You can (sometimes) judge a book by its cover [Pt I]

In this series of posts, I will be sharing reflections on my learning on graphic design. My hope is that it will help me improve communication and presentation skills at work, including in the presentation of data. For most of this series, my learning points are anchored on Gareth David Studio’s Beginner’s Guide to Graphic Design.

I will split my learning points into three parts:

  1. The first article will summarise the seven key elements of graphic design.
  2. The second article will summarise the eight key design principles of graphic design.
  3. The third article will apply the key elements and principles to review good examples of graphic design.

The seven key elements of visual design

I. Line

Lines can be straight, curved, thin, solid or dashed.

Lines can be used to (a) add structure to a composition, (b) frame information, and (c) divide information. They can (a) add elegance to a composition, (b) add hierarchy, and (c) draw the eye to a specific point.

The image below shows some examples of using lines in graphic design. Lines have been used structure and highlight information elegantly and clearly. They are also used decoratively, and bring dynamism and movement to the composition, such as by the use of diagonal lines and unique structures like branching trees.

II. Colour

Colour plays one of the biggest roles in graphic design. It is used for emphasis, impact, organising the composition, and in creating the specific look and feel of the work.

The Gif below shows how Primary, Secondary and Tertiary colours are split on a typical colour wheel. Primary colours are red, blue and yellow. Secondary colours are made by creating equal portions of Primary colours. Tertiary colours are made by mixing neighbouring secondary colours to get their in-betweens.

Colours are divided into warm and cool colours as shown below.

In the course, we are introduced to four sets of ‘Colour Rules’: Monochromatic, Analagous, Complementary and Triadic Colours. I have included screenshots from the tutorial below:

Monochromatic Colours
Analogous Colours
Complementary Colours
Triadic Colours

Designers may toggle between different colour schemes to bring out the desired effect in their work. A useful free resource is color.adobe.com, which allows you to explore and create the desired colour scheme using the interactive colour wheel and the pre-set colour rule sets on the left.

III. SHAPE

Shapes are measured by height and width. They are defined by boundaries, such as lines or colour, and can be created by negative space.

Shapes are used to add interest and substance to a work. They can be symbolic, and used to create patterns and textures.

There are two types of shapes: (a) Geometric, and (b) Organic.

  • Geometric shapes can be drawn with a ruler or compass. They produce a feeling of control and order.
  • Organic shapes can be drawn free hand, or are shapes found in nature. They produce a natural feel.

When shapes are placed together, a relationship is created between them. This helps the piece trigger feelings, convey messages, engage the audience, create environment, and add emphasis.

The picture below shows examples of how shapes can be used uniquely in design work, each conveying different meanings and serving its own purpose.

Examples of shapes used in graphic design

IV. Texture

Texture is the way a surface feels or is perceived to feel. It is used to convey a visual tone that can influence the look and feel of a design work. Texture can attract or repel interest depending on its pleasantness

In the course, we are introduced to two types of texture: (a) image and (b) pattern texture.

  • Image texture is generated from a combination of organic or geometric shapes and colour. It can be eye-catching, and trigger emotions or sensations of touch. It adds a distinct tone to the work.
  • Image texture can be environmental, biological or man-made, as shown in the following examples.
Examples of image textures
  • Pattern texture is also composed of similar elements, but the main difference is in its structured nature. Repeating a certain formation will result in a pattern texture.
  • Patterns are visually stimulating, can be vibrant and thus help excite the senses. They usually work well as decorative elements.
  • Patterns are also more about visual recognition due to the repetition. This makes it a useful tool to aid with brand recognition.
  • Some examples of pattern textures are below.
Examples of pattern textures
  • Most design eras or iconic styles are defined by their textures. For instance, psychedelic textures of the seventies, pop textures of the 80s, eighties, and hip textures of the nineties. Examples are below.
Psychedelic textures of the seventies
Pop textures of the eighties
Hip textures of the nineties

V. SPACE

  • Space creates the visual essence and dynamic of a composition. There are two kinds of space: (a) positive space and (b) negative space.
  • Positive space refers to shapes. It is usually anything that is considered a main focus of the work.
  • Negative space is the space between visual elements, or what’s “not there”. It can be the empty space between elements, or even the background colour of the composition. It is important as it helps to frame and contain the design, helps focus attention, and keeps the composition clean with minimal visual clutter.

Space is created by the arrangement of shapes within a composition. The course highlights five different effects used to create such dynamics: (a) proximity, (b) overlap, (c) opacity, (d) light & shadow, and (e) perspective.

Proximity is the distance that shapes are from one another. Whether far apart or close together, proximity is one way to suggest the relationship between shapes.

  • Overlap is the arrangement of shapes to make them look like they are on top of each other. This can make the top elements appear closer than others.
  • Opacity is the effect where objects appear transparent. Degrees of opacity can make objects appear heavy or light to suggest dominance or orders of closeness in a space. Overlapping transparent elements can give an illusion of 3D and perspective.
  • Light & shadow is another effect that can suggest 3D space, in which an object is on top of another, and how far they appear from one another.
  • Perspective is created through the arrangement and manipulation of shapes to look like they appear in real life, i.e. objects appear smaller the further away they get. It can be achieved through manipulating the relative sizes of objects, as well as by overlapping, blurring or sharpening them.

VI. FORM

In graphic design, form is described as any three-dimensional object, and are thus measured by height, width and depth. It can be defied by the presence of shadows, and enhanced by tone, texture or colour.

Form adds a 3D quality that can trigger sensations of touch, such as roughness/smoothness, hardness/softness, hotness/coldness, how round/pointy, etc.

Similar to shapes, there are two types of form: (a) Geometric, and (b) Organic.

  • Like their 2D shape counterparts, geometric forms give a sense of order, and appear clean and sterile.
  • Likewise, organic forms give a more natural feel.

VII. TYPOGRAPHY

Type is the most direct way to communicate visually, typically as headers or in paragraphs.

A single letter in a typeface is the combination of many smaller geometric and organic shapes, and is itself part of a complete typeface made of other shapes. The characteristics of a typeface can be broken down by what is known as the Anatomy of Type. The different elements of the anatomy give each typeface its distinct look and feel.

Typefaces can be part of a family with various weights, which can be used to express various tones, or give a sense of hierarchy in the design.

The choice of typeface used is crucial to set the intended look and feel, the tone, as well as character of the work.

More typefaces

Type can be functional in usage, which is mainly to inform and deliver a clear message. In the examples below, various stylistic tools alter the dynamics, look and feel of each piece, but are not enough to distract from the key messages.

Functional uses of type

Other uses of type place priority on creative aspects, rather than on the clarity of the message. The examples below draw attention to the aesthetics of the type. In some cases, it is more about feeling the type, as opposed to reading them.

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