going for the muddier look stylistically, then layering textures might bode well for you, but if you're looking for a way to incorporate texture in a less imposing way, stay tuned.

Let's have a look at an example that uses texture in a way that enhances the piece. This beautiful typographic design creates a vintage-inspired effect by using texture. Notice that the use of the rough texture isn't distracting but rather nicely enhances the piece as a whole, giving it a more handcrafted, authentically-vintage feel.

Have a look at this business card design that takes texturing to a whole new level by embossing the topography-inspired texture directly into the business card. By considering texture and how your design literally and tangibly feels, you can create a memorable piece for your design that is sure to stand out from the crowd.

8. Balance:

Balance is a pretty important thing in most of life, and it's equally as important in the world of design.

One way to master balance is to think of each of your elements as having "weight" behind it. From text boxes, to images, to blocks of colour, consider each of their sizes, shapes, and what "weight" they have in relation to other elements on the page.

A good technique is to imagine if your design were to be printer out as a 3D model. Would it stand, or would it tip to one side?

Check out this cat logo that is beautifully balanced. If it were to be printed, chances are it would sit upright

One type of balance is "asymmetrical balance", which is less about mirroring left and right / top and bottom, and more about distributing, sizing and aligning elements so that their "weights" are even. Let's look at an example.

This vibrant piece uses scale and a clever distribution of elements to make for a balanced design. Note how this piece achieves balance from left to right and top to bottom through the sizing of elements. By balancing the cluster of images out with the cluster of type.

10. Hierarchy

Hierarchy in design is a lot like hierarchy in culture, as both are built on very similar ideas. At the top of a hierarchical scale, we have the most important things, like kings. These elements are to be "dressed" the most extravagantly and command the most attention.

Check out these examples that showcase two different ways to signal your title / heading's importance, from the more subtle examples right through to the big and bold examples. Whatever your choice of avenue, be sure that consumers can instantly point to the title without thinking.

The next tier of hierarchy can be seen as the noblemen, the elements that are still important, but that don't command quite as much attention as the kings. These are things like sub-headings, pull quotes, additional information. Make sure to keep these eye-catching and noticeable, but not anywhere near as noticeable as your headings.

Look at this save the date card. Notice how the date (a very important part of a save the date card) is made larger, bolder and more noticeable than the type below it. And yet it doesn't outshine the obvious "Audrey and Grant" title.

And on the final rung of the hierarchical scale are the peasants, the humble elements of your design that are given the least amount of visual pizzazz, usually things like body copy, less important information, links, etc.

In this poster for The Night Market, you can easily point out the title, the sub-heading / date, and then down the bottom, the smallest type of additional information that isn't as crucial to the communication.

Of course, hierarchy isn't just limited to type. Images also have hierarchy, think back to when we talked about scale. The larger, more colourful, or more central elements of your image are going to have a higher hierarchy than those smaller, duller, less detailed elements.

11. Contrast:

Contrast is often the magical key ingredient to making your designs "pop", which is a (sometimes frustrating) demand from many design clients.

In a very basic definition, contrast is the degree of difference between two elements of your design.

Some Common forms of contrast are dark vs. light, thick vs. thin, large vs. small, etc.

Contrast has a great effect on readability and legibility as well, it's a big reason why you see novels and many other publications printing in black text on a white background. Imagine if they printed using light grey on a white background. The contrast would be very low and the type hard to read. So, if you're using type, make sure you bump up that contrast.

For example, have a look at this poster and the way it ensures there's adequate contrast against the type and image. Since this image is split in half, one side being dominantly green and the other dark grey, the type colour has been adjusted accordingly to ensure each side is legible.

Imagine if the "New York" was executed in the same colour as "Bike Expo", the contrast would be lowered greatly and it would be much harder to read.

Another great example of a high-contrast design is below. This piece not only contrasts dark and light, but also thick and thin to make for a striking and engaging design.

Contrast isn't just a stylistic element or a legibility-enhancer, it can also act to draw the eye to certain elements of your design. This technique is used a lot in website design, let's look at an example below:

See how this landing page design has darkened and muted the image to allow for the bright red box to contrast sharply against the background. This deliberate contrast helps to draw instant attention to the main call of action (which links directly to a sign up page).

So, use contrast to make your designs visually "pop", draw attention to certain elements of your design.

12. Framing:

Just like you do with your photographs and pieces of art, framing your designs correctly is an important aspect. We usually think of framing in terms of photography - what you include, what you don't, etc. But, framing is equally as important in design.

Physical frames such as box outlines or graphic elements can enhance or draw attention to specific elements of your design.

For example, this menu design has framed one of the specials as well as the business' mission statement to draw attention to these two elements that the eye may have otherwise just passed over. Such a simple way of highlighting certain elements of your design can have a big impact.

13. Grid:

Think of a design grid like the foundation to a house - it's a crucial first step in allowing for you to build a functional, and beautiful final product. It signals to the builder / designer where certain elements should be placed, what should alight with what, and provides a general outline for construction.

Grids are important, usually invisible elements to just about any design. They are comprised of a certain number of rows and columns that you can align your elements against. Grids can help to keep your content in order, neat, legible and looking good.

Let's look at some examples of different grid systems.

The example above shows a five-column grid at work. Note how some elements are contained to one column, while other stretch over two, sometimes three columns, and yet the design as a whole appears neat, clean and well-aligned

For a bit more flexibility, consider adding in some more columns, like the following example:

This image shows how a twelve-column grid can give you a lot of flexibility when it comes to aligning your elements. Once again, note how some elements span many columns, while others sit over just two. Don't think of your grid as lines you have to colour inside of, but rather a set of simple guidelines used to help you create a stunning design.

So, find a grid that suits you and your design and move from there.

Now we've established what a grid is, what it looks like, and how it works, let's look at some real world examples of grids at work. Check out the example below to figure out how many columns was used in this design's grid.

The examples above has a clear and identifiable grid system to which each element has been aligned, making for a striking, neat and attractive design.

Grids are flexible, adaptable and infinitely handy, so consider using one for your next design and see what it can do for you!

14. Randomness

Up till now we've been discussing alignment and order. But, what about the more organic, rough, and random designs? Randomness plays a large part in design, but it is a specific kind of randomness. Let's call it "design randomness".

The difference between "design randomness" and other forms of randomness is purpose and execution. With design, your main goal should be communication - what does this piece need to say to consumers? Is it saying it in a clear way? How can I made the communication stronger?

For example, let's have a look at a design that uses type in a way that could easily be deemed "random" but that has purpose and intention. This poster for the film "The Killer Inside Me" mostly uses scratchy, hand-rendered type, and where it uses typefaces, the letters and words are kerned and space sporadically and irregularly.

This piece layers the hand-type and positions it in a very random way that some people would say hinders the legibility. But, this was done with purpose - the intent being to represent a scrambled and warped psyche.

Herein lies the difference between "randomness" and "design randomness". If this design were applied to a poster for a children's movie about cheerful talking animals, it would seem random, and wouldn't communicate the right thing at all. But, in this case, the random design communicates the movie's themes perfectly.

Also have a look at the design below that uses a degree of randomness to create an organic-looking, collage-like effect. While this piece looks like it was slapped down onto a page and instantly looking stylishly rough and disheveled, have a bit of a look at it and note how many design conventions it actually does use.

Look at how each element has actually been strategically positioned, leading lines have been implemented to guide the eye around the piece, and there has been a selective balance between flat colour, texture and photography.

The design below has opted to represent randomness, with strange shapes, textures, illustrations, all cropped unusually and arranged in interesting ways.