Graphic design is the art of combining images, text and ideas to create works that capture a viewer’s attention to communicate a specific message. Because graphic designers are always grappling with how to do just that, they’ve come up with a variety of tips and techniques to keep their work organized and effective.
The elements of design are best understood as being the building blocks of any project. Even the most complex graphic design portfolio can be broken down into fundamental elements like lines, shapes and fonts. Meanwhile, the principles of design—sometimes referred to as “the principles of art”—are rules that help define and regulate how those elements interact with one another, with their context, and with their audience. Although both the elements of design and the principles of design are important concepts to know, this article focuses on the elements of design, which are considered the most basic characteristics of any graphic design project.
The seven basic elements of graphic design are line, shape, color, texture, type, space and image. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Master these basic elements, and you’ll take your graphic design portfolio to the next level.
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Lines are always more than just points that are strung together. Depending on their form, weight, length and context, lines can help organize information, define shapes, imply movement, and convey emotions.
When it comes to selecting the appropriate lines for projects, designers have plenty of options. Lines can:
- …be horizontal, vertical or diagonal.
- …be straight, curved or freeform.
- …zigzag or create other patterns.
- …be solid, broken or implied.
The invisible lines found in the grids of print designs act as guides, offering projects more structure and direction. Meanwhile, visible lines with weight and form can be used to communicate a variety of messages and moods in a designer’s finalized work.
Think about the kinds of lines you see in your everyday life and recall the kinds of messages that they convey to you. Depending on their context, heavier dark lines can communicate stability—or underline a threat. Scribbled lines can suggest excitement, confusion, or messiness. Zig-zagged lines might express electricity or anger, while wavy lines can suggest fragility, elegance, uncertainty, or beauty.
Because even simple lines are able to convey so much, designers should always carefully consider how and when to use them to provide the very most impact.
For the purposes of graphic design, shapes are best understood as areas, forms or figures contained by a boundary or closed outline. There are two types of shapes that every graphic designer should understand: geometric and organic (or “free-flowing”).
Geometric shapes can include either two-dimensional or three-dimensional forms. They are created by a set of points that connect by either straight or curved lines and are usually abstract and simplistic. Geometric shapes can include triangles, pyramids, squares, cubes, rectangles, pentagons, hexagons, octagons, decagons, circles, ellipses and spheres.
Organic shapes are far less uniform, proportional and well-defined. They can be symmetrical or asymmetrical. They might include natural shapes, such as leaves, crystals, and vines, or abstract shapes, such as blobs and squiggles.
People often equate rounded edges and rings with positivity, community, love, friendship, and harmony. Squares and rectangles can suggest balance, dependability, and strength. And triangles have cultural associations with science, religion, history, civilization, and power. If you choose a certain set of shapes, you can convey stability, dependability, and organization. Choose others, and you communicate chaos, creation and fun.
According to Gestalt psychology—a reigning design theory—audiences make sense of designs by seeing them as a whole rather than as their individual parts. Pick interesting, appropriate shapes, and you’re on your way to giving viewers a more visually pleasing, attention-sustaining design.
Color can be a useful tool for communicating a mood or provoking an emotional response from your viewer. Color theory and the color wheel provide a practical guide for graphic designers who want to select a single color or combine multiple colors in a harmonious—or intentionally discordant—way.
In graphic design, some colors are grouped into particular categories.
- Primary colors (red, yellow and blue) are defined as the pure-pigment colors from which all others are made. There is no way to mix any other color to get red, yellow or blue. But mix them together, and you create all kinds of shades.
- Secondary colors (violet, green and orange) are the immediate results of mixing two primary colors: Red and yellow make orange; blue and red make purple; and yellow and blue make green.
- Tertiary colors (red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet and red-violet) are the six colors that result from mixing a primary color and a secondary color.
Color harmonies are created when two or more colors are chosen from their positions on the color wheel.
- Complementary colors lie opposite one another on the color wheel. They are highly contrasting, and can express vibrancy and energy or be visually jarring, depending on how they’re used. Red and green are complementary colors.
- Analogous color schemes use colors that lie next to one another on the color wheel. They are visually pleasing and can create a sense of harmony and calm in a design. However, they can also seem dull if used incorrectly, or if they don’t have other contrasting elements to energize them.
- Triad color schemes use colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel. They are very vibrant and require balance to be visually pleasing.
- Split-complementary color schemes use a base color and the two colors that are adjacent to its complementary color. They provide great visual contrast without being jarring, which is why so many designers prefer them.
- Tetradic or rectangular color schemes use two sets of complementary colors. Because they feature four colors, tetradic schemes offer designers a myriad of varieties and possible outcomes.
- Square color schemes feature four colors that create the shape of a square on the color wheel. They also present many possible design outcomes, but should always be balanced when used.
While you consider your color schemes, you may also want to decide which tint and shade are appropriate for your project. Pastel colors can seem calming or unconfident, while bright tints might convey fun and happiness—or seem cheap in the wrong context. Darker shades connote seriousness and professionalism, but they can also come across as somber or boring if you’re not careful.
According to the experts, human beings have different psychological responses to color depending on the cultural context. It’s important to learn your audience’s color associations and to exploit or avoid them, depending on the goals of your project.
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Texture is the feel of a surface—furry, smooth, rough, soft, gooey or glossy. Most graphic designers must visually convey texture by using illusions to suggest how their work might feel if viewers could touch it. Mastering texture is an important part of making designs look polished and professional.
There are different ways to experiment with texture in your design work. If you are inspired by nature, you may want to work with organic textures, drawing inspiration from leaves, tree bark, stones, fur, flowers, grass and soil.
Or you can create an abstract pattern by uniformly repeating two-dimensional elements, then use that pattern to make textured backgrounds. Consider working with textured typography in order to provide extra visual interest.
If you’re interested in photography, you can also learn to incorporate images into your background that layer your work. For added textural contrast, adjust your photo’s color saturation and transparency levels and see how it affects the mood of your design.
Whether you’re choosing a font or creating your own typography for a graphic design project, it’s important to make sure the type you use is legible and appropriate for your subject. Type affects the overall mood of a design, so consider whether your letters should be print or script, and whether they should have angles that are sharp or rounded.
The weight of your lettering is also an important part of your design. Typically, large or thick letters convey that the words they convey are important. If you aren’t careful, though, they can also seem heavy-handed or disrupt a design’s balance. Thin letters can connote elegance or modernity, but they can also seem fragile. If you can’t settle on one font or size, there may be room for you to incorporate more than one into your logo’s final design. But as a general rule, don’t exceed three in a given project.
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Spacing is a vital part of any designer’s toolkit. It can give a design breathing room, increase its visual impact, balance out heavier visual elements, and emphasize images or messages that viewers should remember. Without enough space, a design can risk becoming too visually cluttered for your audience to understand.
Spacing can separate objects or link them together. Narrow spacing between visual elements conveys that they have a strong relationship, while wider spacing communicates that they are less related. When you surround a visual element with space, you’re emphasizing its importance, but the space can also suggest loneliness and isolation.
Positive space refers to the space occupied by visual elements that a designer wants their audience to focus on. Negative space refers to everything else, including the background. Many designers make the mistake of only focusing on crafting a positive space, but organized negative space is just as essential to a cohesive, visually interesting composition. If you pay attention to the way negative space affects your design, it could elevate your project from amateurish to professional.
Whether graphic designers use photographs or illustrations, they rely on images to grab the audience’s attention and express specific messages. An image works on multiple levels simultaneously: It provides context for a designer’s communication, adds necessary drama or action, and creates an overall mood.
When incorporating images into your work, it is vital to find a picture that tells the right story and maximizes visual interest. You could choose an image with a lot of contrasting colors and textures, which offers viewers a visual feast to keep audiences interested. Or you might spotlight a particular part of an image to convey where they place the majority of their focus.
Images are perhaps the most impactful visual tools of communication. If you thoughtfully use their power to your advantage, your work will convey more than you ever thought possible.
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You can utilize elements of design in any form or layout that requires text, images and ideas to express something unique, from posters and billboards to brochures and packaging. Learn to choose and use each concept wisely, and you’ll be well on your way to creating graphic designs that are fresh, communicative, and visually appealing.