Elements and Principles of Design Everyone Should Know
Knowing the key basics of design will help you to create better, more aesthetically pleasing works of art. When creating a design, there are both elements and principles to pay attention to. Knowing both pieces of the puzzle and how to successfully incorporate them into your designs will help you to create more beautiful pieces.
Elements are the different pieces that you use to create a design. These elements are the building blocks of every design, and you probably already use them in your work! But knowing how to use them in an effective way will change the way that you use them dramatically.
Line and Shape
The foundation of all shapes, line is one of the most basic, but most important elements of design. Line may seem simple, but there are plenty of different variations: thick, thin, long, short, curved or straight. In most effective designs, lines are varied to create interest. They can even create emotion. For example, a curved line evokes peace and serenity, whereas straight lines evoke the feelings of order and stability. The line, which can be used very obviously, or subtly, is used to create movement, directing the viewer’s eye.
As you can see in the example below by Kerry Kisbey, lines are used to create movement. Your eyes are directed upward from the simple lines of the dancer’s legs and feet, and follow through to the lines of her reaching arms.
‘Unfurl’, Dancer Line Drawing by Kerry Kisbey
Shapes are created by connecting lines. In design, there are two types of shapes: organic shapes and geometric shapes. Organic shapes are usually more free-flowing and curved – based on the forms found in nature such as flowers, animals, and even human beings. Geometric shapes are precise; often used to create man-made structures and objects. From a pencil to a sky scraper, you will likely be using geometric shapes. These shapes can be used in combination to create interest in a design.
The examples below show abstract shapes by Marius Roosendaal. In the first example, Roosendaal uses organic shapes – the lines are more free-form – similar leaves – natural shapes found in nature. The second example depicts geometric shapes. As you can see, the shapes are sharp and precise.
Organic Shapes vs. Geometric Shapes by Marius Roosendaal
Artist and designers use shapes to create forms. Forms are the three-dimensional version of a flat shape. These three-dimensional shapes, or forms, include spheres, cubes, pyramids, cones, and cylinders. All objects in the real world have form; therefore forms are created with both organic and geometric shapes. In art and design, you can achieve this by shading an object. In other words, adding a light source and a shadow to create a realistic-looking object. Take a circle, for instance. This can be turned into a sphere with the right shading, to make it look like a realistic ball.
Forms are found in all objects, if you deconstruct them. Consider the example below. The hand is created by combining many different forms. Notice that these are not shapes – they have depth, making them three-dimensional forms.
A human hand, deconstructed to show form
Space is everywhere around us. It is the unoccupied place between objects. And every object takes up space! There is both positive and negative space. Positive space is the space taken up by an object, or the subject of the design, while the negative space is the area around the objects. While creating a composition, you want to consider the negative space and how it relates to the positive space. By capturing this relationship accurately, you are more likely to have a balanced composition. Think of negative space as additional shapes in your design.
Negative space is often forgotten when working in design, but as you can see in the example below by Victor Vasarely, negative space is equally important to positive space.
A study on positive and negative space by Victor Vasarely
Texture is another element of design that can create realism. This element is important because it can bring interest to an image. Adding texture to a composition brings it to a whole new level. Whether it is a soft, wispy texture, or a rough bumpy texture, adding it will surely bring a design to life. Remember that in most designs, texture is an illusion, using forms to create a more realistic-looking texture, but it can also be a tangible texture as in traditional art.
In the example below, you can clearly see how artist Vincent Van Gogh brings the trees and ground to life with texture. It almost seems like you can reach out and touch it. In order to achieve this, he used a variety of different lines.
The Rock of Montmajour with Pine Trees Vincent van Gogh, 1888
Although it is not a necessary element of design – black and white design can be very effective – color can play a large role in creating a pleasing design. Having a strong command of the color wheel, various color schemes, and attributes can greatly impact your design. Color can add emphasis, or create an overall cohesion of a piece.
Imagine the example below being in black and white – it certainly wouldn’t have the same pop as it does in color. This is why businesses use color in their marketing and advertising. Color draws the eye to the design.
Design by Tom Pigeon
The principles of design are tried and true guidelines that, if followed, create more attractive designs. These principles have been used by artists and designers for decades and have proven to create effective compositions time and time again. Not only do following these basic principles help designers and artists to make gorgeous pieces, but they can be used to get your point across to the viewer. This is perfect for fine art designs as well as designs used for marketing purposes.
It is important to mention that breaking these “rules” can sometimes help an artist or designer to make a point or create an interesting piece. Take, for example, famous artist, Jean Michel Basquiat, who oftentimes broke all the rules. But before doing this, one must be aware of how these principles work to create a sensible design.
Hierarchy in design is just as it sounds – creating an order of importance in a composition. What would you first like your viewer to notice? What is the most important aspect of the piece? And the second? These are questions you should ask yourself when you are creating a composition. This way you can guide the viewers’ eyes across the piece in a meaningful way.
An example of hierarchy in design
There are multiple ways in which you can do this. The following principles of design, including the rule of thirds, scale and proportion, emphasis, and similarity versus contrast, can teach you how to achieve a great hierarchy in design. You can uses these principles in combination, or, for more simplistic designs, you can choose just one to make an impact.
Rule of Thirds
By using the rule of thirds, a designer can more easily discern where to place the subject of their composition to create a more visually appealing design. The rule of thirds is easy to use. Simply divide your image into nine equal parts with two equally spaced vertical lines and two equally spaced horizontal lines.
In order to use the rule of thirds, you must first decide what you would like your focal point to be. The focal point is the point in which you would like your viewer to notice first. Once you have determined your focal point, you place it in one of the intersections of these lines. This is to create a more interesting and stimulating composition.
The rule of thirds in action
It should be noted that the focal point does not have to exactly match up with the intersection of lines, but by being close to these intersections can create a big impact.
The scale or proportion is the relationship between two or more subjects in a composition in terms of size comparison. Think about hierarchy. If an object is larger than another, you are more likely to look at the larger object first. This is disproportionate and can create emphasis on a specific subject.
On the other hand, some elements of the design should be proportionate. Take, for example, the human body. If there is a piece of the body that is out of proportion, it will likely look strange and out of balance. Sometimes this works – like in caricatures. Usually the artist will make the head appear larger than the body, putting more emphasis on the face. But in realistic renderings of the human body, it is important that each part of the body is proportionate.
Using scale and proportion will create harmony and balance in a composition. Take, for example, the following image. You are likely to look at the large blue circle first, because it is the largest of the three. Then the yellow circle, as it is the second largest, and finally the green circle, because it is the smallest. When looking at the other shapes in the design, you are more likely to first look at the large, bold square, and then you’ll notice the triangles within that square. This is because they are smaller and the lines are thinner.
An example of proportion
Proximity in design refers to how objects are grouped together. Related items are grouped together to indicate that they are a unit. Unrelated objects should have more space between them to show that they are separate. A great example of this is in websites. Related content should be in one section – as in blog posts or articles. They have their specific place on the design. While unrelated content – think of a side bar that has no relation to the blog posts – should be in another.
Think back to the elements of design! Negative space is just as important as positive space. It breaks up a design and makes it more digestible for the viewer. The example below perfectly illustrates how negative space and positive space can work together to show how proximity creates harmony.
The proximity principle illustrated in Anton Peck’s website
The website is separated into different sections with negative space in between. There is a place for navigation, featured art, and blog posts, which are broken up to show that they are unrelated. Note that the featured art is bigger than the rest of the modules. This is another example of scale and proportion.
Harmony and Rhythm
When thinking about rhythm in design, you can refer back to what you know about rhythm in music. A song with a good rhythm is one that has a repetitious pattern that provides a sense of expectancy, though throughout most songs, there is variation so that it does not get monotonous. The same is said for rhythm in art and design.
Do not confuse rhythm with repetition or pattern. They can work harmoniously together, but they are separate ideas. Rhythm is when you can expect various elements, but they are not uniform, or repeated. Instead, they are varied. Rhythm is most often used in design to create a flow or movement in a composition.
The best way to describe rhythm is to dissect it in composition. As you can see in the following example, Air, Iron and Water by Robert Robert Delaunay, there is a certain rhythm. Note that there is no real repetition or pattern. By using similar shapes, Delaunay creates a sense of expectancy, but all of the shapes are different in one way or another. The circles are divided up differently. They use different colors and values. The small rectangles are the same way. You can expect the rectangular shape, but they are not in any sort of specific pattern. This creates a sense of harmony among all of the elements in the design.
Air, Iron and Water by Robert Robert Delaunay
Now that you are aware of the rule of thirds, scale, proportion, and proximity, we can begin to talk about how emphasis can enhance your design. Emphasis is created in a multitude of different ways. By using the rule of thirds placement to catch a viewer’s attention, scale and proportion to lead the viewer’s eyes from most important to least important, and proximity to break up the piece in a way that makes sense. There are other ways to emphasize an element of your composition, too.
Color and Value Contrasts
Color can bring a design to life. Imagine a monochromatic design with a splash of another color. You’re likely to look first at the color that doesn’t match the rest. This will bring emphasis to the element of the design. Value contrasts are another way to create emphasis in a design. This is a more subtle approach but just as effective. The gradual change will draw the viewer’s attention to the areas with the most contrast.
In the example below by famous artist Piet Mondrian, you can see that he uses both color and the rule of thirds to create a focal point.
An example of emphasis at work by Piet Mondrian
Visual movement can also create an emphasis. Remember that line can move the viewer’s eyes across a composition. Creating this kind of movement can create an emphasis on the design.
Similarity and Contrast
Finally, similarity and contrast can create a striking emphasis. When the majority of a design is similar – such as a pattern or color scheme – and there is an element that breaks the mold, the viewer’s attention is drawn to this contrast.
A great example of both of these elements is Georgia O’Keefe’s Chama River. This piece draws the viewer’s attention upwards from the river to the mountains with the use of line. Another interesting point in this piece is the contrast between the simplistic blue river, and the detailed mountains at the top of the image.
Georgia O’Keefe’s Chama River
There are many ways to create an emphasis in a piece, and many times you can combine these ideas to make a piece of a composition stand out more.
Finding balance is simple once you know how the aforementioned principles of design work. Always keep in mind your focal point(s) and how you wish to draw the viewer’s attention as you begin to create balance in your composition.
Balance in a design is important so that you don’t overwhelm or underwhelm the viewer. You are able to guide the viewer’s attention exactly to where you want it through the use of balance. When thinking about balance, you must consider visual weight and visual direction.
Visual weight is essentially the amount of emphasis an artist or designer puts on an element of the design. By using emphasis we can make an object have more visual weight. Therefore a large red circle will have much more visual weight than a small grey circle.
As you can see in the example below, the element on the left uses size and value to give it a greater perceived visual weight than the snowflake on its right.
Visual direction is how you then lead the eye to the next element of the design. Consider again Georgia O’Keefe’s Charma River. By using visual direction, O’Keefe moved your eyes from the bottom of the work, up the river, to the mountains at the top of the piece.
Using what you now know about visual weight and direction, you can create a balance in your compositions. There are four types of balances in design.
Symmetrical balance is when both elements in a design have the same visual weight. Think about a line or axis straight down the center of the composition. The elements in the design should have an equal weight on both sides of the line. This does not necessarily mean that the elements are the exact same, just that the perceived weight of both elements are equal. Symmetrical balance is oftentimes regarded as elegant and formal. Be careful using symmetry, though, as it could end up looking boring.
Swan, Rush & Iris by Walter Crane – a representation of symmetrical balance
Asymmetrical Balance is when there is a predominate focal point, but it is balanced by more elements on the other side of the axis. This can be represented by having a large red circle on one side of the axis and four smaller blue circles on the other side. This gives balance because the smaller blue circles, together, hold a similar weight to the large red circle. In the example below, Degas uses four smaller, less detailed ballerinas in the background to balance the two in the foreground.
Edgar Degas’ Before the Ballet – an example of asymmetrical balance
Radial balance is achieved when elements radiate from the major focal point. Think about sunrays radiating out from the focal point: the sun.
Radial Balance example by Grant Pickett
Crystallographic balance, or mosaic balance, at first may seem chaotic or askew because there is no definite focal point. Actually, most crystallographic compositions are balanced by repetition, pattern, or rhythm.
In the example below, you can see that there is a rhythm in this crystallographic website. The letters are all over the screen, but remember, with rhythm, there is an underlying element of similarity. The similarity here is the letters. Sure, they seem thrown across the screen, but because they are the same font and size, they create a balance through rhythm.
Rabbit’s Tale’s website – an example of a crystallographic balance
It is important to know the basic elements and principles of design in order to create effective and attractive designs. You may have noticed that most of these elements and principles intertwine in one way or another. If you are unfamiliar with some of these “rules,” play around with them! Learn about them more intimately through trial and error. Combine multiple elements and principles for design and see how it turns out. You can learn a lot about how these different ideas work through practice.