The 7 elements of graphic design

A  design element is the most basic unit of visual design and the most fundamental ingredient from which all designs are created.

Let’s imagine that creating a design piece is like building a house. Design elements would be the raw materials, such as brick or wood. How the chosen materials are used will impact the overall look, feel and functionality. Knowing the purpose of the house and intended style helps the architect make decisions about materials.


The first and most fundamental element of design is the line, which is the starting point for most designers staring at a blank canvas. In the context of graphic design, line is defined as two connected points in space. Lines can hold many attributes, such as being thick, thin, fine, brushed, smooth or rough, horizontal, vertical, diagonal, curved or bent, dashed, dotted, continuous or broken


Color is the second element of design, and similar to line, color can be used to set mood or tone of a design. Greens and blues, for example, tend to have a calm and relaxed appeal. Reds and oranges, on the other hand, are more powerful and passionate.

There’s a whole science behind picking colors based on what they mean and how they make us feel. Using color to tap into these emotions can make designs more successful at achieving the desired response. In the case of makers who sell their products, this desired response = a purchase.

For a more complete understanding of color, let’s look at the following characteristics:

Hue: Often used as just a fancy name for color (ie. magenta, green, blue), but it also means a pure color before any black or white is added to it.

Shade: The addition of black to a hue, making it a darker version of the pure color.

Tint: The addition of white to a hue, making it a lighter version of the pure color.

Tone: The addition of grey to a hue, making a muted version of the pure color.

Intensity: Speaks to the brightness or purity of a color. A true hue is said to have a high intensity, whereas it’s shade, tint or tone has a low intensity.


Value describes the range of lightness and darkness of a color. This value scale image illustrates what happens as black is added to white to make shades of grey.

This concept is important for designers not only in simple color choice but also because value defines forms and creates spatial illusions. “If values are close, shapes will seem to flatten out, and seem closely connected in space; none will stand out from the others,” explains Charlotte Jirousek in Art, Design and Visual Thinking. “If values contrast, shapes will appear to separate in space and some will stand out from the others. This works whether the colors are just black, white and gray, or whether hues are involved.”


Simply defined, a shape is the quality of a distinct object or body in having an external surface or outline of specific form or figure. This delineation of space can be accomplished using color, line, value, or texture.

We’re surrounded by so many shapes (homes, offices, cars, trees, flowers, cats, dogs) that we may not think about them much. But for the designer, shapes are at the root of graphic design. Shapes help the designer to add interest or organize elements of a design. They are not strictly ornamental, they can have symbolic meanings, invoke feelings, or be used to direct the eye to the most important information.”

Shapes can be described in three ways: Mechanical, organic, or abstract.

Mechanical shapes are those with hard edges and are usually geometric, offering a feeling of stability and order in a design.

Organic shapes are irregular and often feature curves or unexpected angles, which creates a more natural and expressive design.

Abstract shapes are things like letters, icons, or symbols and can help convey a message.


In design, texture has two definitions. The first is the visual texture when texture appears to exist on a flat surface via the use of line, shape, or color.

The second definition of texture is tactile, the physical texture or feeling of a design element such as smooth, soft, rough, fluffy, etc.


The least obvious of the seven design elements, space allows designers to take two-dimensional spaces and create the illusion of three dimensions. This is accomplished through a variety of techniques:

Overlapping: By putting some objects overlapped in front of others, designers can start to create the illusion of space.

Shading: Adding a gradient of values to a shape gives the illusion of a 3D object.

Atmospheric Perspective: This technique uses color and value contrasts to show depth. Objects which are further away generally have less distinct contrast; they may fade into the background or become indistinct dark areas. The foreground objects will be clear with sharper contrast.

Linear Perspective: This technique is how designers create the illusion of depth on a flat surface as well as identify a focal point. Objects that are far away look smaller, even if they aren’t small in reality.


Form refers to objects that are three-dimensional and is useful concept for defining space, adding volume to a composition and adding contrast. A form will always have height, width and depth, which can be accomplished using other design elements such as value, line and shape.