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The elements and principles of design

By Academy Xi

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Having a clear overview of the range of approaches at your disposal as a Graphic Designer can help ensure your work is engaging, clear and impactful. Here’s your go-to list of design elements and principles.


Elements of Design

To communicate effectively via design you need to consider incorporating elements which can support your goal. Below are seven to consider when creating your next big design piece.


Line in design is one of the most simple elements, with different varieties including curved lines, diagonal, vertical, horizontal. Add texture or weight into the mix and a simple line can become thin, bold, heavy, broken or smooth. Colour will also add another aspect to a line. Whether being used functionally to divide sections on a document or website, or to guide a viewer’s eye on a journey of the design, lines are a crucial component in the designer’s toolkit. 


Organic or geometric shapes are used throughout design and form the basis of many logos. Where organic shapes tend to be more natural, unstructured and asymmetrical, geometric shapes are the opposite. Shapes in design are generally two-dimensional and your selection of shape in conjunction with other supporting elements can evoke a certain mood or message.


Where shape is more commonly flat, form amps the dimension to 3D, making aspects of your design really come to life. Objects such as cubes and pyramids may be part of your design, with colour, texture and shadows all being approaches you can use to generate a 3D effect. 


An element in its own right, colour can also be applied across any of the other design elements. In order to convey the message you want to communicate with your work, colour selection will play a significant role. To know the best approaches with this, learning about colour theory is imperative. Colour theory will provide a framework around how to combine colours and what kind of palette will stir particular emotions or responses.

Keen to learn more? Read our blog about using colour theory, the colour wheel and colour palettes in your designs.  


To create movement and emphasis in specific areas of a design, the value of a colour can be used. The value refers to how light or dark a colour is, with the lighter holding a higher value. The closer to white a colour is, the higher its value. 

Contrast can be generated using combinations of values for objects within a design. 


In the everyday world we are surrounded by elements of design, including texture. While we might not be able to actually feel the texture within a printed or digital design, we can by sight imagine and sense it. Using texture across different shapes and objects can add a third dimension and along with other elements, create realism. 


The empty areas around objects within design are space. Using this element can draw attention to the area you wish to make a focus point – it can also assist in decluttering and simplifying a design to make it clear, calm and easier to comprehend. 

White space is sometimes referred to as negative space. It is vital in defining the positive space and, when used in a balanced way, completes the design work. 

Why is background design important in Graphic Design?

Just because a background shouldn’t crowd out the design as a whole doesn’t mean it has to be bland or boring. Rich, vibrant colours and interesting textures can often make the best background designs – the human eye is naturally drawn to stimulating aesthetics. This can be used to your advantage!

There are a number of benefits that come with perfecting the background of your design. These include:

  • Backgrounds are the foundation of a successful composition
  • Background textures and colours create depth and contrast, allowing graphics to stand out and grab our attention
  • Well-composed background images can help create the right spaces for you to overlay text
  • Backgrounds can give design more context, providing supporting visual elements and adding depth to image’s narrative

As you can tell, what appears in the background is the backbone of any good design. Starting with a blank canvas can be intimidating, so we’re going to walk you through some of the most popular creative choices when it comes to staging the perfect background for your designs. 

Principles of Design 

There are twelve principles of design. Used in conjunction with the above elements, they can enhance a viewer experience and influence how people engage with the design.

1: Balance and alignment

Ensuring your design is evenly weighted will create visual harmony. Elements and shapes within a piece each carry ‘weight’, which is determined by the size, colour and texture. Balance exists in three basic forms: symmetrical, asymmetrical and radial balance.

2: Emphasis

By using a range of elements you can draw attention to a specific part of a design to give it the spotlight. Colour, shape and size, for example, can be used to achieve this. Within website design you might consider text size and colour around the call to action, highlighting it clearly.

3: Movement

In design, movement refers to the journey a viewer’s eye takes when they engage with a piece of work, either online or in print. Using a selection of elements, designers can encourage a particular order of viewing, sometimes quite subtly, other times less so. Movement can bring life to shapes and overall composition and create a real shift in the mood of a design.

4: Pattern

Where repetition is the same elements being repeated within a design, patterns are made up of different components. Patterns are generally based on colours, textures and shapes and simplicity is key for it to be effective and work easily with other principles. 

5: Hierarchy

Arranging the value of design elements from most to least important within a piece is done to clarify the hierarchy. Doing so will improve viewer experience, clarifying how to engage with the design and which information commands our attention most. 

6: Repetition 

Using an element a number of times throughout a design can create a pattern, provide consistency and increase awareness. This is a particularly helpful principle when creating a visual brand identity.

7: Proportion

The relationship between elements within a design – namely their size, scale and weight – is the proportion. When elements are seemingly balanced, or somehow coordinated, it creates a sense of ease because things appear ‘as they should’.

To find out more, read our blog about the rule of thirds.  

8: Rhythm

Creating movement within a design can provide it with a sense of rhythm. This can be achieved by making patterns through repetition, or by using colour to devise a visual path, which can create a flow or  a gradually changing sequence of elements (such as a colour gradient). 

9: Variety

As with anything in life, variety keeps things interesting so viewers are engaged. Designs that incorporate a variation of elements avoid being uninspiring. Contrast is a key element in achieving this, as is juxtaposition. 

10: Unity

Order and cohesion is created with unity – which can be achieved when all of the design elements coexist as a single experience that is visually appealing. The concept and the visual elements work in harmony and do not overload the viewer mentally.

11: Contrast

Points of difference between two or more elements within a design can create contrast, which is helpful for achieving visual interest. Contrast can be used to emphasise sections of the design and keep viewers engaged.

12: White space

As with the element of space mentioned earlier, white space as a design principle works in the same way. The space itself can be any colour, with white simply implying the space around objects within a design. 

How to start a career in Graphic Design

Want to learn more about all things Graphic Design? At Academy Xi, we offer flexible study options in Graphic Design that will suit your lifestyle and training needs, providing you with the perfect foundation for your future as a Graphic Designer. 

Whether you’re looking to upskill or entirely transform your career path, we have industry-approved training to provide you with the practical skills and experience needed.

Are you after a career change? Take a look at our Transform courses:

Are you upskilling? Our Elevate courses are for you:

If you have any questions, our experienced team is here to discuss your training options. Speak to a course advisor and take the first steps in your Graphic Design journey.