The Elements of Graphic Design

Graphic Design Makes Use of These Primary Elements

Any graphic work is comprised of one or more graphic design elements. The elements of design should not be confused with principles of design, such as balance, focal point, and how to use white space; rather, the elements of design are the components of a design, such as color, type and images. 

Here is a list of the most commonly used elements in graphic design. You don't have to incorporate all of them in any given work. The use of lines and shapes in a design may provide great balance without the use of a photo, for example. 

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Shapes

Graphic designer, close-up of hands
Cavan Images/The Image Bank/Getty Images

From ancient pictographs to modern logos, shapes are at the root of design. They can be either geometric (squares, triangles, circles) or organic and free-formed (almost anything). They can have soft curves or hard, sharp edges. They are used to establish layouts, create patterns, or emphasize a portion of a page. They define boundaries, either connecting or separating parts of the page. They create movement and flow, leading the eye from one element to another. They might interact to create additional elements. For example, text on a page can create a shape.

With graphics software such as Illustrator, Photoshop or the free GIMP, creating and manipulating shapes is easier than ever.

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Lines

Lines are used to divide space, direct the eye, and create forms. At the most basic level, straight lines are found in layouts to separate content, such as in magazine, newspaper, and website designs. This can, of course, go much further, with curved, dotted, and zigzag lines used as the defining elements on a page and as the basis for illustrations and graphics. Lines are frequently combined with type, either above or below, and these may not extend the full width of the text.

Often, lines will be implied, meaning other elements of design will follow the path of the line, such as type on a curve. 

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Color

Color is everywhere and is so pervasive that it can seem either obvious in choice to a designer, or pose a complex decision. This is partly because color evokes such emotion and can be applied to any other element, changing it dramatically. It can be used to make an image stand out, to convey information or emphasize a point, to enhance meaning, or just to show linked text on a website.

Graphic designers will gain an understanding of color theory, which includes the color wheel, something we've all seen in school with its primary red, yellow and blue colors and their relationships to one another. But color is a lot more complex than mixing colors: it also includes an understanding of color properties such as hue, shade, tone, tint, saturation, and value. There are different color models as well: CMYK (called a subtractive model) and RGB, an additive model.

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Type

Type is all around us, of course. In graphic design, the goal is to not to just place some text on a page, but rather to understand and use it effectively for communication. Choice of fonts (typefaces), size, alignment, color, and spacing all come into play. Typefaces are generally broken into type families, such as Roman or Helvetica.

Type can be taken further by using it to create shapes and images. Type can communicate a mood (warm, cold, happy, sad) or evoke a style (modern, classic, feminine, masculine). 

Understanding type is an entire art to itself; in fact, some designers devote themselves to designing typefaces, or fonts, exclusively. This requires expert knowledge of type terms such as kerning (the space between letters), leading (the space between lines), and tracking (the overall space between type on a page). Further, type has its own anatomy that needs to be understood in order to effectively design with fonts.

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Art, Illustration & Photography

A powerful image can make or break a design. Photographs, illustrations and artwork are used to tell stories, support ideas, evoke emotion and grab the audience's attention. Photos often play a large part in branding, so selection is important.

Some graphic designers create this work on their own.  A designer may also commission an artist or photographer, or purchase it at all price levels on many websites.

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Texture

Texture can refer to the actual surface of a design or to the visual appearance of a design. In the first case, the audience can actually feel the texture, making it unique from the other elements of design. Selection of paper and materials in package design can affect actual texture. In the second case, texture is implied through the style of design. Rich, layered graphics can create visual texture that mirrors actual texture.

Texture can apply to any other element in a design: it can make text appear 3-D, flowery, sunken or jagged; it can make a photograph as smooth as glass or jump out like a mountain range. In fact, texture is always present in any graphic design because everything has a surface.