The 7 principles of graphic design
Design principles refer to the way design elements are used together. These principles are balance, unity/harmony, hierarchy, scale/proportion, dominance/emphasis, similarity/contrast, and white space.
Design principles are like rules, a set of guidelines based on practice and research for using design elements together effectively, that a designer should follow.
In the same vein as design elements, the use of design principles can either help or hurt the functionality and stylistic vision of your piece. How you put the design elements together, or compose your design, is just as important to consider as the elements that you chose to include.
Balance makes a design feel stable and is considered when designers make layout and composition decisions. All elements of design hold a visual weight. The principle of balance speaks to the even, but not necessarily equal, distribution of design elements. Balance can be described as symmetrical or asymmetrical.
Symmetrical balance is when the weight and value of the composition are essentially mirrored over an imaginary vertical line down the center of the canvas.
Asymmetrical balance is when the two sides are not mirrored, but the elements are arranged so that there is a sense of balance.
When a design is unbalanced, it feels uncomfortable because the elements and composition don’t make sense.
But balance is more than the weight of object size. Balance is also achieved by using color, shape, position, value, texture, and eye direction.
Unity & Harmony
Unity and harmony speak to the intangible feeling that all design elements belong together, creating a sense of completeness. When a design has harmony, the design elements are working in unity. The goal of any design is to communicate something. Without strong unity, this communication breaks down and the design fails.
The entirety of the design is more than the sum of its parts. With the right composition, different design elements will appear to belong together. Repetition, similarity, and proximity can add this visual feeling of completeness to your design.
Hierarchy is the order in which a viewer looks at design elements within a composition. A designer only has a few seconds to capture attention, so it’s important to let the viewer know where to look first, second, third, and so on.
The eye is naturally drawn to larger parts of the design first, so viewers tend to always look at the largest object before anything else. In design terms, that means a large object will have more hierarchy than a smaller object.
Another tendency of the human eye is to look for anything irregular in a design or pattern. If an element has a different visual weight than the other elements in the design, it will have more hierarchy.
In an article from 99designs, the six principles of the visual hierarchy are explained. One of the first principles is page scanning patterns. When info isn’t presented in block paragraphs, the reader’s eye first scans across the top of the page, where important information is often found, then moves down to the opposite corner at a diagonal to do the same thing across the bottom of the page.
Scale & Proportion
Scale is how design elements relate to each other in size, weight, and placement. Proportion is the relative size, weight, and placement of an element to the whole design. The right scale and proportion ratios of elements help bring a feeling of balance.
Dominance & Emphasis
A dominant design element is the focal point of your design and where the viewer’s eye spends the most time. These design elements will be highlighted to have more hierarchy than others within the composition.
Making these elements larger in size or brighter in color are two ways to accomplish this effect. The general rule is to make sure the area of you want to highlight is in contrast to the rest of the design, whether that be in size, shape, color, texture, etc.
Similarity & Contrast
Designers often take advantage of the Gestalt principles, a set of rules describing how the human eye perceives visual elements, to successfully leverage similarity and contrast. Gestalt, meaning “unified whole,” refers to how the human eye naturally groups together visually or conceptually similar items into a larger whole.
A strong tool in bringing unity to your work, similarity in design speaks to the repetitive use of similar design elements in the same design composition.
Contrast, on the other hand, describes when two design elements in proximity have blatantly opposing qualities. A design element with contrast will always catch the viewers attention, as opposed to seeing all elements together as a whole.
White space, or negative space, describes the empty part of the design composition, or the part of the design canvas that is left untouched. While the principles and elements discussed thus far involve what you add to the composition, this last principle is about what you don’t add.
Allowing for enough white space helps a design feel organized and uncluttered, and it can be used to communicate the designer’s concept further.
In this Vanseo Design article, author Steven Bradley explains that whitespace does three main things in design:
1. Creates grouping of elements
2. Creates emphasis and hierarchy
3. Improves legibility
“Whitespace gives a place for the eye to rest, which it needs in order to absorb the message you’re trying to communicate,” he says. “It’s a visual cue that there’s a break in the content or that the content is finished.”