The 12 Principles of Design Explained

The 12 Fundamental Principles of Design, Explained

Arrangement of visual imagery within the picture plane is essential for artists and designers to consider when creating their artwork. Effective use of design can help communicate powerful messages that leave an impact on viewers long after they have seen an individual image.

However, an unattractive design that has not been properly considered can confuse viewers, causing them to disengage from the artwork entirely.

What Makes Good Design?

While there are no hard and fixed rules as to what makes for a good design (after all, rules in art are made to be broken!), understanding the fundamentals of design is essential for anyone who wishes to engage in effective visual communication. You want your design to clearly communicate its message in a way that is aesthetically pleasing to your audience.

Regardless of whether you’re a highly trained creative professional or an amateur finding a new hobby, knowing and implementing good design skills will help you develop a compelling visual narrative.  

An Investment of Time Leads To Artistic Growth

Creative professionals will spend a lifetime honing their design skills in order to perfect their craft. Luckily, you don’t need to spend years going to art school to improve your design capabilities and grow as an artist. The first step towards developing your design skills is to be sure you have a solid understanding of the 12 fundamental principles of design.

These design basics will help to build your art vocabulary and provide a common language to examine these concepts on your own. Note that many of these design principles are interrelated, so developing your skill in one principle will build and strengthen your understanding of other principles.

Here are 12 fundamental principles of design, explained:


Principle of Design: Unity

A design achieves visual unity when there is a sense of harmony between the individual components of an artwork. All visual elements within the composition relate to one another in a manner that is both cohesive and aesthetically pleasing.

Unity enables the viewer to make sense of your design as a whole. You are striving to achieve unity within every design. Artworks with too many unrelated or competing elements will leave your viewers feeling confused and unresolved. 


Principle of Design: Variety

Variety in a design refers to the use of multiple visual elements within a single composition. Variety creates visual interest to capture your viewer’s attention and make your artwork more interesting.

Imagine a ballet performance where the dancers wear identical costumes and perform every movement in unison. The uniformity can quickly feel dull and constrained. However, introducing elements of variation––through light, color, shape, motion and the like––creates a far more compelling scene to captivate the audience.

Balancing Unity with Variety

Designs with too many contrasting elements can lead to a breakdown in the overall cohesion of the piece, muddling your message and confusing your viewers. Keep in mind that you are looking to develop the appropriate balance between unity and contrast in every new artwork.


Principle of Design: Hierarchy 

While all elements of design are important, artists and designers must establish a visual hierarchy within each individual artwork. A visual hierarchy essentially prioritizes the visual content that will be featured most prominently in your design.

By establishing a visual hierarchy, you are determining which elements you will give more visual weight in order to help viewers process the information and amplify the impact of your design’s message. 

Visual hierarchy is communicated through a number of design elements including size, color, and spatial composition. Establishing visual hierarchy is also achieved by drawing upon design principles such as contrast and emphasis.  Visual hierarchy creates organization and allows viewers to navigate through your design.

Failing to establish a clear visual hierarchy can confuse viewers as it leaves them without a clear visual guide. 


Principle of Design: Contrast

Visual contrast refers to the perceivable level of difference between the main elements within your design. Any number of visual elements can be contrasted within a design including color, shape, pattern, and use of space.

Contrast is used to command visual interest and direct the viewer’s attention. By signaling the compositional element where viewers should focus, you are guiding your viewers towards the most important focal points of the piece.

Contrast is a great tool to organize the visual hierarchy of your design.Visual elements with a high degree of contrast quickly stand out to the eye. For example, placing white text against a black background creates strong visual contrast due to the stark tonal difference between light and dark. This gives the illusion that the text is popping out from the overall background of the design.

By comparison, placing white text against a light grey background generates a lesser degree of visual contrast, causing the two elements to appear more closely blended together in the pictorial space. 


Principle of Design: Emphasis

Emphasis allows for specific parts within the image to stand out from the overall design. Artists use emphasis to direct the viewer’s attention to a desired focal point or multiple points of focus.

Emphasis can be created by manipulating any number of visual elements within the design. For example, color, shape, rhythm, and movement are all visual elements that can all be used to create emphasis. 

Using Contrast to Create Emphasis

Contrast also plays a crucial role in creating emphasis; a high level of contrast signals a greater degree of difference between the elements in your design. Highlighting this difference can further emphasize your artwork’s focal point.

Imagine you are depicting a city scene and wish to place emphasis on the height of a specific skyscraper. If your skyscraper is surrounded by other buildings of similar size and proportion, it is not distinguished from the other elements in the composition. If, however, your skyscraper is surrounded by single-story ranch-style homes, the contrast of shape and size will place emphasis on the skyscraper.



Principle of Design: White/Negative Space

Negative space, also known as white space, refers to the unmarked space that exists between and around the main compositional elements of your artwork. For designers who work with text, negative space includes the spaces between words, the spaces between lines of text, and the spaces in the margins. Note that while negative space may be referred to as white space, the space itself can be of any color. 

The principle of negative space can sometimes be difficult to grasp as it refers to the absence rather than presence of an object. An easy way to visualize negative space is to imagine painting a palm tree onto a blank white canvas. In this instance, the negative spaces are the shapes created by the white of the canvas, the spaces surrounding the central palm tree composition.

Why Consider Negative Space

While easy to overlook, negative space is an important design principle that provides organization and clarity to your work. When a design lacks sufficient negative space compositional elements may feel cramped or distracting, obscuring your message.



Principle of Design: Balance

Balance is the even distribution of visual weight within the pictorial space. Utilizing the principle of balance ensures that visual elements are not haphazardly thrown together into a composition. Balance provides viewers with a sense of harmony and is aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Color, placement of compositional elements, and symmetry can be all used to achieve balance. 

Symmetry, Asymmetry, and the Rule of Thirds

Symmetrical balance occurs when an image has identical visual balance around both sides of a central axis.

An easy exercise to understand symmetry is to take a sheet of paper and fold it vertically into two equal halves. Now take a pair of scissors and cut any shape around the perimeter of the paper (excluding the folded side). When you open the sheet of paper, your design will be symmetrically balanced, with each side a perfect mirror image of the other. Note that while balance is essential for an effective design, symmetry is not necessary to achieve balance.

Asymmetrical balance occurs when you have unequal or dissimilar visual elements on both sides of a central axis. However, even asymmetrical compositions can achieve visual balance. One simple way to help balance your composition is to apply the rule of thirds in your design.

The rule of thirds places an imaginary grid over your image, dividing the composition into three equal rows with three equal columns. Notice the points where the horizontal and vertical lines intersect. These intersections naturally serve as focal points within your composition and can serve to guide you in balancing an asymmetrical design. 


Principle of Design: Proportion 

Proportion is the comparative relationship between visual elements, particularly as they relate to each other in terms of size, shape, and scale. Visual elements that are in proper proportion generate a sense of harmony and balance in your composition.

Well-proportioned designs often are not consciously noticed by your viewers. However, improper use of proportion will immediately stand out as visual elements will appear distorted or out of place. 


Principle of Design: Movement

Visual movement refers to the path taken as the viewer moves their eyes around the composition of your artwork. This path may direct viewers towards a single focal point, or the viewer may bounce between multiple focal points.

Use of rhythm, line, color, balance, and pattern are a few examples of visual elements that can aid the development of movement within your design. Movement implies action and provides energy and dynamism; designs which lack sufficient movement can appear dull to your viewer. 


Principle of Design: Rhythm 

Rhythm is created when a series of visual elements are repeated within a single design. Similar to the rhythm of a musical composition, visual rhythm helps establish the tone and mood of an artwork and creates a feeling of organized movement.

Any visual element can be repeated to create rhythm, and you can repeat more than one element within a single design. Repeating visual elements at regular intervals creates a consistent rhythm, whereas variations in intervals will generate a more unpredictable rhythm.

Rhythm vs. Movement

The design principles of rhythm and movement are closely related and easily confused. The principle of movement refers to the overall sense of motion found within an artwork. Rhythm describes a single motion or series of motions that is repeated throughout the artwork. In other words, the visual rhythm found within a design sets the tone and tenor for the design’s overall pattern of movement. 


Principle of Design: Repetition 

Repetition occurs when an element or elements of your design appears more than once within the composition. Any visual component may be repeated throughout the pictorial plane such as color scheme, shape, or motif.

Repetition provides rhythm to your design and helps maintain overall visual unity. You may also repeat elements of your design in any arrangement.


Principle of Design: Pattern

A pattern is made up of multiple visual components which is then repeated throughout the design in a consistent arrangement. Most of us are familiar with common patterns found on items of clothing such as stripes, plaid, polka dots, and argyle. Patterns are a form of repetition that are attractive to the eye and aid in providing visual harmony and overall design unity.

Taking The Next Step

Now that you have learned to understand these important art terms , you should practice incorporating them into your own creative work. Take a moment to conduct a quick self assessment in order to examine your own work and assess how you are (or aren’t) utilizing these 12 design principles.

  1. Does your work form a visual hierarchy?
  2. Are there design elements that you favor?
  3. Others you have not previously considered?

You will return to the principles of visual design time and time again as you continue to progress.

Practice and self improvement will aid you enormously in your ongoing creative development. 


Additionally, connecting with a professional art tutor and taking personalized lessons can provide further training to accelerate your progress. Many professional designers and working artists are also trained educators, and by working one-on-one with an art tutor, you receive individualized attention that builds upon your current strengths, targets your specific needs, and meets your unique creative goals.

Connect with an art tutor today

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