In design, as in all other lines of profession, understanding the basics and the fundamental principles is essential in executing outstanding output.
Apart from understanding a client’s design brief, it is really the complete knowledge of these principles that enables a designer to translate ideas into compelling visual designs.
Visual design combines art and science in a complex overall scheme. It is an art that greatly hinges on a designer’s creative decisions in rendering concepts to visual images.
At the same time, visual design also remains to be a science as it involves a systematic set of rules or guidelines aimed at employing effective aesthetics in any design output.
In this article, you will find the fundamental principles and theories you need to get a good grasp on to see what a great visual is.
This greatly helps as you attempt to traverse an exciting profession in design.
Alignment is the design principle behind putting elements together in a systematic order. It is essentially lining up elements in order to form a logical structure, balance, or connection.
What’s good alignment vs. bad alignment?
It is very easy to spot a design with good alignment.
Good alignment comes with this invisible line, which designers refer to as grid. It guides elements and lines them up a certain way, thus creating some form of structure.
A well-aligned design also exudes confidence and formality as components go together following a logical organization.
Bad alignment is just as easy to spot. Bad visual design alignment would easily look amateur, with elements following random placements without clear-cut logic behind it. This is where the use of grid becomes crucial.
Importance of grid
The grid forms an invisible structure that design elements follow to ensure alignment. Nowadays, grids are normally built-in digital design applications, making it easier for artists to lay out designs with accurate alignments.
Types of alignment
When deciding on how to align your design elements, there are three basic types to consider.
Center alignment places the grid at the middle of the canvas either vertically or horizontally. It is mostly used for formal messaging like certificates or invitations as it exudes sophistication and elegance.
Edge alignment, on the other hand, is when elements are positioned along the canvas ends: left, right, top, or bottom. This is a more flexible form of alignment that can be used for a lot of different design elements like headlines, article paragraphs, or images.
Lastly, there is mixed alignment. As the name suggests, this is when a designer mixes and matches alignment styles to achieve a dynamic but nonetheless cohesive layout. This is mostly applied in more complex design executions like websites and magazines.
In design, there could be ideas that require recall and emphasis. This is where repetition comes into the picture.
What is repetition?
Repetition is when a design element – object, color, alignment, format, etc. – appears in a recurring manner.
You may already be applying the repetition principle inadvertently, like when you repeat a headline format all throughout a page, use the same bullet style for an entire project, or when you apply the same spacing measure for all sides of a canvas.
As a result, you will achieve a unified look in your design – no matter how unintended your use of repetition was - since repetition promotes consistency.
Importance of repetition in design
Apart from consistency, repetition also exudes continuity.
On a website for example, it will be difficult to establish a solid brand identity and create strong recall among your customers if you won’t repeat your logo or tagline across the entire portal.
This is because repetition, if practiced correctly, promotes a sense of stability. It could make a huge difference on how users perceive your brand through your visual assets.
Other forms of repetition
There are two ways to apply the principle of repetition in design.
The first is via patterns. Patterns are basically repetitions of a particular design element (e.g. diamonds) formed to create a continuous arrangement mostly used as backgrounds.
The other form of repetition is rhythm, which is when several groups of elements (i.e. objects, patterns, colors, fonts, etc.) are grouped together in an obvious logical continuity.
What is contrast?
Contrast is the principle of design that intends to break monotony. Examples of poor visual design would often consist of parts that look all the same. This would easily bore the eyes.
Importance of contrast in design
This is where contrast becomes significant as it provides the element of divergence or disparity in what might seem to be a rather uninteresting design.
If repetition exudes consistency, contrast helps emphasize a visual focal point by breaking repetition either by changes in color, shape, form, texture, or font style.
Types of contrast
There are several types of contrast applicable in any design medium.
Black on white vs. white on black
Black on white and white on black are among the most common implementations used. The stark difference between these two hues creates a straightforward yet classy distinction among elements.
Color and shape
There’s also color and shape, which, as the name suggests, combines colors and shapes to create a compelling visual dissimilarity. This form of contrast is normally used in magazine and book covers that usually aim to highlight a cover object or model.
Apart from these, there’s also texture contrast, which uses two or more different types of textures (e.g. A graphic floral print against a plain earth-tone background) to create dissimilarity. This is mostly observed in stationery, like wedding invitations.
Lastly, there’s typeface. Typeface contrast is when a designer makes use of letters or fonts against another visual element (e.g. color, texture, shape, another font style, etc.).
Apart from exuding dynamism, this also easily emphasizes a focal word in the design, which is applicable for branding executions, like company logos.
What is proximity?
Proximity is basically ensuring that related elements are grouped together in the canvas. The use of white space is crucial when it comes to proximity.
What is white space?
White space is any blank space on the canvas without any design elements in it. White space, when used properly, makes a visual design clean and sleek.
Proper application of white space
A good use of white space means that elements are placed in logical proximity to each other. On the other hand, bad use of white space will make the visual look scattered, with elements dispersed all around the canvas.
Take a business card design, for example. There are labels or parts that need to be grouped together exclusively. One’s name, designation, and company should be logically placed together and apart from the email address, home address, and contact information. Those are a different group altogether.
Proximity is, in several ways, similar to alignment. But while alignment is physically grouping elements together, proximity is grouping things following a specific conceptual order.
What is balance?
Balance is more like the underlying principle behind all the aforementioned fundamentals of visual design. It intends to create good structure by making sure all elements are proportionately laid out on canvas.
Balance is basically distributing the visual weight of your elements equally throughout the design.
Types of balance
There are three forms of balance in design: symmetrical, asymmetrical, and radial balance.
Symmetrical balance is when there’s an obvious equivalence on either side of the visual. An example of this would be a column in a newspaper that has text blocks on either side of the page.
Asymmetrical balance, on the other hand, is when you make use of varying elements to create proportion.
A big dark element on the left side of the canvas, for example, can be balanced out on the opposite end by placing several lighter elements together to form a solid shape. This example obviously combines the ideas of contrast and repetition as well, but highlights balance as an underlying principle.
Lastly, there’s radial balance where design elements extend from a center point. The visual will essentially create a circular form creating an obvious focal point.
Design is a highly subjective and versatile field of expertise. Designers naturally have varying or even opposing views on what sets a good visual from a bad one.
Having a set of rules or fundamental theories like this becomes essential, as in any other kind of profession, to establish basic guiding principles that will help artists turn great ideas into compelling visual designs.