Elements and Principles

The concept of breaking graphic design down into some lists of basic types of components and some guidelines as to how to use those components has always formed the foundation for understanding and teaching graphic design and is usually referred to as the “Elements and Principles (E&P) of Design“. Depending on the resource consulted and the intended application of graphic design, the contents of these lists vary; the following topics are commonly present in the lists of elements and principles.

The Elements of Design

Elements of Design are the basic building blocks of two dimensional (flat space) design.  The elements must be studied and considered in constant conjunction with the Principles of Design which describe how the elements can be organized and used as a unified whole to produce an effective design result. Graphic artists should remember that Elements are not lists of limits or requirements.

LINE: Lines do not exist, as such, in realistic images such as photographs, therefore a line is a graphic code, represented as a very narrow shape that indicates the edge of a shape, a path of action or interaction, or progression.

  • An conceptual line is understood by the artist and the viewer to define a relationship or a boundary but is not visible as part of a realistic image, such as a photograph or realistic painting.
  • A tangible line is a narrow shape that is aligned with an edge or a path and is made visible by the fact that it contrasts with the surface on which it appears (by value, color, etc.).
  • An intangible line is implied through directional impulses and eye flow (such as shapes in a row).

Line Quality: by varying the thickness (weight), value, edges and other properties along its length, a line can be made to indicate various characteristics to intuitively indicate shadow, highlight, depth, distance, and other properties to stimulate the interest of the viewer.

SHAPE: An flat area that is part of a two dimensional image, having a specific character. It is defined by an outline or contrast of color, value, or texture. Shapes are defined by their edges which may be hard or soft.

COLOR: The character of a surface created by the response of vision to a collection of limited range of wavelengths of light. Color is commonly defined as subtractive (such as pigments of paint, ink or dyes)or additive (such as projected light or video displays).

The properties of subtractive color are commonly referred to as:

  • HUE (the named or defined color itself)
  • VALUE (the lightness or darkness of the color)
  • SATURATION or INTENSITY (the brightness or dullness of the color)

The most important property is value since, in terms of basic design effect, it is the most significant of the the three.  Color is addressed in separate FAS sections of color theory and applied color.

Additive color is defined in terms of its electromagnetic properties such as energy level and frequencies.

TEXTURE: The surface quality of a shape that appeals to the tactile sense.

  • Tactile texture feels as it looks; (rough, smooth, fuzzy, etc.).
  • Visual texture creates the illusion of a texture change in the surface although no actual change has occurred.

Texture should be distinguished from pattern which is a principle for organizing shapes.

The Principles of Design

The Principles of Design are the means by which elements are organized into unified and expressive arrangements (also referred to a effective compositions). Artists should remember that these Principles are not prescriptions, limitations or rules they are merely the recognition of commonly used ways to build relationships in designs. Use them as resource starting points or recognizable traditions.

UNITY: The whole or total coherent effect (unified effect) of a design which results from the combination of all its components: ONENESS, OR A SENSE OF BELONGING TO A WHOLE.

VARIETY: Use of great variation and range of elements within a composition. These may be changes of color/ value, size, shape, character, and etc. Also provides interest within a design.

BALANCE:   The feeling of equality of weight distribution within a design.

  • Symmetrical balance (formal balance) has identical compositional units on each side of a vertical axis, a mirror image of each other.
  • Asymmetrical balance (informal balance) has compositional units that have equilibrium within the total design but are not identical.

HARMONY: Visual elements flow together and complement one another like elements in a musical composition. They seem to belong together in the same design.







DOMINANCE: Certain elements assume more importance than others in the same design. Dominance can be accomplished by size or mass, color, value, anomaly, etc.  The subject of Dominance can also be addressed as Hierarchy or Emphasis.

CONTRAST: Comparison whereby differences are used to create interest. Such as dark placed next to light (value contrast) or large shapes placed next to small ones. Too much contrast can create chaos.


Supporting properties of the elements of design

Supporting Properties affect the internal relationships of a design.

SCALE: The relative size of an item with respect to a given frame of reference. How objects relate to each other in size. This usually requires images of two or more objects to create the scale effect.

SPACE: The measurable size of an element; an area.

  • Positive space: any shape or object distinguished from a background; space occupied by shapes intentionally placed by the artist.
  • Negative space: unoccupied or empty space surrounding the positive space in a picture plane. The negative spaces in good design will be as interesting in character as the positive spaces.

PROPORTION: The ratio of height to width in a two dimensional frame of reference.

VALUE: Lightness or darkness given to a surface by the degree of light reflected from it.

VOLUME (form): Shapes which appear 3-D (having length, width, and depth), usually achieved with shading (form description) or linear perspective. To understand this property it should be contrasted with the element “shape”.

DIRECTION: When a element has the characteristic of leading the eye or pointing.

CRAFTSMANSHIP: The neatness and precision of technical processes in the execution of any design; hand skills.

APPROPRIATENESS: The degree to which any design relates to the feel or function of its purpose. “Form follows function.”

FAMILY: Strong similar characteristics within groups of elements in a design, much in the same way as family members might share similar physical characteristics.

ANOMALY: An object or an element which is noticeable because of the fact that it is different from its surroundings or differs from what is anticipated. An anomaly is commonly used in conjunction and contrast with a pattern, texture or sequence.

Organizational methods for producing unity

FOCAL POINT (emphasis or center of interest): An area which stands out in any design.   Can be an anomaly or an area to which the eye has been directed by compositional elements. Or it may be simply the most interesting part of the subject matter from a psychological point of view (such as the human face). That point to which the eye is immediately drawn.

EYE FLOW: Implied visual direction created by careful use of the design elements. Movement through a design following a specific path, much as ones eyes would follow a moving object.

REPETITION (aka SEQUENCE): The use of the same visual element a number of times in the same composition, one of the simplest ways to produce unity.

STRUCTURE: The positioning of forms within a design, much as the frame of a house would provide the underlying structure of an object. Structure promotes the organization of the design.

CONCENTRATION: Distribution of units; thickly gathered in certain areas while less so in other areas.

RADIATION: Shapes, lines, or forms revolving around or projecting from a common center.

GRADATION or TRANSITION: Gradual change in an orderly way creating a sense of progression. Intermediate steps between dissimilar components.


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