Design elements & principles

Design elements and principles

Design is an intricate, complicated, fun and exciting business.

There’s always a lot to learn, a lot to do, and a lot to consider when you’re a beginner–not to mention the fact that technology is constantly evolving, new software is being released, and new trends are coming at you rapid-fire. Truth be told, it can get a little overwhelming.

So, let’s slow things down a little bit. This article will take you through 20 principles of design to hopefully give you a headstart in this creative environment. So, stay tuned, get comfy, and let’s discuss some principles.

design elements principles

1. Line

design elements and principles Lines help enhance, direct, and create movement

I’m sure we’re all aware of what lines are, but just to be sure, lines can be defined as any linear marks. So, when you think about it, lines make up just about everything. Even these words and letters you’re reading now are made up of thousands of curved, angled and straight lines.

Lines can channel certain ideas too. Straight ones can evoke order and neatness, wavy lines can create movement, and zig-zagged lines can imply tension or excitement.

A technique applied a lot in photography is the use of ‘leading lines’ which do just what they claim–they lead the eye. Finding and emphasizing strong leading lines in your piece can allow you to direct the eye through the entire piece or to certain focal points.

Strong use of line is a great way to stylize your illustrations. Check out these poster illustrations by Ksenia Stavrøva for apparel brand SNDCT. By using simple white lines to execute each illustration, the design as a whole is given cohesivity and a recognizable style. Consider emphasizing your use of line in illustrations to create an intriguing effect.

design elements and principles

Posters for SNDCT by Ksenia Stavrøva. Image via Behance.

design elements and principles

Posters for SNDCT by Ksenia Stavrøva

Lines are versatile, simple and effective graphic elements that you certainly should not take for granted. Photos, like the one in the Photographic Church Seminar Flyer template, is also a great way to use lines.

2. Scale

scale design elements and principles

Scale is a large part of design, sometimes literally. In a very basic definition, scale is the deliberate sizing of individual elements.

Scale can help us make sense of designs and images. Think about if you were to draw a mouse next to an elephant, you’d probably draw the mouse much smaller than the elephant, which would help viewers instantly understand your drawing.

In this way, scale helps us make sense of things. But, scale doesn’t always have to be based on realism. You can size your elements dramatically large or small to create stunning effects and to signal which parts of your design are more important and which are less.

For example, check out this poster by Gabz Grzegorz Domaradzki for the movie Drive. In this poster, the lead character has been scaled up dramatically, drawing attention to him first, and the other faces second.

Drive poster design elements and principles

Drive poster by Gabz Grzegorz Domaradzki. Image from artist's website.

While this scale is not technically based on realism as people’s faces are generally the same size in real life (and Ryan Gosling is not a giant to my knowledge), the dramatic scaling up and down of faces helps viewers to get a quick grasp on each character’s level of importance in the film, as well as making for an effective design.

This scaling of elements to signal importance is often called ‘hierarchy’ which we’ll discuss more in-depth later on, fear not! But, for the meantime, let’s look at an example that uses scale to signify importance.

This publication design by The Consult scales up certain statistics, information, and numbers a lot to draw attention to those pieces of data over others.

design elements principles scale

Publication design by The Consult.

Want some more tips and tricks for mastering scale in your designs? Check out these 5 creative ways to use scale in your designs.

3. Color

design elements and principles colour

Colour is paramount. Colour creates specific moods, atmospheres, channels emotions, and each shade has certain specific connotations associated with it. In short, color can make or break your design.

Let's look at two branding examples. First up, we have a design by Smack Bang Designs for women’s skin rejuvenation service ‘Lite Luxe’. This design has opted for light, soft and pastel colors. Whites, light greys, soft blush tones and a copper/gold foiling, these chosen colors complement each other gently to create a calm, elegant and feminine design.

design elements and principles color colour

Smack Bang Designs for Lite Luxe.

On the other hand, we have this branding for juice brand Frooti by Sagmeister & Walsh. Unlike the previous example which chose a palette that gently complemented itself, this branding has chosen a color palette that sharply contrasts, creating a much more vibrant, energetic and playful design.

design elements principles colour color

Frooti by Sagmeister & Walsh.

Colour isn’t a principle simply limited to branding elements though, color expands into everything, even photographs. Filters and image adjustors have given us the unlimited ability to adjust our photographs’ coloring and tones.

Are you designing a sleek and sophisticated poster? Why not run a sharp, noir-inspired monochromatic filter over your image, like Canva’s ‘Street’ filter. Or perhaps you’re going for a whimsical look? Consider dropping the contrast on your image a little to mute your images’ colors a bit and make it softer and calmer.

Don't be afraid to play around with colors on your design. Try the Colorful Strokes Art Postcard template.

4. Repetition

design elements and principles repetition

Think about any big name brand, Coca-Cola, Google, Apple, Nike, I’m sure you can all think of their logo, their general tone of voice and their general color schemes used. Why are these things so memorable at the drop of a hat? Yep, you guessed it – repetition.

Repetition is a crucial element when it comes to branding design, both in terms of keeping your branding consistent and in terms of tying your items together.

Let's have a look at a branding example by Michelle Wang. As you can see, this identity uses a consistent color palette and consistent logo application, right down to consistent margin spacing.

design elements and principles repetition

Branding by Michelle Wang.

Repetition is a key element when it comes to branding, but it can also make for beautiful one-off designs. For example, repetition is a key ingredient when it comes to creating patterns and textures.

Check out this packaging design by Nastya Chamkina that uses repetition to create a beautiful pattern. Patterns don’t have to be dull and floral like dusty old curtains, they can be fun and effective. So, why not implement repetitive patterns into your next design?

design elements principles repetition

Packaging design by Nastya Chamkina.

Want some more inspiration like the beautiful pattern-based branding below? Be sure to swing by this article of 50 gorgeous geometric patterns designs in graphic design!

5. Negative Space

design elements principles negative space

negative space is the ‘space inbetween’, the area between or around other elements that form its own shape

The widely regarded king and path-forger of negative space was artist M.C. Escher, whose work I’m sure you’ve seen and been baffled by before. Escher did a number of tessellations that focussed on one shape leading into the next via negative and positive space, like this woodcut print “Sky & Water I”.

Sky a Water I by M.C. Escher design elements and principles negative space

Sky & Water I by M.C. Escher.

See how Escher has used the space in between the birds to create the shape of fish? This is negative space at work–considering everything around and in between your physical design, and manipulating that space to form something new.

Negative space when used strategically and cleverly can help create truly stunning and clever designs. Have a look at these simple animal icons by designer George Bokhua that use simple, clean shapes to render clear depictions of each animal.


Simple animal icons by George Bokhua. Image via Dribble.

See how negative space plays into the design of the Gold & White Modern Company Corporate Annual Report template.

6. Symmetry

design elements principles symmetry

As species, human beings are scientifically proven to be drawn to symmetry. We find symmetrical faces, patterns and designs generally more attractive, effective and beautiful.

Symmetry is used a lot in logos in order to create a harmonious and balanced design. Some examples of large brands with symmetrical logos are Target, McDonald’s, Chanel, Starbucks, etc.

design elements principles symmetry

Symmetry is used in the design of these well-known logos.

Of course, symmetry is not always an option for every design, and nor should it be.

There’s a fine line between a design looking balanced and symmetrical, and looking like one side was copied, flipped and pasted to the left. So instead of trying to achieve perfect symmetry, instead try to introduce subtle elements of symmetry into your design.

For example, this wedding invitation uses a high degree of symmetry, but it’s not perfectly mirrored. Instead, the designer has chosen to adjust the illustrations to fit the type and the message in subtle ways that keep the design symmetrically balanced and ordered, but not too blatantly mirrored, creating a delicate, romantic and balanced design.

design elements principles symmetry

A wedding invitation where symmetry plays a big role.

Check out this annual report spread design by Brighten the Corners and Anish Kapoor that draws attention to the symmetrically of the text columns by mirroring them on either side of the spread.

design elements principles symmetry

By using a bit of symmetry in your layout, you can create a sense of balance and order. So, next time you’re designing a publication design, or a design with a lot of type, pay attention to how much (or how little) symmetry you’re using. If your design doesn’t look quite right, have a go at toying with your symmetry, whether this be increasing it or decreasing it.

7. Transparency

design elements principles transparency

Also occasionally known as ‘opacity’, transparency refers to how ‘see-through’ an element is. The lower your opacity, the lighter and less noticeable your element is, and the higher it is, the more solid the element is.

Let’s look at an example that uses transparency. This stunning example by Jack Crossing layers various shapes of different colors, sizes, and opacities to create a truly beautiful graphic. In this way, adjusting and toying with transparency and transparency effects can allow you to emphasize your layers and shapes in a unique and striking way.

design elements principles transparency

Brighten the Corners by Anish Kapoor.

Transparency is also a great technique for generating a sense of movement in static images. For example, check out this poster by Filippo Baraccani, Mikko Gärtner, and Lorenz Potthast that layers various images with different levels of transparency to create an engrossing effect and sense of movement.

design elements principles transparency

This poster by Jack Crossing plays around with layers and transparency.

Transparency isn’t just limited to digital graphics either. Check out how this invitation card for the New York Museum of Glass has aptly been printed onto transparent glass, giving the design a unique and engaging effect. Consider what mediums your design will be printed on, what opacity and finish they can/will have, and don’t be afraid to get creative with it.

design elements principles transparency

Invitation for the New York Museum of Glass. Image via Behance.

Create an illusion of transparency by layering images, colors, and type together. Check out the Blue and White Graph General Report template.

8. Texture


Clean, sharp and sleek graphic designs can be wonderful, but sometimes, roughing it up a little with some texture can be even better. Texture can add tactility, depth and can add some pretty interesting effects to your design.

However, as with many things, be sure to use this technique in moderation, as too much texture can quickly overwhelm your design. Remember: there’s a fine line between shabby-chic and just plain old shabby.

design elements principles texture

Keep the use of texture in moderation.

See how too many textures can create a muddy effect? The more textures applied, the harder type and other elements are to see without a stroke effect around each letter.

Of course, if you’re going for the muddier look stylistically, then layering textures might bode well for you, but if you’re looking for a way to incorporate texture in a less imposing way, stay tuned.

Let’s have a look at an example that uses texture in a way that enhances the piece. This beautiful typographic design by Dan Cassaro creates a vintage-inspired effect by using texture. Notice that the use of the rough texture isn’t distracting but rather nicely enhances the piece as a whole, giving it a more handcrafted, authentically-vintage feel.

design elements principles texture

New York State Motto by Dan Cassaro. Image via Behance.

Check out this business card design by Inkdot for Foremost Wine Company that takes texturing to a whole new level by embossing the topography-inspired texture directly into the business card. By considering texture and how your design literally and tangibly feels, you can create a memorable piece for your design that is sure to stand out from the crowd.


Business cards for Foremost Wine Company by Inkblot.

9. Balance

design elements principles balance

Balance is a pretty important thing in most of life, and it’s equally as important in the world of design.

One way to master balance is to think of each of your elements as having a ‘weight’ behind it. From text boxes, to images, to blocks of color, consider each of their sizes, shapes, and what ‘weight’ they have in relation to other elements on the page.

A good technique is to imagine if your design were to be printed out as a 3D model. Would it stand, or would it tip to one side?

Check out this cat logo by George Bokhua that is beautifully balanced. If it were to be printed, chances are it would sit upright.

design elements principles balance

Cat logo by George Bokhua. Image via Dribble.

One type of balance is ‘asymmetrical balance’, which is less about mirroring left and right/top and bottom, and more about distributing, sizing and aligning elements so that their ‘weights’ are even. Let’s look at an example.

This vibrant piece uses scale and a clever distribution of elements to make for a balanced design. Note how this piece achieves balance from left to right and top to bottom through the sizing of elements. By balancing the cluster of images out with the cluster of type.

design elements principles balance

This design plays with the balance of color and shapes.

10. Hierarchy

design elements principles hierarchy

Hierarchy in design is a lot like hierarchy in culture, as both are built on very similar ideas. At the top of a hierarchical scale, we have the most important things, the kings. These elements are to be ‘dressed’ the most extravagantly and command the most attention.

Check out these examples from A2 Magazine that showcase three different ways to signal your title/heading’s importance, from the more subtle examples right through to the big and bold examples. Whatever your choice of avenue, be sure that consumers can instantly point to the title without thinking.

design elements principles hierarchy

Layout from A4 Magazine.

The next tier of hierarchy we have the noblemen, the elements that are still important, but that don’t command quite as much attention as the kings. These are things like subheadings, pull quotes, additional information. Make sure to keep these eye-catching and noticeable, but not anywhere near as noticeable as your headings.

Check out this save the date card by Southern Fried Paper. Notice how the date (a very important part of a save the date card) is made larger, bolder and more noticeable than the type below it. And yet it doesn’t outshine the obvious “Audrey and Grant” title.

design elements principles heirarchy

Letter-pressed save the date card by Southern Fried Paper.

And on the final rung of the hierarchical scale are the peasants, the humble elements of your design that are given the least amount of visual pizazz, usually things like body copy, less important information, links, etc.

Have a look at this poster for The Night Market by Mary Galloway. You can easily point out the title, the subheading/date, and then down the bottom, the smallest type of additional information that isn’t as crucial to the communication.

design elements principles hierarchy

The Night Market by Mary Galloway.

Hierarchy plays a big role in the design of the White Minimalist Photo Father/Dad Appreciation Pinterest Graphic template. Check it out!

Of course, hierarchy isn’t just limited to type. Images also have a hierarchy—think back a little to when we talked about scale. The larger, more colorful, or more central elements of your image are going to have a higher hierarchy than those smaller, duller, less detailed elements.

11. Contrast

design elements principles contrast

Contrast is often the magical key ingredient to making your designs ‘pop’, which is a (sometimes frustrating) demand from many design clients.

In a very basic definition, contrast is the degree of difference between the two elements of your design.

Some common forms of contrast are dark vs. light, thick vs. thin, large vs. small, etc.

Contrast has a great effect on readability and legibility as well, it’s a big reason why you see novels and many other publications printing in black text on a white background. Imagine if they printed using light grey on a white background. The contrast would be very low and the type hard to read. So, if you’re using type, make sure you bump up that contrast.

For example, check out this poster by Jonathan Correira and the way it ensures there’s adequate contrast against the type and image. Since this image is split in half, one side being dominantly green and the other dark grey, the type of color has been adjusted accordingly to ensure each side is legible.

Imagine if the “New York” was executed in the same color as “Bike Expo”, the contrast would be lowered greatly and it would be much harder to read.

design elements principles contrast

Bike Expo, New York by Jonathan Correira.

Another great example of a high-contrast design is this piece by Robbie Cobb that not only contrasts dark and light, but also thick and thin to make for a striking and engaging design.

design elements principles contrast

This design by Robbie Cobb contrasts the both the type and its weight.

Contrast isn’t just a stylistic element or a legibility-enhancer, it can also act to draw the eye to certain elements of your design. This technique is used a lot in website design, let’s look at an example from Audible’s landing page.

design elements principles contrast

Create a contrast by using filters and colors. Image from Audible.

See how this landing page design has darkened and muted the image to allow for the bright red box to contrast sharply against the background. This deliberate contrast helps to draw instant attention to the main call of action (which links directly to a signup page).

This is also a common practice some websites do with pop-ups or call-to-action buttons.

So, use contrast to make your designs visually ‘pop’, draw attention to certain elements of your design.

The contrast of the image's dark filter against the bright text makes the Yellow and Black Swiss Design Corporate Flyer template striking.

12. Framing

design elements principles contrast

Just like you do with your photographs and pieces of art, framing your designs correctly is an important aspect. We usually think of framing in terms of photography – what you include, what you don’t, etc. But, framing is equally as important in design.

Physical frames such as box outlines or graphic elements can enhance or draw attention to specific elements of your design.

For example, let’s check out this menu design by Trevor Finnegan that chooses to frame one of the specials as well as the business’ mission statement to draw attention to these two elements that the eye may have otherwise just passed over. Such a simple way of highlighting certain elements of your design can have a big impact.

design elements principles framing

Menu design by Trevor Finnegan. Image via Behance.

Frames don’t have to be graphic either. If you’re working with photographic elements, why not consider using them to frame your designs? Check out this poster that uses random objects to create a frame for the superimposed type. This way, you draw attention to the piece by the frame and direct the eye to the really important bits.

design elements principles framing

Objects can also be used to create a frame.

In the Red and Black Painting Art Postcard template, the frames are the illustrations and the red line on the side. Be creative in making frames; don't just stick to lines and shapes.

13. Grid

design elements principles grid

Think of a design grid like the foundation to a house – it’s a crucial first step in allowing for you to build a functional, and beautiful final product. It signals to the builder/designer where certain elements should be placed, what should align with what, and provides a general outline for construction.

Grids are important, usually invisible elements to just about any design. They are comprised of a certain number of rows and columns that you can align your elements against. Grids can help to keep your content in order, neat, legible and looking good.

Let’s look at some examples of different grid systems.

design elements principles grid

Five-column grid by Nicola. Image via Magazine Designing.

This example by Nikola from Magazine Designing shows a five-column grid at work. Note how some elements are contained to one column, while others stretch over two, sometimes three columns, and yet the design as a whole appears neat, clean and well-aligned.

For a bit more flexibility, consider adding in some more columns, like this example below.

design elements principles grids

More grids give your designs more flexibility.

Once again from Nikola from Magazine Designing, this image shows how a twelve-column grid can give you a lot of flexibility when it comes to aligning your elements. Once again, note how some elements span many columns, while others sit over just two. Don’t think of your grid as lines you have to color inside of, but rather a set of simple guidelines used to help you create a stunning design.

So, find a grid that suits you and your design, and move from there.

Now we’ve established what a grid is, what it looks like, and how it works, let’s look at some real-world examples of grids at work. Check out this example below by Matt Willey, and try to figure out how many columns he used in this design’s grid.

design elements principles grid

Magazine layout by Matt Willey. Image via the artist's website.

Did you estimate three? Or perhaps six? Either way, this example has a clear and identifiable grid system to which each element has been aligned, making for a striking, neat and attractive design.

Grids are flexible, adaptable and infinitely handy, so consider using one for your next design and see what it can do for you!

14. Randomness

design elements principles randomness

Up until now, we’ve been preaching about alignment and order. But, what about the more organic, rough, and random designs? Randomness plays a large part in design, but it is a specific kind of randomness. Let’s call it ‘design randomness’.

The difference between ‘design randomness’ and other forms of randomness is purpose and execution. With design, your main goal should be communication – what does this piece need to say to consumers? Is it saying it in a clear way? How can I make communication stronger?

For example, let’s have a look at a design that uses type in a way that could easily be deemed ‘random’ but that has purpose and intention. This poster by Heath Killen for the film ‘The Killer Inside Me’ mostly uses scratchy, hand-rendered type, and where it uses typefaces, the letters and words are kerned and spaced sporadically and irregularly.

design elements principles randomness

'The Killer Inside Me' poster by Heath Killen. Image via artist's website.

This piece layers the hand-type and positions it in a very random way that some people would say hinders the legibility. But, this was done with purpose – the intent being to represent a scrambled and warped psyche.

Herein lies the difference between ‘randomness’ and ‘design randomness’. If this design were applied to a poster for a children’s movie about cheerful talking animals, it would seem random, and wouldn’t communicate the right thing at all. But, in this case, the random design communicates the movie’s themes perfectly.

Also have a look at this design by Laura Berglund that uses a degree of randomness to create an organic-looking, collage-like effect. While this piece looks like it was slapped down onto a page and instantly looked stylishly rough and disheveled, have a bit of a look at it and note how many design conventions it actually does use.

design elements principles randomness

Poster design by Laura Berglund. Image via the artist's website.

Look at how each element has actually been strategically positioned, leading lines have been implemented to guide the eye around the piece, and there has been a selective balance between flat color, texture, and photography.

Check out this design by Juan Camilo Corredor. This design has opted to represent randomness, with strange shapes, textures, illustrations, all cropped unusually and arranged in interesting ways.

design elements principles randomness

Design by Juan Camilo Corredor. Image via Behance.

This design appears random, but if you dissect its elements, you’ll notice that certain parts of the design have been aligned (bottom left blue shape perfectly aligns with the green pointed shape next to it, etc.), the layout helps the eye flow across the page, and there are even some hints of a grid at work.

The point being–things don’t have to be neat and orderly to be classed as design. Representing ‘randomness’ and playing with a few avant-garde designs can be effective and super fun.

Take a leaf from Juan Camilo Corredor’s book and resize elements in strange ways, throw in a tail of an ‘a’, crop a chicken’s head off, but try to do it while being aware of design conventions and your overall purpose.

The Green Border Variety of Fruits Raffle Flyer template looks like the illustrations have been thrown in haphazardly—but not really.

15. Direction

design elements principles direction

An important aspect of many designs is how the eye moves over the page, and the direction it takes – this is also sometimes referred to as ‘flow’. How does your eye move across the page? Do your readers know exactly where to look next? Is the direction that their eye takes logical?

Studies have dissected the exact nature of our eye movement habits and the patterns our eyes trace over when viewing specific things. Have a look at this eye-tracking study by Nielsen Norman Group that tracked people’s eyes while viewing web pages to see their pattern of consumption. Check out the heatmap results below.

design elements principles direction

Eye-tracking study by Nielsen Norman Group.

The studies proved that a common pattern for the eye to take is an “E” or “F” shape when it comes to web pages, so placing your top content to the left of your page, or along the top is your best bet. Another common pattern that the eye traces over is a “Z” shape, as shown below.

design elements principles direction

The eyes' direction when reading web content.

Overall, the general idea is that the eye naturally travels from the top left corner to the bottom right corner, in a ‘sweeping’ motion. This theory is best explained in depth by The Gutenberg Diagram, and you can read up about the nitty-gritty of it here.

Rather than designing 100% by these patterns, though, try to adapt your designs’ flow and direction on a case-by-case basis. Just keep in mind that the eye gravitates to the top left of a page and winds its way down from there.

Let’s look at an example that has a distinct and effective use of direction.

This design by Atelier Martino & Jaña directs the eye in a very fluid and organic way, by weaving the text along the curves and shapes of the image. The title and date stand out to us first (thanks to a little hierarchy) and then our eyes are left to flow through the piece as we read the information and take in the photograph.

design elements principles direction

Poster design by Atelier Martino & Jaña.

So, in short, this piece’s flow and direction encourages viewers to read and consume the type while simultaneously taking in the image.

16. Rules

design elements principles rules

This is a point sure to spark a lot of debate and to divide any room of designers – half proclaiming that there are no rules in design, the other protesting that there are many. And technically, they’re both right.

As with any skill, there are things you have to learn, and this comes with general rules. Things like: make sure your type is legible, learn to kern, don’t use pixelated images, etc. These are the foundations of design, the things that help you make a basic design.

But, as many argue, once you’ve learned these rules, it’s definitely time to break them.

Let’s look at an example that deliberately breaks the rules big time. This poster by Shahir Zag deliberately breaks some cardinal typographical rules in order to make a (very true) joke.

design elements principles rules

Poster by Shahir Zag.

Another example of a rule breaker that you’ll certainly come across during your design adventures is David Carson. Carson was an avant-garde grunge designer for publications such as Ray Gun Magazine where he produced shocking, dynamic, and rule-bending spread designs that are still admired today.

One of the beloved anecdotes about Carson is his layout for an interview with musician Bryan Ferry. Having read over the content and deciding that the interview was pretty dull, Carson chose to execute the entire interview in Zapf Dingbats (a Wingdings-like, symbol-based font) rendering it totally unreadable. Check out the spread below.

design elements principles rules

Making an interview look more interesting by using Zapf Dingbats.

Carson’s basic ethos when it came to design was ‘don’t mistake legibility for communication’.

Carson and other rule-breaking designers are often choosing to communicate different ideas to you by breaking the rules. The ‘migraine’ poster by Shahir Zag we previously discussed breaks the rules in order to make a joke and Carson’s spread breaks the rules in order to make a point about that interview.

So, while the legibility is a little compromised, the communication definitely is not.

Following the rules and breaking them each has their own places in the world of design. Take everything with a grain of salt and learn as much as you can so that you can break and bend the rules the right way and make a memorable splash.

17. Movement

design elements principles movement

Have you ever heard or seen somebody describe a painting or piece of art as having “a lot of movement to it”? You might have first been baffled by that explanation–after all, how does a static painting move? But, movement is a big part of the visual arts, including graphic design.

Earlier we discussed the direction and flow of your design, these factors play a big part in the movement of your design. If your final piece has a good flow from top to bottom, left to right, corner A to corner B, etc., your piece will ‘move’ smoothly.

But, what about the cases where you want to give an element a literal sense of movement? Maybe you have a ball that you want to show in motion or a car that you want to depict zooming down a highway. There’s a lot of ways you can depict this kind of movement, so let’s run over a few examples.

First, we have transparency. We briefly touched on how transparency/opacity can create motion for your designs earlier, but let’s look a little deeper.

This logo example by Vladimir Mirzoyan layers sharp geometric shapes of various opacities over each other to replicate a hummingbird’s wings in flight. The simple effect of overlaying these elements creates a clean, clever and sophisticated sense of movement.

design elements principles movement

Logo design by Vladimir Mirzoyan.

Similarly, check out this proposed poster design by Alan Clarke for the 2012 Olympic Games. By layering simple shapes of varying opacities, this poster creates a strong sense of speed and motion.

design elements principles movement

Proposed poster design by Alan Clarke for the 2012 Olympics.

Movement can also be achieved through a blur effect. Check out this example that applies motion blur effects to a typically static design element – type.

This example, a book cover by German designers Anzinger, Wüschner, Rasp, applies an intriguing blur to the edges and corners of the letter to create an illusion of movement.

design elements principles movement

Book Cover Handout of F by Daniel Kehlmann, published by Quercus.

And finally, movement can also be captured through motion lines. These are common in comics and illustrations, when a character is running away or moving swiftly. So, channel your inner comic book illustrator and make the most of motion lines. Let’s look at an example.

This example below by Matt Chase uses motion lines subtly on the ‘future’ to indicate movement. A subtle but effective way of giving the design a dynamic edge and indicating movement.

design elements principles movement

Design by Matt Chase.

18. Depth

design elements principles depth

Depth is an important and exciting principle in the world of design. Even with the flattest of mediums, you are able to create a sense of depth and an illusion that your design expands beyond the second dimension.

So, how do we create an illusion of depth in our designs? There are many techniques you can use to communicate depth in your design, let’s run over a few.

First, we have what is probably the most commonly known technique–shadows. Now, shadows can be tricky little devils, as they aren’t always linearly shaped, sometimes they stretch, bend, warp and skew. So, a good technique when exploring shadow-usage is to observe real-world shadows, see how the light hits various objects at different points and try to replicate that.

Let’s look at an example that showcases the effective use of shadows to create depth. This poster for a book fair by Dominique Schmitz uses a lot of shadows in a lot of different and challenging, but very realistic ways. Have a look at the way each shadow is rendered differently and appropriately for each element. Realism takes work, but the payoff is often worth it!

design elements principles depth

Book poster design by Dominique Schmitz.

Another technique is overlapping certain elements. This reduces the flat appearance and makes things seem more layered and on different levels and tiers. Check out this design by Fabian De Lange that overlaps illustrative elements, type and graphic elements (the white border) to create a layered look with plenty of depth.

design elements principles depth

Fabian De Lange overlaps illustrative elements, type and graphic elements to create a layered look with plenty of depth.

Another technique is to play with perspective, which is a technique that often gives elements a “3D effect”. By adjusting the perspective of certain elements, you can give the illusion of raising them up off of the page, creating instant depth. Let’s look at an example.

This electronica-inspired poster by Neil Stevens skews each letter to the right a little bit and gives them distinct shape and depth. This simple way of illustrating, shading and adjusting the perspective of each element helps to create a dynamic and engaging design.

design elements principles depth

Design by Neil Stevens.

Of course, on the other end of the spectrum is reducing the amount of depth in your design. This is a popular style as of late, often referred to as ‘flat design’.

A well-known user of the flat design technique is Apple. In September 2013 Apple launched a new operating system that came jam-packed with a whole new design upheaval that basically took away all of the bevel effects and drops shadows that created the appearance of depth and replaced them with flatter app icons, screens, etc.

19. Typography

design elements principles typography

Typography is arguably one of the biggest foundations of design. Type says a lot (sometimes literally) and the way you choose to execute your type, whether a heading or somebody copy says even more.

For a thorough rundown of all things typography and font-related, be sure to check out this cheat-sheet full of tips, tricks, and links to help you master the written word!

Let’s look at an example of display typography. For those of you not familiar, display type basically refers to the fancier, more stylistic typographical designs. Think of movie poster titles, magazine headings, etc.

Check out these magazine spread designs by Benjamin Bours, each which have had their titles custom-designed intricately and effectively. This showy and detailed typography is display type at work.

design elements principles typography

Serif vs. Sans Serif fonts infographic by Urban Fonts.

Next, we have body copy. Now, there’s an ongoing debate amongst the world of body copy between those who favor serif and those who favor sans-serif in terms of readability and legibility.

So what is the answer? Well, it’s down to preference and each situation, but generally speaking, serif is best for print and sans-serif is best for the web. Check out the infographic below by Urban Fonts, or read more about Serif vs. Sans Serif fonts here.

design elements principles typography

Serif vs. Sans Serif fonts infographic by Urban Fonts.

Once you’ve decided between serif or sans-serif, then comes the detailed and sometimes time-consuming step of setting your type.

For a much more thorough rundown of the basics of mastering type, be sure to check out this article of 20 typography mistakes every beginner makes—and how you can avoid them.

design elements principles typography

Some tips on how to apply typography to your design.

However, for the mean time, let me impart these few basic pieces of wisdom to you:

  • Kern your titles
  • Make sure your body copy isn’t too big or too small for the medium you are printing onto
  • Try to avoid using too many typefaces at once
  • Left-alignment is easiest to read for large bodies of type
  • If in doubt, print it out (you can often pick up on awkward typesetting much easier when it’s on page)

When it comes to typography, another hurdle to leap over is the art of combining typefaces. While it sounds easy, and sometimes it is, it can also be challenging at times. Let’s look at an example that combines typefaces well.

This magazine design for 99U Magazine uses only a few different typefaces but manages to combine them in a whole array of different ways. Effective and stylish! Check it out.

design elements principles typography

Design for 99U Magazine.

Type by itself can bring character to your design. Check out the Mountain Landscape Church Flyer template.

For more advice on combining your typefaces, check out the Ultimate guide to font pairing.

20. Composition

design elements principles composition

Composition is a nice point to end on as it is the bringing together of every other principle we’ve discussed.

‘Composition’ refers to the overall arrangement of elements in your design, which sounds a bit dull when explained that way, I know, but it’s actually one of the more fun elements of design. This is where you can play, experiment and make a good design look great.

Composition is basically where all the previous 19 elements we’ve discussed come together. You can use scale, repetition, typography, line, randomness, etc. to create unique, effective and suitable layouts.

Let’s look at some designs and pick apart their composition. First, we have this email newsletter for J.Crew. This design puts the focus on the “30” by using scale and depth to highlight it. It also draws attention to the title by using hierarchy and placing it at the top center of the page, making it larger than the other type, and framing it.

design elements principles composition

Email newsletter design for J. Crew.

These are just a few techniques implemented in this simple design. Note how they all come together in this specific way to create a strong, attractive and effective design.

Here’s another random example–this time, a poster by Lab B Design Office. This design uses similar techniques and design principles as the previous one but producing a very different result. This piece uses scale and depth by varying the scaling of the blocks of type and positioning them around and behind the photograph to create depth. It also uses hierarchy heavily and frames the type inside boxes and the image with the type.

design elements principles composition

Poster designed by Lab B Design Office.

Overall, by using different combinations, techniques, and content you are able to create an infinite amount of layouts.

Think of it like learning ‘do re mi’. Once you have that part down-pat, you can then use different combinations of those notes to create just about any song you want to sing.

Sound Of Music metaphors aside, let’s run over some quick tips and tricks for mastering your composition. Here are some important things to consider when it comes to composition:

  • Is the design balanced?
  • Does the design have a logical hierarchy?
  • Does the eye follow over the page/s easily and logically?
  • Is my main communication clear to audiences?


Design is a complicated business full of principles, tricks, and techniques, some of which you can learn from others, and some of which you have to learn on your own.

Take every ‘rule’ you read about with a grain of salt and apply it where it feels appropriate, and abandon the rules whenever you feel they aren’t. Design is a constantly evolving and changing field and each situation is different, unique and exciting.

But, for the beginners amongst us, keep these 20 principles in mind. Whenever you’re out and about, take note of posters, menus, and signs you see, and try to identify which principles it uses and how it uses them. Develop a ‘design eye’ and keep a mental (or physical) record of interesting ways to use these techniques and store that away for a rainy day.

Overall, have fun with it. Play, experiment, but do it with purpose and care. Good luck!

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