Elements and Principles of Design

In this series we look at the classic elements of design, then the classic principles of design, then we get into some extended principles of design that can also be quite useful. The elements of design are quite simple, for example, line, shape, and direction; but together, these elements can be used to create work that demonstrates the principles of design. For example, two shapes on either side of a stage can demonstrate the design principle of “balance”.

Understanding the Elements and Principles of Design gives you a way to discuss and understand design. As you use these elements and principles regularly, their use will become second-nature and your designs will automatically move to a higher level. I like to think of a karate practicioner, who practices the basic moves by drilling over and over until those movements are automatic; once the basics are mastered, more advanced movements are possible, as are completely new innovations that are only possible because of the mastery of the basics. When you research the Elements and Principles of Design, you will find different lists. This is my interpretation.

Elements of Design

The eight elements of design are Point, Line, Shape, Direction, Size, Texture, Value, and Color. These simple components can be used together to create works that demonstrate the principles, and extended principles, of design.

1. Point

A Point can be a dot or a series of dots that in itself creates or forms an image.

2. Line

There are three ways line can be formed in a design; first, as a continuous or broken line in the traditional sense; second, as the line that forms the edge of a (usually filled in) shape; and third as a side effect of points or other shapes that, in sum, suggest a line. The images above illustrate each of these cases. At upper left, continuous and broken lines describe shapes. In the middle, shapes define lines by their edges; note the box that becomes more pronounced and thus describes edges more clearly as the frames advance. On the right, a curved line (a spiral in this case) is described by an arrangement of dots, which becomes more evident as more dots are added to the pattern.

3. Shape

Shape is formed when a self-contained area is described. This can be organic, geometric, or a blend of the two. On a white background, a colored shape would be considered the positive shape, but the mere act of creating it also creates a negative shape around it. In some ways, shape can be considered silhouette, as the shape describes the silhouette of the form.

4. Direction

Direction can apply to points, lines (all three possibilities of lines), and shapes. If the imagery seems to flow horizontally, calmness is suggested. If the imagery seems to flow vertically, there is suggested a sense of balance, alertness, and formality. If the “lines” are oblique or angled, movement and action are suggested. Below, each of these possibilities is illustrated using lines.

5. Size

Size is the relationship of the area of different positive or negative shapes to one another.

6. Texture

Texture is the surface quality of the point, line, or shape. It can be rough, smooth, patterned, wavy, glossy, etc. Depending on the media, this can be two-dimensional only, or three-dimensional, or a blend.

7. Value

Value has to do with tonality – lightness, darkness, whether the image is black and white, shades of gray, or different values of color.

8. Color

Color is foundational to good design – to do justice to this subject will require a separate Theory & Principles page, but in a nutshell, color can primary (red, yellow, green) or secondary (green, orange, violet). Secondary colors are mixtures of the colors they lie between on a color wheel. Tertiary colors lie between primary colors and secondary colors (for example, yellow-orange lies between yellow and orange). See the pages on Color Theory for more information.

The Principles of Design

The principles of design are like guiding concepts, and are achieved by using the elements of design in combination. I can acheive the principle of balance in an image by using two lines or shapes, one on the left, one on the right, for example. The elements make up the content of the design, and the principles denote how the elements are arranged and placed in respect to one-another and the “canvas”.

1. Contrast

Contrast is a juxtaposition of opposite elements such as tone or color. For example, you can have dark tones next to light tones, or red color next to red’s opposite, green. This is an alternation of colors, tones, or shapes.

2. Harmony

Harmony can be achieved in a work by composing areas that have, for example, colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. Another way to achieve harmony is in the stroke of lines and tonality of a work. A work of consistently low-contrast will be harmonious at least in tonality, though it may need an object of higher contrast that stands out against the background.

3. Unity

When a work has more than one element, connecting or relating the different elements to one-another in some way adds unity. For example, a trail or road might visually connect different elements in a landscape. Colors can also join different elements together, when they are near each other on the color wheel, as they eye and brain groups these things together to some degree.

4. Balance

It helps a composition balance itself if the work is not all crammed into one corner; consideration should be given to where you want the viewer’s eye to go, in fact what path you want the viewer’s eye to take. A river or road can wind through an image and draw the eye along it – balance dictates that if there is an interesting object on one side, there should be something on the other side of the work as well, perhaps smaller or less pronounced. It is with balance, perhaps more than any of the other principles of art, that good composition is achieved.

5. Gradiation

Gradiation is tonal variation; light to dark, dark to light, and color variation, from warm to cool and vice-versa. Generally with a darker the object on a white background, the eye will follow a change in tonality from light to dark. If the background is dark and the image is white, a gradual change in tonality will lead the eye from dark to light. The stronger the variation between the different neighboring elements, the more dynamic the image. The less variation there is in gradiation, the more static the image will appear. Gradiation can also be used to suggest three- dimensional form, causing the image to seem more real and substantial. Gradiation can be applied procedurally via a three-dimensional modeling package, or hand-drawn in a two-dimensional editing solution such as Photoshop or Illustrator.

6. Repetition

Repetition is used to draw the eye along a path, as in the repetitive pattern of a picket fence or the repetitive pattern of barbs on barb wire. Repetition can give a work a sense of motion. Size can be combined with repetition to show distance, as in the case of telephone poles or trees along a road in a landscape.

7. Rhythm

Here we separate out Rhythm from Repetition where some combine them – to us, rhythm is an entirely separate principle, where the artist or designer is arranging the regularity or pattern of the repetition much like a drummer arranges beats on various drums to establish the rhythm of a song. Many dots, closely spaced, can be analogous to eighth-notes, played by a bassist. Fewer dots with more space between them might be quarter-notes. Varying the rhythm of the elements of the design can serve to add interest and direct the eye.

8. Dominance

If there is a genericness in the image, where all the shapes and colors are similar, there will be no sense of dominance. If have a light blue background and add a big red ball to the picture, now you have added a dominant element. Color and size can give a shape dominance, as can a difference in the tonality of the shape and even the types of lines with which it is created.

The Universal Principles of Design

The universal principles of design may apply to more than simply graphic or digital design. These “extended” principles are discussed in detail in the highly recommended book Universal Principles of Design which covers over 200 principles and includes an index that helps you decide which principle to use when you want to achieve different aims (such as “how do I increase the appeal of a design?”). Below I summarize some of the most interesting and useful of these in my own words.

1. Aesthetic-Usability Effect

People percieve aesthetic designs as being easier to use than less aesthetic designs, regardless of whether they are in fact easier to use. The percieved ease of use leads to a higher probability of being accepted and used. Simply making a cell phone aerodynamically shaped and in “cool” colors results in increased acceptance, affection, and sales for the product.

2. Alignment

This element harkens back to the element of design called “line”. If we have several box-shaped elements on a canvas or stage, and we line up their left edges, we have aligned them, which results in the principle of Unity (or even cohesion) in the work. By having some elements lined up, they demonstrated a relatedness to one-another that would otherwise be lacking, and help the user to make connections between them. This alignment can be used not only for box or other shaped elements, but for aligned text as well.

3. Closure

Closure is when we see distinctly separate elements as shapes when they are arranged in patterns. For example many dots in a circle pattern will appear to us as a circle shape. In the same way, edges of shapes that line up together form percieved lines for the viewer that can further establish shapes.

4. Consistency

When a design uses elements in a consistent way, the design becomes more recognizable and familiar, so that other similar designs are recognized as such. Certain restaurants have the same type of building design, helping us as clients to recognize them even when we cannot read the signs. Certain car makers use design elements in consistent ways so that even if we haven’t seen that model before, we know it is a Mercedes or Jaguar. There can be functional consistency also, for example cassette players and MP3 players have a design consistency in the shape and location of the play, pause, and rewind buttons.

5. Exposure or Familiarity Effect

Repeated exposure to a particular stimulus which results in neutral feelings initially, will result in increased likability over time. This can be seen especially in simple shapes, photographs, and some words and phrases. Eventually this likability factor loses strength. One example is the cubist work of Picasso, that gained popularity as people became more familiar with this unusual style. The best way to use this effect is to not overdo it.