Graphic designer

12 min read

The 12 Principles of Design & How to Apply Them

Learn about the 12 principles of design and the best way to apply them in your creations

Floyd FlinnJul 23, 2022

Principles of Design

You can't just flip a switch and create beautiful designs on a whim. Like learning to walk before you run, there are certain fundamentals you've got to learn first.

The issue is that resources are limited if you don't have the time or desire to enroll in a design course. You may rely on Canva templates, but you still need to understand how to use them effectively.

What goes into the Principles of a Design

This article is for you if you've ever wondered what goes into good design. Whether you're a total novice or a budding designer, you'll find it helpful, so let's get started.


To produce successful visuals, including captivating social media posts and blog graphics, you must adhere to design standards.

Think of these ideas as your toolkit and design as carpentry. They can assist you while you are designing, and unlike hammers, nails, and screwdrivers, they can exist only in your mind.

These resources help you comprehend and appreciate the work that goes into the designs we see daily. As you get more familiar with them, you'll start to understand what works and doesn't work (and why) and how you may apply these ideas to your creative work.

A good design is what?


We are informed that art is subjective. That is mainly accurate. However, if you've encountered a confusing parking sign or an outdated website, you'll know that awful design exists.

As design and usability expert Jared Spool puts it, "good design, when done well, becomes invisible. It's only when it's done poorly that we notice it." Good design is difficult to define because of this.

Fortunately for us, influential designer Dieter Rams recognized this issue in the late 1970s. He then asked himself what made for successful design in response and created his list of ten principles.

He had no idea they would influence future generations of designers, notably Johnny Ive, the brains behind some of Apple's most well-known creations.

The values of Rams Principles of Design are:

  • Innovative design is good.
  • A product that has a good design is beneficial.
  • An attractive design is good.
  • A product that has good design is easily understood.
  • Good design is discrete.
  • An honest design is good.
  • Long-lasting good design
  • A good design is meticulous in every way.
  • An environmentally friendly design is good.
  • As little design as possible is good design.


You may have noticed that these guidelines focus on product design. Rams worked for Braun; thus, products were his area of expertise. Nevertheless, these concepts may be applied to UX, UI, or any other design context.

There are other ideas besides those advocated by the Rams. Whitney Hess' five guiding principles for experience designers and Nielsen's ten usability criteria are two other noteworthy design principles.

The Twelve Principles of Design


These fundamental art concepts underpin every design, from the works of fine art at the Louvre to the boxes of Corn Flakes at the neighborhood grocery shop. They are the building blocks graphic designers and artists use to put creative works together.

  1. Balance

Whereas in real life, things have actual weight, design features have visual weight. Each element has its own "weight," dependent on how much attention it attracts, with large pieces being heavier and smaller elements being lighter.

Making sure your design is equally weighted on both sides of the primary point is the goal of visual balance. Like a seesaw, it becomes unstable when one side of the credit is too heavily laden.

By striking this balance, you produce visual harmony and prevent the spectator from experiencing an excessive amount of chaos in your design. One of the most crucial components of visual composition, it can take one of three fundamental shapes:

Symmetrical Balance

A symmetrical design divides a central point into two halves by an imagined vertical (or occasionally horizontal) line. On either side of the axis, components with equivalent visual weight are balanced to provide symmetry.

Reflectional symmetry, in which the two halves are identical mirror images, and translational symmetry, in which the same shape or element is reproduced on both sides of the design, are the two types of symmetrical balancing.

Asymmetrical balance

Asymmetrical balance


When a composition utilizes pieces with different weights, it is said to be asymmetrical. Several lighter pieces might balance a visually dominant element on one side.

If we continue with the seesaw analogy, it would be like stacking 100 kg of feathers on one side and a 100-kilogram weight on the other. Although it still reaches balance, the sensation is very different.

Asymmetry frequently makes for a more eye-catching design. Asymmetrical balance can give designs a more dynamic sense, whereas symmetrical balance can make techniques feel relatively rigid and predictable.

Radial Balance

Radial balance


When elements "radiate" outward from a central point in a design, this is known as radial balance. Consider the sun's beams, a rose's blooming petals, or a dollop of tomato sauce amid a delicious meat pie.

This type of symmetry emphasizes an object at the center of a composition by giving it depth and movement.

2. Emphasis

Eight circles in white and one in blue

Emphasis is utilized to draw focus to a particular area of composition. To create the desired impact, elements (such as color, shape, and size) are altered to make specific components of a design stand out.

Say you wanted to draw attention to a call to action on a landing page, for instance. To emphasize the CTA and ensure visitors can't miss it, you may enlarge the font and utilize colors that contrast with the background.

3. Repetition

Repetition of circles


Repetition, as you might have guessed, is when an element repeatedly appears across a design. Anything from utilizing a specific font color to using a repeating pattern in a social media post could be considered.

Repetition gives designs a sense of coherence and excitement. Using a recurring motif that the observer learns to anticipate also fosters a sense of consistency. This makes it very helpful for developing your distinctive brand identity.

The logo, design, and colors. Your brand's visible component is its brand identity. It sets your business apart from the many others in the marketplace so that when people see your designs, they quickly recognize your organization.

crowbarEvery profitable enterprise employs repetition. Why do we associate Nike with the swoosh and "just do it"? The Pepsi blue can, right? Because these images were used frequently, the brands they stand for gradually became associated with them.

Therefore, repetition is essential for any business aiming to develop a visual identity and brand identification, even if it just helps you create a cute iPhone wallpaper.

4. Movement

visualize movement

When we think about movement, we generally picture moving objects—swinging like a pendulum Driving down the freeway in a Ferrari. However, in design, it describes the course a viewer's eye takes when they scan a composition.

The way you look at something matters more than just what you see. Designers can influence this by employing lines, edges, shapes, and colors to establish emphasis points and promote particular ways of seeing.

Motion can divert, focus, and draw the viewer's attention to a design. A skilled artist may manage this process by employing subtle clues, especially lighting and perspective. Lines can be used to establish directional signals and breathe life into static images.

5. Proportion

visual on proportions

The relationship between two or more design elements, particularly their sizes and scales, is known as proportion. When anything is "proportionate," it refers to the coordination between them that gives the design a beautiful appearance.

For instance, you anticipate headings to be larger than body text when reading a blog article, or you would expect the hare to be bigger than the tortoise if you were looking at a realistic drawing of a tortoise and a hare.

Finding harmony between two elements is the goal of proportion. Making sure that everything appears "right"—that the components seem to belong together—is essential.

When building digital assets and websites online, this issue frequently arises. It's the bane of the existence of many aspiring designers. Here are some pointers for maintaining proportion between the elements in your design:

Put together components that are the same or have a similar function.
To avoid monotony and boredom, divide the design into major and minor regions.


Make sure size differences are subtle (unless the objective is emphasized.)
Keep the composition from being divided into halves, quarters, and thirds.
Try to maintain equilibrium.


Additionally, you may experiment with proportions in several ways to highlight specific details or convey a particular message. It's a tactic employed frequently in commercials and works best for more imaginative projects.

6. White Space

negative or white space

"Negative" or "white" space is the area between various design elements. This is the only element in the design that is empty. No writing, pictures, illustrations, or bright colors. Nothing.

It's not a "negative" thing, and it doesn't have to be "white," so the term is a little deceptive. White space is what you don't include; it's the empty area surrounding and inside your design, and it can be any color.

It is one of the essential design building blocks and is just as significant as any other aspect you choose to use. Consider it similar to a diet: what you eat is necessary, but what you don't eat is just as important.

Using white space in a design is similar to using silence in a musical piece. Music is unorganized if quiet isn't used sparingly enough. Parallel to this, the plan is chaotic and challenging to read without white space.

Contrast

Contrast

When two or more visual elements in a composition are dissimilar, contrast is created. It can produce particular effects, highlight the importance of specific components, and improve the aesthetic appeal of your designs.

People tend to enjoy the contrast. Boring designs can be made more interesting by playing with contrasting color shades, forms, sizes, textures, and typography. It's a fantastic method to draw viewers in, manage the visual flow, and keep them interested.

Be mindful because including too many variations may confuse viewers (the opposite effect you want to have.) It's all about finding the right balance, just like with most of the various aspects of painting.

8. Hierarchy

no hierarchy and hierarchy


Visual hierarchy is the organization of the relative importance of the components in your design. Making it more straightforward for the viewer to understand your material is to order the information from most important to least significant.

Have you ever noticed how most landing pages share a similar design? This is important for UI and UX design. A menu and logo are at the top, followed by elements listed in decreasing order of significance below.

It's not because they duplicated each other's homework; designers follow a set hierarchy to highlight the formal elements in the proper sequence (and make it pretty to look at.)

The most crucial component should catch the attention of the observer initially. The components listed below are prioritized in order of importance, with these at the top of the hierarchy sitting on the throne.

There are several visual techniques to affect this flow, such as:

Size and scale: A viewer is more likely to notice a piece the larger it is. You can lessen something's significance and place the focus elsewhere by making it smaller.

Color and contrast: A little paint goes a long way. To make specific components or information stand out, use vivid colors.

Use varied typefaces and stylizations, such as bold and italics, to catch the reader's attention and shift text up or down the hierarchy.

White space: Using white space, you can give an element some breathing room and highlight the focal point.

Typical hierarchy
Every reader reads a page from top to bottom. We scan the page instead of simply staring at it and waiting for the information to register.

The path taken by the human eye during this procedure is generally consistent. Designers use the F-pattern and the Z-pattern, two widely used patterns, to make it easier for users to absorb information.

Primarily text-based pages such as online or printed articles fall under the F-pattern. As they identify items they find intriguing, readers scan the page in the shape of an "F"—first, down the left side of the page, then to the right.

two websites in Chrome

When creating layouts with little text and images, designers employ the Z-pattern. Viewers scan the top of the page using this pattern before moving diagonally downward toward the other corner. The bottom is then scanned similarly to the top.

Most websites use this type of layout. Take note of how the primary information, such as the logo and navigation menu, is at the top and the supporting data, such as the clients and chatbot, is at the bottom.

9. Rhythm

rhythm

You can leave your dance shoes at home, so don't worry. How you move your hips has nothing to do with rhythm in design. Giving your composition a sense of movement and action is essential.

By repeating lines, forms, colors, and other features, designers can generate rhythm. This creates patterns, gives the design a sense of flow, and creates a path for our eyes. There are several varieties of rhythm:

Unexpected rhythm: Repetition of parts without a predictable pause.

Regular rhythm: When the elements are evenly spaced out over predictable time intervals and are similar in size and length.

Flowing rhythm: Organically spaced patterns found in nature, such as tiger stripes or a bouquet in a garden.

A continuous change or succession of elements that transform throughout distinct steps is referred to as a progressive rhythm (like a color gradient, for example.)

Rhythm encourages viewers to travel their eyes across the entire piece, following the lines and forms to their natural endpoints rather than allowing the viewer's eye to focus on a single focal point. You may see it mirrored in both nature and works of art.

10. Pattern

pattern

A pattern is made up of many elements repeated similarly, unlike repetition, which happens when the same elements are repeated repeatedly throughout a design. A pattern can be seen in the manner that present wrapping often consists of a few different pieces that are repeated.

You'll also see patterns frequently utilized in mobile applications and website backdrops.

Generally speaking, it's preferable to design patterns using colors, textures, and forms. Avoid doing it with words; it usually simply causes people headaches. Despite the occasional use of vivid colors and bizarre patterns, simplicity is the key to successful pattern design.

Variety

variety of shapes

Variety keeps the action interesting. It prevents designs from becoming predictable, dull, and stagnant—all things you want to avoid. Ensuring that the elements are diverse prevents designs from feeling uninspired and repetitive.

Using juxtaposition and contrast is the most straightforward approach to accomplish this. Put text next to images, bold colors next to lighter shades, and rounded shapes adjacent to square ones. By doing this, you may keep viewers interested in your design.

12. Unity

Because it only happens when all the many components of a design work together to create a unified, aesthetically pleasing experience, we've placed unity last on this list.

Instead of a disorganized amalgamation of separate components that just so happens to be on the same page, unity adds order and makes a piece feel like a coherent whole. It is philosophically and visually developed.

  • Visual Unity: extensions of "harmony" include the employment of complementary styles, color schemes, and, in some situations, the repetition of colors and elements to produce consistency. To maintain consistency in the design, one example would be to use the same colors for all of the buttons on a website.
  • Conceptual unity: is the process of combining things for the user's convenience; it involves organically fusing form and function. An illustration of this is the ability to "Like" an image on Instagram by double-tapping—doing so minimizes friction and requires the user to take less activity.

To establish unity, you must consider three factors: if the parts you've utilized have a valid reason for being there, whether they function as a unit, and whether the idea you're attempting to convey is made evident.

By ensuring that your designs work together, you may lessen the cognitive burden and guarantee that visitors will truly comprehend what your design is trying to do.

Put these design principles to work.


These 12 design guidelines can provide you with some motivation to improve your creative output.

You'll be well on your way to success if you take the time to study and apply these concepts, regardless of what you're designing—from product pages to actual items.

Always keep in mind that design is developing. It's a terrific method to improve your design abilities by looking at what other people are doing and considering how you may use their techniques in your work.

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