In this post, I will summarise eight key principles of graphic design as outlined by Gareth David Studio’s Beginner’s Guide to Graphic Design.
Contrast occurs when two or more visual elements in a composition are different. It is used to generate impact, highlight importance, generate exciting graphics, and create visual interest and dynamics.
Context is integral to contrast. It is often the visual elements around the object of interest that give its meaning.
Because contrast grabs our attention and makes it easy for us to digest what we see, it is a strong way to communicate even without the use of type. The following examples involve the use of contrast in shapes.
In the following example, the “spiky” circle may draw more attention as it has the more complex outline.
The next example shows contrasting colours or tone in the shapes. The darker colours command more attention.
The next is an example of contrast in scale.
The final example of contrast in shapes shows a contrast in layout.
The next few examples demonstrate contrast in type, which is a method for creating hierarchy and structure in the piece. Alignment, typeface, type size, colour and weight can all be used to create contrast in type.
Contrast in colour can also be applied to type, as with the example below.
The next is a more dramatic composition making use of differences in alignment and type size.
Another example using colour contrast in type, but also mixing different visual elements.
Road signs are a more everyday example of how contrast is used to communicate clear, striking messages, such as warnings and precautions.
Logos also often use contrast to give their distinct identity and to help people remember brands.
Hierarchy is the control of visual information in an arrangement or presentation to imply importance. Hierarchy influences the order in which the human eye perceives what it sees. It is used to add structure, create visual organisation, create direction, add emphasis, and help the viewer navigate and digest information more easily.
Hierarchy is typically created by contrast between visual elements in a composition. Typically, elements with the highest contrast are noticed first. Hierarchy is also created through manipulating scale, colour, contrast, space, alignment, shape and form.
Hierarchy can be altered within the same composition by adjusting different elements within it. Consider the following piece, in which the thickness of shapes suggest that the hierarchy flows from top to bottom.
However, by altering the tones of the shapes, the hierarchy can also be perceived as moving in importance from the bottom to the top. See the next figure:
In the next piece, the small circle loses prominence due to the contrasts in scale.
Again, by creating a contrast in the colour balance, a different hierarchy is presented. The small circle is now the most prominent object:
Another example that uses hierarchy in colour is shown below. The shapes in the middle are prominent given their bolder colour tones.
However, by laying these same shapes one over the other, there is a new hierarchy of space. Objects on top now appear more prominent.
There can also be a hierarchy in depth by applying blur effects and using perspective.
In this last example, the use of colour and perspective results in hierarchy that creates the perception of movement.
By putting careful thought into the arrangement of key design elements, hierarchy helps readers and consumers to understand and digest the array of visual and textual information. The course provided some examples where the principle of hierarchy was applied well below. If you would like to go through a detailed breakdown of each composition, check out this link.
Alignment is the placement of visual elements so they line up in a composition. It is used to organise and group elements, as well as to create balance, structure and connections between elements.
There are two principles of alignment in design: (a) Edge alignment and (b) Centre alignment. The following are illustrations of each alignment principle.
Though the above examples make use of a physical line, this is not always necessary. Elements can also be “snapped” to an invisible line.
Some models of alignment in graphic design are below:
Good alignment in the leftmost model gives a sense of clarity, confidence, elegant, formal and trustworthy.
One good point made in this segment was that as far as possible, design should never appear arbitrary. For instance, if an element is out of alignment, it is noticeable and can devalue a piece of work if done unintentionally.
However, if done intentionally as part of a mixed alignment design, the composition can appear more radical, fun, dynamic, free and playful.
Grids are used to ensure accurate alignment, and are typically a common software today.
The following are some examples where the alignment principle is applied in various ways. For an in-depth explainer, check out this link.
Balance is the visual weight of elements in a composition. It is used to add stability, structure, emphasis, and dynamics.
There are three main types of balance: (a) symmetrical balance, (b) asymmetrical balance, and (c) radial balance.
In symmetrical balance, elements are arranged to mirror each other across a centre line. They do not need to be in the exact same arrangement, just similar in number, shape, scale. Symmetrical balance is used when the designer wants to achieve a formal design and give a sense of structure, organisation and stability.
Asymmetrical balance is unlike symmetrical balance, in that no centre line is used. Instead, smaller elements are cast opposite larger ones, or larger groups of elements. They may also be cast further away from the centre than larger elements. This helps achieve an informal, casual, less planned look and feel. It is more dynamic than symmetrical balance, and usually helps focus attention on the visual message.
Radial balance is unlike the previous two, where elements ‘radiate’ from the centre in a circular fashion. This design helps maintain focus towards the centre of the piece.
Proximity is the grouping and shaping of objects in a composition. It is used to create relationships between elements, such as hierarchy, organisation, relevance and structure. It can also be used to dispel connections, and break the aforementioned relationships between structures.
Typically, related elements should be grouped together, and unrelated elements should not be in close proximity with each other.
A good use of the proximity principle helps the audience digest information. The audience should never have to work out the relationship between objects in a composition. The following examples illustrate this.
Examples 1 and 2 below demonstrate the correct use of proximity to help the audience draw the right links.
Examples 3 and 4 show poor uses of the proximity principle. It is hard to make out which captions or text is related to which visual element, making for poor user experience and a challenge to digest information.
Altering proximity between elements will alter the meaning of the composition significantly. Take for example the next image.
By adjusting the proximity within each symbol, the meaning shifts considerably.
The takeaway is that proximity plays such a critical role in graphic design, by creating relationships between visual elements that result in meaning, feelings, messages and dynamics.
Repetition is the use of the same or similar elements throughout the design. It is not to be mistaken for visual patterns, which is more about artistic style. Repetition is more about creating a sense of unity, cohesiveness and consistency throughout a design.
I like this quote from the course:
The ultimate goal of any graphic design is to make a lasting impression, hopefully a lasting impression… If a design achieves this goal, it will… communicate and insist upon a particular message, which lingers and becomes familiar.
Repetition is a key principle in achieving this lasting, lingering impression. The course calls it “visual brainwashing”; the more we see something, the more we familiarise with it, and thus remember it.
A typical example of repetition is in branding. Good branding usually makes use of consistent design language, such as in the typeface, colour scheme, shapes or motifs, patterns and alignments. All these are carefully orchestrated to give the design a noticeable and memorable look and feel.
Simplicity is the discipline of minimising, refining or editing back a design. Simplicity is about how ‘less is more’. Compositions that consider simplicity in their design will be clear and easier to understand. Simplicity also adds a level of function, elegance, consideration, as well as a premium and luxury feel.
Generally, it is harder to take away from a design than it is to add to it, and it takes more experience, confidence and discipline to do so.
I find that this is very applicable to work presentations. Applying the simplicity principle means to avoid an overwhelming amount of visual elements, and instead focus on getting across one strong idea.
However, it is also not about being mindlessly superficial or being overly simplistic. There is a large extent of consideration, where the designer works to balance out the design elements to avoid visual competition, and instead work towards visual harmony.
The course did not provide examples for this segment, so I will draw from an entry in interaction-design.org to elaborate. Consider this parking lot:
There is a great deal of visual noise and disorganisation that confuses the reader. While it is comprehensive, the cluttered design can make it frustrating for users to understand and comply with the parking lot regulations. A better illustration is below:
The above design strips down the schedule to what is essential. It summarises information where possible. It makes good use of alignment and contrast to highlight key information for the intended audience (that is, when not to park, and if allowed, how much and how long).
The last design principle is function, which is the consideration of the main objective of a design work, and how well a design is explored to meet that end. Graphic design is ultimately about striking a balance between form and function. If a work fails to achieve its objective, it would have failed to achieve the function aspect of design.
The function of a design is typically spelt out through a design brief, which contains three key elements:
- Overview: Introduces the overall idea and what the design was intended for. It should highlight the intended audience and include other relevant information.
- Requirements: Spells out what is needed creatively across print and digital media, such as a printed poster, brochures or a website.
- Intended outcome: What the client hopes to achieve with a particular work, and how it wants people to think, feel, act and respond to it. It may even suggest the visual requirements, such as the style, colour scheme or typeface to be used.
In professional design, it is understood that form follows function. It is important to always bear in mind whether a work is achieving its function at every stage of the process. It is hence especially critical to understand one’s audience in order to achieve the intended outcome of a design work.
Thus ends my summaries of the key visual elements and principles of design. In the next article, I will attempt to apply these learning points by using them to review examples of graphic design.
For more information on basic design elements and principles, check out this article which also includes explanations of theory using real-world examples.