Design Principles Explained

Understanding Design Principles involves getting familiar with the language. Once the concepts start becoming familiar, you’ll be on your way. Towards that goal, we’ll be using four primary tools: YouTube videos, Pinterest Boards, the design definitions themselves, and a series of design exercises. For the best results, sign up with Pinterest. English not your language? Anglais pas votre langue? Visit The following design principle explanations are © copyright 2016 Howard Schneider.

  • Let's define design Exercise Completed

    Design is the structure of art. Art is the dynamic, creative response to the condition we call living. Not all art requires structure though it’s hard to find an artistic expression that does not involve structure even at the minimum.

    Now let’s switch from design as a docile noun to design as a dynamic verb. Here’s a definition you might find helpful as you use the exercises and resources in this site:

    Design is the logical selection and arrangement of
    visual elements for order with interest.

    Design involves logic and intuition, though necessarily not in that order. Design is not merely the result of knowing a program or mastering a technique, but it does rely on tools. The visual arts landscape is comprised of two primary sets of tools: Design Elements and Design Principles.

    Design Elements are the more tangible of the two. They are comprised of:

    Dots | Lines | Shapes | Volume | Value | Color | Texture | Space

    Design Principles however are a different animal. They are all about coordinating any of the Design Elements with each other. Design Elements by comparison are pretty easy to recognize. Design Principles on the other hand feel more elusive; more abstract. A comb is a comb. A “passive area” is a what?

    Each of the Design Principles listed below is linked to a specific YouTube video and Pinterest board, each containing examples of how each principle functions in art, design and photography. The goal here is not to be consumed by these principles, but to become increasingly comfortable in using them. After a while, these principles will become a set of tools readily available at your whim and service.

  • Proportion (Including Balance, Contrast , Scale & Hierarchy) Exercise Completed

    Proportion-wtriangle2Proportion is the most important of all the principles. All of the design principles and the design elements are affected by proportion.
    ■ Here’s the skinny: Proportion is all about the amounts used…of anything. The amounts used of one or several elements (line, shape, color, etc.) in combination with other elements is always controlled by proportional considerations.
    Balance is about adjusting proportions to achieve equilibrium. Balance is cited when discussing the distribution of visual weight in a composition. “Does it feel balanced?” Typical forms of balancing weight distribution include: symmetrical; asymmetrical; approximately symmetrical and radial.
    Contrast is the most dynamic expression of comparison. The stronger the contrast, the greater the impression. Think of red vs gray, ultra thin vs thick and wide. Quiet vs chaotic. The contrast of very large vs very small is considered Contrast of Scale.
    Hierarchy: By adjusting proportions involving balance and contrast, a primary area of interest (called a focal point) as well secondary areas of interest can become established. A well-expressed hierarchy can be helpful in directing viewers where to enter and how to navigate a composition. (Also covered under the Active/Passive definition, listed below.)










  • Direction & Movement Exercise Completed

    Direction Direction and Movement provide the underlying visual flow in a composition.
    All lines have direction. Some lines of direction are implied like the invisible line that type sits on.
     Basic modes of direction include: horizontal, vertical, diagonal, triangular, spiral, radiating, concentric, dilating…just for starters!
    Movement is a felt sense of advancement or progression within a composition.
     Rhythm is based on movement.

  • Positive/Negative Space Exercise Completed

    Positive-Negative■ The space within and around an object (“negative”) can be as interesting as the object (“positive”) itself.
    ■ Negative space has shape such as the arrow inside the FedEx logo and the other spacial areas within and in-between the other letters. So, it can also display pattern.
    ■ Also referred to as Form and Space, and Figure/Ground. The latter term is more applicable to compositions with more complex layering.

  • Continuity Exercise Completed

    Continuity2 Organizing design elements into a visual flow of connections.
    Physical Continuity: physically connected elements will lead the eye through a composition. Imagine a fallen line of domino pieces.
    Visual Continuity: the eye flows across an open area and connects two or more elements. Especially found when the contours of various objects share the same axis. Frequently called alignment. Imagine the same line of domino pieces standing in line, before their collapse.

  • Dominant/Subordinate Exercise Completed

    Dominant-Subordinate Creates a relative level of interest and emphasis among all design elements and principles.
    Dominant=primary; subordinate=secondary.
     Helps to establish a visual hierarchy: what the viewer will see 1st, 2nd, etc.
    Applies to all design elements and principles. Color-wise, this page is dominantly white and subordinately black, subordinately red and subordinately brown.
    Many great compositions have one clearly dominant direction or sense of movement.
    Many confusing compositions have multiple dominant directions or dominant movements.
     Compositions with the most dynamic structure not only have one clearly dominant direction, they also have at least one clearlsubordinate direction.

  • Repetition Exercise Completed

    Repetition-Variation Creates a pattern of similarity that moves the viewer’s eye comfortably through a composition.
    It is the most logical of all the Design Principles and the easiest to implement.
    Repetition can affect and magnify any of the design elements; color, value, dot, line, shape, volume, texture, space.
    Too much Repetition can invite tedium. Too little can result in chaos and perhaps another form of tedium.

  • Variation Exercise Completed

    Repetition-Variation The opposite of similarity. For example: three red 1 circles and one gray 1 circle. The gray color adds variety and interest.
    Adds visual dynamics.
    Keeps things interesting.
    Repetition and Variation work hand-in-hand, and are chiefly responsible for producing rhythm.
    How much Variation or variety becomes a significant question: a lot of Variation can produce highly energetic results but it could also lead to chaos and confusion; no variation can make things boring and predictable.
    A non-formulaic balance between the two extremes runs the spectrum of creative possibilities and is where the main body of art and design today exists.

  • Active/Passive (including Hierarchy) Exercise Completed

    Active-Passive■ The most active element in a composition will usually be the focal point.
    ■ The elements of lesser interest or weight are considered relatively passive.
    ■ It’s all relative. For example, Negative space may typically be seen as passive space until it has significance, such as the arrow inside the FedEx logo.
    ■ Multiple focal points may cause confusion or chaos. Chaos can offer excitement but at the expense of clarity. Managing both becomes a dynamic issue of proportion involving balance.
    Hierarchy refers to the relative importance (or activeness) of one thing versus the relative lack of importance (or passiveness) of another thing or group of things. (This also goes back to our earlier discussion under the definition of Proportion.) By adjusting proportions involving balance and contrast, a primary area of interest (called a focal point) as well secondary areas of interest can become established. A well-expressed hierarchy can be helpful in directing viewers where to enter and how to navigate a composition.

  • Advancing/Receding Exercise Completed

    Advancing-Receding Illusionary creation of three-dimensional space or depth.
    Can be created by overlap, placement, linear perspective, value, color (warm colors advance, cool colors recede), active-passive (active things advance, passive things recede), bright vs. neutral (bright things advance, neutral or dull things recede).

  • Transition Exercise Completed

    Transition A step in-between.
    Transparency is a dynamic example of transition.
    Shapes that “bleed” (running into and “off” the edge of a composition’s working area) are a transition from (or to) the edge of a working area into the composition itself.
    Medium is the transition between large and small.
    Gray is the transition between dark and light.
    Connects two or more elements in a natural fashion.

  • Unity Exercise Completed

    Unity Similarity, oneness, togetherness, or cohesion.
    Diminishes chaos.
    Grouping, overlapping, containment, proximity, alignment, closure, repetition, pattern and grids are the primary ways of creating unity. Proximity (closeness) can create powerful visual tensions. Imagine two magnets at the moment just before they merge. Tensions can work with you. They can also work against you.
     These various types of Unity can create an opportunity where one item seems to exert control over another item.