Principles of Design Definitions

Lesson 1: Defining the Principles of Design Through Metaphor or Allegory

The number 5 is the repeating element which echoes the page content.
In this composition, the number 5 is the repeating element which echoes the page content. Jacci Howard Bear

Introduction to the Principles of Design > Lesson 1: Definitions

Generally, all the principles of design apply to any piece you may create. How you apply those principles determines how effective your design is in conveying the desired message and how attractive it appears. There is seldom only one correct way to apply each principle.

Try walking a long distance with a 2 pound bag of rocks in one hand and a 10 pound bag of marbles in the other.

After awhile you'll be wanting to shift your load around, putting a few marbles in the rock bag to balance your load, make it easier to walk. This is how balance works in design. Visual balance comes from arranging elements on the page so that no one section is heavier than the other. Or, a designer may intentionally throw elements out of balance to create tension or a certain mood.

Proximity / Unity
Observe a group of people in a room. You can often learn a lot about who is listening intently to another person, which are strangers, or who is ignoring who by how close together they sit or stand. In design, proximity or closeness creates a bond between people and between elements on a page. How close together or far apart elements are placed suggests a relationship (or lack of) between otherwise disparate parts. Unity is also achieved by using a third element to connect distant parts.

Can you imagine how difficult it would be to find your car in a crowded parking lot if everyone ignored the parking lot stripes and parked in every which direction and angle?

Imagine trying to get out of there! Alignment brings order to chaos, in a parking lot and on a piece of paper. How you align type and graphics on a page and in relation to each other can make your layout easier or more difficult to read, foster familiarity, or bring excitement to a stale design.

Repetition / Consistency
What if Stop signs came in pink squares, yellow circles, or green triangles, depending on the changing whims of a town and a few of its residents?

Imagine the ensuing traffic jams and accidents. Repeating design elements and consistent use of type and graphics styles within a document shows a reader where to go and helps them navigate your designs and layouts safely.

On the basketball court, one pro team looks much like another. But send a few of those players for a stroll down most any major city street and something becomes apparent — those players are much taller than your average guy on the street. That's contrast. In design, big and small elements, black and white text, squares and circles, can all create contrast in design.

White Space
Did you ever participate in that crazy college pasttime of VW Beetle stuffing? Were you ever the guy on the bottom struggling for a breath of fresh air or the last one in trying to find a place to stick your left elbow so the door will close? It wasn't comfortable, was it? Imagine trying to drive the car under those conditions. Designs that try to cram too much text and graphics onto the page are uncomfortable and may be impossible to read. White space gives your design breathing room.

We'll cover each of these principles in greater detail with examples and tutorials in the classes that follow this introduction, but first, try your hand at applying this brief lesson to an actual page.

More Principles of Design
Also known as the principles of composition, some designers or instructors in graphic design may include some of the above as part of a different set of principles including Grouping (proximity), Harmony (repetition & consistency & unity), Emphasis or Dominance, Flow or Rhythm or Directional Movement, Scale or Proportion, Center of Interest or Focal Point, and Hierarchy.

Next > Lesson 2: Principles of Design Makeover

Introduction to the Principles of Design > Lesson 1: Definitions

Introduction to the Principles of Design > Lesson 1: Definitions > Lesson 2: Apply the Principles of Design

Your assignment for this class involves this fictional yellow pages or display ad (also seen in sidebar).

Describe the changes you might make to this ad using the six principles of design outlined in this class: balance, proximity/unity, alignment, repetition/consistency, contrast, and white space.

Tell me what's wrong or less than optimal about the layout and what you would change and why? If you would make color or graphics changes, explain those with an eye on how they relate to one or more of the 6 principles. 

Although we haven't studied these principles in much detail, go ahead and apply them to the best of your ability. Remember to look at all six principles of design, no matter how little one of them might figure in this design makeover. The second image in the sidebar shows one possible makeover. Yours may be quite different.

Next > Class 2: Balance

Introduction to the Principles of Design > Lesson 1: Definitions > Lesson 2: Apply the Principles of Design