Graphic design is a complicated process, with many rules and sometimes conflicting approaches to the same goal. There is a lot to learn for the novice designer, more than can be covered in this post, but we’ll outline 20 of the most important principles to get you going. However, learning the rules is one thing, learning when to break them is something that only comes with experience.
The line is one of the basic graphic design elements. It’s a building block that can be used to divide a space, separate content, join elements, add style, define boarders, create forms, and direct to the viewer’s attention towards or away from an object.
Lines don’t have to be straight solid things. Lines can be curved, dotted, dashed, made up from zigzags, or implied by other design elements. The Bauhaus poster design uses sharp diagonal lines to great effect.
Size, Scale, and Proportion
Size scale and proportion are all import interrelated aspects of graphic design. The size is the physical dimensions of the element, the scale is its size relative to other objects on the page, and proportion is the relative size of part of a whole. You can use size, scale, and proportion to draw attention to important elements on the page, or draw focus away from parts of the page. Artists often use these design features to create emphases or drama in their work.
There is a whole theory behind colour in graphic design, and the psychology of colour is often talked about in web design circles. There are lots of resources online to help you choose a good colour pallet, check out the following websites:
Put simply repetition is the process of using one or more elements repeatedly throughout a design. Using an element repeatedly, whether it’s a line style, font, or colour, adds consistency to your design work. It will help to tie all the different elements of your design together. In branding repetition comes into its own, where it’s crucial for giving a company a consistent look.
The space in between objects in your design is the negative space. Designers often use it to great hidden images within their designs. For example the number 1 in the Formula One logo, or the hidden arrow in the FedEx Logo. If you can’t see it look at the space between the ‘E’ and ‘x’ in the logo.
Symmetry in design is often seen as formal. People are generally attracted to symmetry and it can give a sense of balance and calm. However, it can sometimes be seen as boring, especially if over used.
Transparency is a very useful trick in graphic design. you can use it to let different elements interact with each other, or give the impression of movement. It’s also useful for enhancing contrast or simplifying a busy complicated background.
Textures can be used to give depth to a design, or a tactile feeling. Use it to create an illusion of a physical sensation that suggests to the viewer what an object might feel like.
Everything in a design has a visual weight, balance is the placement of the elements so that no one object is overly dominant. If you place a dark object next to a light object in a design, the dark object will feel heavier to the viewer.
Visual hierarchy is used in design to give the users a sense of whats most important on a page. You can use size, colour, shape, contrast, texture, or any other design element to create a hierarchy in your design. A common example would be the heading tags on a website. These tend to use size, font weight, and sometimes colour to give an order of precedence.
Contrast can be light and dark, warm and cool, but it doesn’t have to be based on light or colour. You can also create contrast with size, alignment, shape, and many other design principles. Getting the right level of contrast between two elements is important, a subtle contrast can sometimes be more powerful than a strong one.
Framing is a way to set off one element from its surroundings. It will bring attention to the element
and lift it apart from the rest of the design. It helps to highlight important elements, and can add aesthetics to the image.
The main role of the grid is to set some rules for how the elements are laid out and positioned. It acts as an invisible framework that holds a design together. The grid should give the design a rhythm and meter, and guide the viewer to the important parts of the design. The golden ratio shown below has long been used to determine the most pleasing proportions for an element. This is often simplified to the rule of thirds. You can use the golden ratio together with a grid to design a layout that is coherent and aesthetically appealing.
Rules are always useful for a designer, but breaking them can be just as important. Adding some randomness to your work can help to give it an edge, and make it feel more organic. The best designs are focused on communicating an idea, if you use randomness in your work it should be in a way that enhances that communication.
Visual direction is about leading the viewer through the design, from one location to the next. The goal is to try to get the viewer to look at the parts of the design that you want them to focus on. You can create visual direction with lines, shapes, or movement.
Learning the ‘rules’ can significantly improve your design work, but you should never feel completely limited by them. There are plenty of design rules that apply to web designers, like limiting the number of fonts to 2 or keeping your logo simple. However, the best designers know the rules and know when to break them.
Introducing movement into your designs will bring them to life. If you’re a web designer this can be literal, but movement can be used on static graphic design as well. Use blurring, motion lines, or waving effects to suggest movement to the viewer. Look back at the Formula One logo above.
There are many ways to create a sense of depth on a flat surface. Converging lines, shadows, size, scale, and overlapping elements are all ways to add a sense of depth to your design. You can use depth to help pull the viewer into the design and guide them to the most important elements.
Typography is a massive topic in its own right, and is a one the main building block in graphic design. You should always try to pick a distinctive font fits will with your design. As a general rule try to limit the number of fonts you use to 2 or 3.
Composition is the arrangement of your design elements on the page. It brings together all the other design principles into once final design. There are many approaches to composition, like the rule of thirds, that have the goal of giving a sense of unity to the final work.