Basic Principles of Graphic Design

Every field of study has some basic principles that guide the entire flow of the study. Same is with the field of graphic design.

Is there a set code to visual art? Some would think that the notion of “rules” to art is ridiculous. However, much to our surprise, a set of principles (a.k.a. guidelines) does exist—even for the art of designing. Adherence to these rules is what differentiates a novice designer from an expert. The expert, of course, is well aware of the principles laid out by those proficient in the field.

William Lidwell, an expert, claims in his book Universal Principle of Design, that some of the best designers sometimes disregard these principles. “When they do so, however, there is usually some compensating merit attained at the cost of the violation. Unless you are certain of doing as well, it is best to abide by the principles” – Wikipedia

Let us take a look at what we shouldn’t be “violating” when it comes to our graphical works.

Unity/ Proximity

When a designer considers the proximity of the elements in his graphical piece, he is looking at how close or far away the elements are. For example, related elements are often grouped together to guide the reader. The grouping of elements may indicate continuity or unity. Likewise, if two separate elements are far apart, they will be viewed as “non-related” or “non-continuous” by the viewer.

Notice how the designer chose not to add a space between “big” and “discounts” to make sure the reader associates the two words immediately. The same technique is used for “only” and “today”.


With the help of alignment, the graphic artist guides the readers about the order of type and other elements. Experts stress on the importance of consistent alignment. Try to not set your similar groups of text far apart from each other. To assist reading, align elements that are related.

Go back to the banner example used above. Notice how the red tags, white blocks of text, and the different colored background boxes are perfectly aligned. Imagine what would happen if none of those elements were vertically or horizontally aligned and instead placed all over the page disproportionately. The result: chaos!


Use of color largely affects the intended message. The Color Theory and the Color Wheel can be used as a basis to determine which color(s) should be used. A designer can use complimentary colors (the ones next to each other on the color wheel) to create consistency in the design and aid organization.

A hierarchy can be created with the help of color. For example, the most important piece of text may be set at a high tone. The next most important element/block of text, although in the same color, is going to use a lower tone, hence creating a hierarchy.

The artist evidently requires the focus of attention of the users on the Lips before moving their mind to the text below. He also makes use of a receding complimentary color as a background.

White Space

Modern experts have been experimenting with white space a lot to create clean, clutter-free and focused graphic designs. The white space between two different elements also plays a major role in denoting meaning.

White space is used most frequently to create focus. For example, a designer who wants the viewers to directly stare at a particular element in the design will place it on a background with ample white space around it. Clever use of white space ensures that your design is clean and clutter-free. Let’s examine the example below.

Instead of a complicated colorful or cluttered design, the Javier business card uses white space on the background to stress on the most important top line, “Nice to meet you”. The artist also used high contrast to make the text prominent.

Many novices fear the use of white spaces because it appears “empty”. However, some of the best artworks are those that make clever use of white to create a clutter-free background and place emphasis on the centered subject. Remember, white is also a color (or a combination of various colors). The use of it is just as relevant and effective as any other color.


Graphic designers create contrasts to make sure their design gets noticed. If the designer wants to draw attention to certain elements, he can set the specific elements at high contrasts to make those elements pop out. In order to draw reader’s attention, the contrast doesn’t always have to be “colored”. It could be the difference between big and small, tall and short, circles and triangles, or other elements in the design that directly oppose each other.


Balance is defined as “equal distribution of weight in a design” (source: Elements and Principle of Visual Design). A human’s sense of balance is innate — probably because we are symmetrically balanced ourselves. Balance can be symmetrical on a vertical axis, asymmetrical, radial, or all-over. This places the elements of a design in an aesthetically pleasing presentation. While symmetrical presentation is formal, the rest are informal even though they are all balanced.

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