For any visual designer, creating work that feels contemporary, dynamic, and true-to-message is a perennial challenge. The best graphic designers are continually looking for ways to sustain attention, tell a story, and express the right message to their audience of choice. And while there’s no foolproof method when it comes to producing eye-catching designs, there are a number of principles to keep in mind that will help you along the way.
These concepts give designers a foundation to ensure that the visual elements in their portfolio such as shape, line, image, and typography relate in a visually exciting and narrative way. Get familiar with these advanced principles of design, and you’ll strengthen and enhance your designer portfolio. Keep them close at hand, and you’ll be able to turn even your most challenging graphic design projects into a product that is visually fresh, clear, and communicative.
Here, we’ll briefly cover the five basic principles of design: symmetry and asymmetry, scale, framing, hierarchy, and grids. Then, we’ll launch into five more advanced concepts in detail, discussing how each can help strengthen your work as a designer. For more on these topics, be sure to check out Demystifying Graphic Design: How Posters Work, a course from the Smithsonian Design Museum curator and co-director of Maryland Institute College of Art Ellen Lupton that touches on each advanced principle in great detail.
What are the basic principles of design?
Graphic designers combine words, images, and ideas to communicate ideas and messages to viewers.The field’s basic building blocks are its visual elements: the specific images, colors, textures, typography, shapes, and lines that you choose to incorporate into your work. These elements will critically affect the final look, mood, and message of a design.
But great design doesn’t stop there. As soon as you decide what you’re including in your project, you must decide how to incorporate it. That’s where the principles of design come in.
Principles of design convey the relationship between the elements, their context or frames, and the viewer. Basic decisions about symmetry, scale, and hierarchy allow you to emphasize certain images or text over others. These choices crucially affect your design’s legibility, coherence, and accuracy.
If you’re new to the field, it’s time to make sure that you understand the first five basic principles of graphic design. Master them well enough to incorporate them into your work, and they’ll make your projects much more successful. These principles are:
Symmetry and Asymmetry: A design has symmetry if you can draw a line through the center of it—from top to bottom or left to right—and each half will mirror the other. Dynamic asymmetry involves sides that are not the same, but have elements that are intuitively placed to give the project a sense of balance. Whether you choose symmetry or asymmetry, your decision must be made intentionally if you want your designs to advance.
Scale: Rather than thinking about how large or small something is, designers look at scale in terms of relative size and contrasting relationships between visual elements. By including elements that are radically different sizes and weights, designers can make a project more visually exciting to viewers. Sometimes, designers also use relative size to relay information about the importance of one element over another. As you design, ask yourself: How does the size of one visual element relate to another? How does it relate to the page or frame? How does it relate to the viewer? Make sure that the answers to these questions align with the message that you want to visually express.
Framing: Designers use framing to emphasize or prioritize key visual elements over others. Framing tells viewers where to look, showcasing the most important aspects and defining key takeaways. Along with related concepts like margins, crops, and bleeds, framing is a vital way to make sure that a design conveys the right ideas to viewers with short attention spans. Break a frame, and you might communicate that your subject is so wild or important that it can’t be metaphorically contained. If you add a second frame, you may further narrow your audience’s focus.
Hierarchy: Visual hierarchy allows designers to make information more orderly. Graphic designers use spatial cues—such as line spacing, indents, outdents, contrasting size, weight, and color—to emphasize important features and suggest how a viewer should navigate complex content. Without a hierarchy, projects can feel messy, unapproachable, or difficult to understand. Mastering hierarchy ensures that your design will have clarity and impact.
Grids: Designers use grids to give structure to a layout. They allow designers to arrange elements evenly, and size them correctly. Grids often feature rows, columns, margins, and gutters (the spaces between blocks of text). They help keep an image orderly and functional—two fundamental attributes of any effective graphic design project.
But understanding the five basic principles of design is only the beginning. Once you have a handle on how to incorporate these fundamental ideas into your work, it’s time to learn more advanced concepts.
Basic Principles of Design
Join Jennifer Cole Phillips and Ellen Lupton for a crash course on the fundamentals of graphic design in their Skillshare Original.
Advanced Principles to Strengthen Your Graphic Design
Graphic designs often tell a story in order to communicate their ultimate message. But most stories have action and movement, and they take place over time; meanwhile, most graphic designs (particularly print-design projects, such as posters) must express that climax in a single frame. Due to this limitation, designers must consider how to create an image that best conveys the story in a clear, concise way. Sometimes, that means choosing a design that illustrates the greatest threat or most compelling personal connection to a story. In other cases, designers use artistry and visual techniques to heighten the drama in what would otherwise be a mundane image.
Whichever method or direction you choose, your creative aim should always be to convey enough of the intended emotion that it resonates with your audience. Designers should think about these secondary principles as sets of specialty tools: They may not all apply to every project, but in the right context, they can be used to drastically improve and enhance a design project. With the help of these advanced principles of design, you’ll be better equipped to accomplish these goals.
1. Focus the eye.
Designers show viewers where to look by providing a focal point to anchor a design. If audiences understand the most important subject to view, they are more likely to absorb a designer’s message and remember it after they walk away.
There are a number of ways to ensure that a viewer’s attention is directed toward the right design element. You can incorporate simple, clean illustrations, or use a dramatic lighting source (such as a spotlight) to focus the eye on a single subject. You can also place frames around logos and key messages to emphasize what you’re trying to convey.
Some poster designers grab the audience’s focus by placing a single large object in the middle of their designs. Such compositions can be quite useful, as long as the project features angles, dynamic asymmetry, or interesting fonts. These elements keep the design from being dull or stale.
Occasionally, graphic designers will intentionally make their work difficult to read in order to achieve artistic goals. For instance, psychedelic posters from the 1960s famously incorporate “vibrating colors,” hues that are close enough in value to trigger optical illusions, but that can make type difficult to read. Those posters don’t represent bad design so much as a distinct creative choice. No matter how you decide to direct your viewers’ eyes, make sure you do it intentionally.
2. Simplify your design.
Eliminating extraneous details can help designers create commanding images. Consider how you might be able to use a more simplistic form or icon to express the message you’re trying to convey. Once you get rid of visual distractions, you might be surprised by how much a design can say with a single representational element.
“Learn to get rid of the stuff that you don’t need,” says Ellen Lupton in the Skillshare Original Demystifying Graphic Design: How Posters Work. “Apply it to your whole life, but start with poster design. Get rid of the junk and stay focused on what you’re trying to say.”
If you do decide to make your work radically simple, then you’ll want to find other ways to energize your design. Try using readily recognizable icons in new or surprising ways. Use unconventional color schemes and innovative crops to create a sense of movement and upend audiences’ expectations. Or place a familiar figure in a unique context: If you put two unrelated icons together, you may create an exciting new relationship; if you use one icon to simultaneously represent two ideas, you may create a clever twist for audiences to untangle.
3. Engineer how your elements interact.
Humans perceive overlapping objects as being in front of or behind one another, and designers can exploit this trick of the eye to indicate depth and create visual interest. Meanwhile, transparency works in the exact opposite way: If transparent elements collide, viewers will get the sense that they occupy the same spatial plane.
“As you work with depth and transparency, it’s helpful to think about how many planes, how much complexity you are trying to create,” says Lupton. A background, midground, and foreground may be just the beginning. On the other hand, perhaps your goal is to use transparency to collapse your design into a single plane. In that case, think through ways to keep your work visually clear enough that your viewer can still pull it apart and glean the message you want to convey.
Layer Shapes to Add Depth
The design duo behind DKNG Studios shares game-changing Adobe Illustrator shortcuts—including how to overlap simple shapes to create depth—in their Skillshare Original.
4. Add energy and motion.
Diagonals create more dynamic compositions by offering a sense of action and movement. “The diagonal is an incredible tool for adding energy and motion to two-dimensional design,” Lupton says. Angled text surprises viewers, which creates visual interest, and angled lines can add a sense of depth or narrative to two-dimensional designs.
Parallel diagonals can be used to convey motion and time, inviting a viewer’s eye to travel across a flat plane. Converging angled lines add a three-dimensional element to two-dimensional designs, offering audiences a sense of depth and time.
With the right diagonals, a design can give an audience the sensation of moving through energy, time, and space. These dynamic elements offer viewers all the more reason to linger on your work, and more of an opportunity to retain the message you want to convey.
5. Add action.
Designers can also add energy and complexity to their designs by visually referencing how it was made. By changing the surface of your design or transforming the elements that you use to create it, you can skillfully express two narratives at the same time: the story your work was created to tell, and the story of how you created it.
“These effects can be physical—you can literally splash paint on your poster—or they can be purely graphic,” says Lupton. “But what we’re looking for here is the sense of action, of something happening to the visual materials of the piece.”
Reworking your surface doesn’t mean you have to rip up your work. Instead, you can create a visual representation of an “assault” and be just as effective: Illustrate a fire around the frame of your poster, or drip one part of your design into another. You’ll reference your project as a physical object—and tell a little story about what went into creating it.
One of the most effective ways to use this principle is to create a purposefully strong contrast between your design and its ultimate assault. Raw, rough graffiti or a wild splash of paint become starker, more dynamic visuals when you place them over a design that is polished and professional. Exploiting contrasts between different textures can bring an extra element of conflict, story, or tension to your graphic design.
“Go have an adventure. Try it and see what happens,” says Lupton. “Part of the pleasure is not knowing quite what will happen.”
5 Advanced Design Principles
Ellen Lupton shares the fundamentals of poster design and guides students through a striking visual project in her Skillshare Original.
Apply one or more of these advanced techniques, and you’ll begin creating graphic designs that tell more dynamic, visually interesting, and emotionally invested stories. “Focus the eye, overlap, activate the diagonal, tell a story,” says Lupton. “That’s what it’s all about… Create some clear assets. Simplify. Play with them. See what you can do.” The more you can visually entertain, shock, please, or surprise your audience, the more likely you will successfully capture their attention—and convey the message you want to communicate. Get started today with Lupton’s course, Demystifying Graphic Design: How Posters Work. Or try your hand at depth and shading with DKNG Studios’ Skillshare original, Mastering Illustrator: 10 Tips & Tricks to Speed Up Your Workflow, which offers step-by-step instructions on adding realism to simple shapes. Regardless of the principles you decide to add to your mental design toolbox, it’s important that you continue to practice and learn. Enroll in a graphic design course today, and continue to grow your skills and your portfolio.