The 12 Principles Of Design Explained: Complete Guide + Uses

May 9, 2023

By: Gareth Mankoo

The 12 Principles Of Design Explained: Complete Guide + Uses

Every design in the world is different, and each artist adds their touch to their creations, yet, the principles of design remain the same. The human eye is naturally inclined to seek out proportions and balance and follow the natural progression of any piece of visual art.

The principles of design help designers follow these cues so that the content they create is easily understood and consumed by the viewers for whom it is intended.

What are principles of design?

Source: HenkinSchultz
Source: HenkinSchultz

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Design and creativity have their set of rules. What sets the profession apart is that specific data points influence some rules while others are purely human instincts. They help distinguish design pieces from each other while ensuring that they follow the fundamental laws of design.

The nature of design is such that each artist has the freedom of expression. Unlike fine art, commercial artists who work on brands and design firms must follow these guidelines and understand its terms, as they set a standard for correctness.

As a designer, you may want to defy some rules, but before you release any work that breaks the standard application of any of these principles, test them with your client, manager, and audiences. See their reaction and ask them what they make of it.

Creativity is subjective, which is why everyone interprets your design differently. What matters is how you can get the most considerable sum of people to interpret your design the way you want.

The 12 principles of design to consider in creating great designs

There is no fixed number of design principles that a designer or marketer needs to know. Some principles apply to specific platforms and formats. Some brands may need more order in their communications, while others thrive on chaos.

We have put together the essential principles of design that will form your guiding compass as a creator. They extend from design fundamentals you can learn as a self-taught artist to entire fields of study in creating visually engaging content.

1. Emphasis

Source: Zeka Design
Source: Zeka Design

Attention spans are shrinking in today’s online world. Whether creating a social media post to inform customers about a new feature or developing a lengthy email communication strategy, you need to have your priorities in place.

What would you like to expose your customers to first? How can design solve this challenge with the power of emphasis?

Any seasoned designer would tell you that emphasis can make or break an advertisement. To know what element needs emphasis, you must address the purpose of the creative.

Once you acknowledge the part of the creative that must be given maximum relevance and should stand out from the rest of the work, make it pop out using any of the following techniques:

  • Experiment with fonts to emphasize specific elements of your design. Utilize different font sizes, weights, or styles to draw attention to headlines and key points.
  • Choose colors strategically. Vibrant or saturated brand colors naturally attract attention, so consider using them sparingly to highlight important elements.
  • Utilize contrast in various forms to create emphasis. Contrast in color, size, shape, texture, or typography can help highlight specific elements.
  • Don't underestimate the power of empty space. Effective use of negative space can provide emphasis by isolating and highlighting specific elements.
  • Experiment with motion. Animation around areas where you want your user to focus their attention is an unfailing strategy for ensuring emphasis

Remember, emphasis should be used purposefully and sparingly to avoid overwhelming the viewer.

2. Balance

Source: InVision
Source: InVision

Often underplayed as a designer’s pet peeve, balance is as essential as the quality of the design itself. The best tip for implementing balance is to strive for both visual and conceptual balance in your designs. Achieving balance creates a sense of harmony, stability, and equilibrium.

Balance has multiple meanings in the world of design:

Balance of content weight:

If you’re designing a professional email signature, there is a chance that you’re dealing with multiple font styles and sizes in a single place. How do you pair a strong, bold font with a narrow, thin one and still make it readable as a sentence? You can experiment with various styles and combinations till you find the balance you seek.

Balance of visual to copy:

Your content should be text-heavy and laborious to read. At the same time, you want images only to take up real estate on your designs if you have a simple point to make. It is a demonstration of the power of balance. Pick which elements need to be dominant in your designs.

Balance of color usage:

Brands generally have more than two colors. Pick the best color combinations that fit the mood of a design and pair them judiciously with hues that act as a contrast. If your brand color is red, you do not want a welcome email to be created in solid red. Go for a secondary white or grey to balance the strength of your primary color.

Balance of elements:

Are your elements balanced against each other? Or is everything concentrated on one corner of the design, leaving the other end vacant with ample negative space? Balance the elements within your designs to give them a pleasing appearance. Remember that the average human brain can call out a lack of visual balance.

Achieving balance doesn't necessarily mean creating symmetrical designs. Balance can be achieved through careful distribution of visual weight, strategic arrangement of elements, and a sense of harmony in your overall composition.

3. Contrast

Source: OutCrowd
Source: OutCrowd

For any design to have a dynamic look, it is essential to have well-contrasted elements.

Contrast helps you achieve the above two points: emphasis and balance while making your content look good and vibrant. Good contrast can positively affect patterns, colors, shapes, typography, and imagery.

If you have a hero visual in your design and want it to be at the center of your communication, give it its own space and write your content on a solid patch — this is contrast.

If you have a light blue background image, write your copy in a darker font, most preferably on a patch over a part of the image so that it can be seen. Designs with poor contrast have elements that can be easily missed.

4. Repetition

Source: InVision
Source: InVision

Repetition can be interpreted to be consistent in this context. The more you practice this principle of design, the higher the chance your brand will grow beyond just a single advertisement.

The human brain recognizes consistencies and patterns easily. The associative mind of a customer can link your emailer with the massive signage they saw on your office building and put two-and-two together.

A challenge with repetition is being consistent without being boring. Explore different avenues to create some form of repetition: a pattern, colors, fonts, headline writing style, image usage, or any other aspect that creates synergy between different forms of content can amount to repetition.

Even if you’re repeating content or styles across different platforms, add some dynamism to it so that it can be easily recognized without seeming like lazy work.

5. Proportion

Source: ux360.design
Source: ux360.design

You may have heard the word ‘satisfying’ more often than not. The human mind is naturally satisfied when it sees aesthetically pleasing things. Designs are no different. Proportion is a principle of design that ensures you’ve got all the right ingredients for your communication in their best possible form: shape, size, color, and placement.

In a way, proportions are similar to balance, but it is measured more from the human eye than with guidelines and grids on design software. Proportions are realistic estimates and weights you apply to your content.

This principle of design could do two things: box you into a corner and have you simply comply with the guidelines therein or inspire you to explore new realms of design that are purposeful and disciplined in proportions and balance.

6. Movement

Source: Inkling Creative
Source: Inkling Creative

You’ve likely seen this famous print before, which is known as the The Great Wave off Kanagawa. This iconic artwork not only showcases the power and beauty of nature but also effectively promotes the design principle of movement through its composition and visual elements.

The wave dominates the print, capturing the viewer's attention and creating a sense of dynamic energy. This palpable feeling in a visual is the work of movement, a principle of design that uses contrasting elements to emphasize invisible moving parts in an image.

You likely want to direct how your audience consumes the content you create. This natural progression of one’s eyes, from one object to another, can be controlled by the design of the content.

Designers employ different styles to ensure they achieve the desired movement of visual information in the eyes and minds of customers taking in that information. Factors like the hierarchy of various objects (texts and visual elements), color styles, and repetition can be used innovatively to control the movement of your customer’s eyes.

Some designs use guidelines to create a path users can follow to take in information sequentially, just as the content creator has planned.

7. White Space

Source: Vectornator
Source: Vectornator

White space is also called negative space, as it isn’t always white. It is defined as the blank space deliberately left between objects in a design for aesthetic purposes. White spaces can be miracle workers if used intellectually because they have the power to give your customers visual relief, especially when taking in large portions of information.

The principle of design used to govern the usage of white spaces comes into play with minimalist designs in a significant way. It can create balance, improve the standard or level of design, and reduce clutter. Designs with more white spaces are referred to as “clean” pieces of work.

White space works well in corporate communication and aesthetic designs created for special occasions. The lesser the matter, the more premium a piece of content is perceived to be. One can also use negative spaces innovatively to say more while saying nothing.

8. Rhythm

Source: Outcrowd
Source: Outcrowd

Repetition is significant to give your customers something familiar to deal with so that they aren’t taking in new information continuously; this could be overwhelming.

Rhythm lets you pick a style where you can consistently deliver valuable information to customers with a smaller learning arch. It creates a sense of movement for the viewer by repeating patterns, phrases, and shapes.

Rhythm defines the structure and discipline of repetitions to create desirable movements. It can also set the mood for the communications you are developing. If you want your customer to develop a sense of energy and youthfulness through your design, you can create a fast rhythm where elements swiftly change in style and nature.

To create a consistent flow of information for more corporate severe communication in a brochure, you would change the style and movements at a slower pace, focussing more on consistency rather than charisma.

9. Pattern

Source: Zeka Design
Source: Zeka Design

In their natural forms, patterns express themselves everywhere we look. From consistencies in situations to the way, nature creates beautiful mosaics on the sand and barks of trees. This principle of design is called a pattern, and it helps keep the consistency of movement, repetition, and rhythm to create a lasting impact on customers who encounter your product.

Unlike natural patterns, geometric patterns are also popular among designers. Using patterns gives your brand the edge to use them in more applications and backdrops and even form a design motif that can become a centerpiece at events.

Patterns also help establish your brand's presence without displaying your logo design or brand name everywhere. Use this powerful principle of design to bring consistency and a holistic feel to the content you create.

10. Hierarchy

Source: InVision
Source: InVision

We touched upon the importance of movement. But what drives a person’s attention when they see your design? Hierarchy is a principle of design that establishes the most important and least important aspects of any design.

It forms the guidelines for designing your most essential and least significant aspects with the help of typography, color, contrast, images, and more.

Hierarchy depends on the following factors:

  • The objective: Depending on what you want to achieve from your design, you may want to identify the hierarchy of your elements. For instance, if you are creating a designed newsletter to announce your newest range of products, you should place images of them before anything else.
  • The aesthetic: You would want your most good-looking feature or most significant aspect to be visible right in front to arrest the attention span of people, especially if you are creating motion visuals. Here, your focus is more on the visual aspects of communication.
  • The functionality: If you are creating a lead-generation landing page, your design will automatically give more prominence to forms and headlines, especially the ones that have offers mentioned. The idea is to have someone perform a desired function unfailingly.

Identify your brand’s objective and what you expect from your designs, and the hierarchy for each element will naturally play out.

11. Variety

Source: Zeka Design
Source: Zeka Design

While consistency and repetition are potent design principles, they also risk visual fatigue. Small doses of variety are helpful to ensure that your customers are not lulled to sleep.

Variety creates a visual break in your communication so that it isn’t overly predictable. The first reason customers lose interest in your messaging is they expect to see the same thing from the same brand without any novelty.

Adding something new is as challenging as keeping things consistent. You do not want to be different for different’s sake. Variety should come naturally and be consistent with what’s always being said.

Avoid letting your customers to mistake the situation for being redirected to an entirely different brand. This balance between the aspects of creating disruptive variety and a consistent tone is covered in our next point.

12. Unity

Source: Purchase.edu
Source: Purchase.edu

When your customer has finally consumed your content, they must be left with a feeling of surety and confidence in your brand. All elements must appear as if they are from the same brand.

Unity in design and style is essential for the success of your design. From the beginning, across hierarchies of communication, consistent patterns, radical movements, and disruptive variations, your design must appear to have strong identifiers that point right back to your more prominent brand.

You can stay true to this principle of design by using similar colors, shapes, textures, and elements that appear consistently throughout your communication. Like every other principle of design, do not overcook it.

If you enforce unity across your creatives, your designs will begin to look dull and need more dynamism. Create refreshing pops in the sea of brand guidelines and color guides. Your brand intends to reach out to the masses, and if you do not have a design that can successfully achieve this, everything is in vain.

Frequently asked questions about principles of design

What are some commonly asked questions about the twelve principles of design? Get your questions answered with these three FAQs.

1. What is the most obvious elements of design?

When it comes to design, color is one of the first things that both users and designers notice. It can function as a standalone element or serve as a backdrop for others, such as lines, forms, textures, or typography. Color sets the tone for the piece and conveys information about the company through symbolism.

2. What is the strongest element of design?

Lines are the backbone of any good design. They serve a wide variety of needs and goals. We employ them to divide up rooms, define the shape of objects, highlight specific features, and so on.

3. Which design principle is used mostly?

The cornerstone of great design is achieving a state of balance. Making sure all of your design elements flow together nicely is a great way to give your work a professional look and feel. Balance is the most common and most important principle of every design.

Bottom line

These principles of design stand true for most brands. Some of them contradict each other, while others complement each other. As a designer, remember that there is always an opportunity to do something brilliant and significant by breaking some odd rules here and there.

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The principles of design aren’t intended to stop you in your creative process and to adhere. They are defined to ensure that whatever you do meets the standards of what brand communication should be.

It is safe to assume that your clients have come a long way, experiencing various work from within your domain. They want to see their brand in a similar (if not better) light, and only you can make that happen. Use these guidelines as an arsenal for your brand development process.

Good luck and happy designing!

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