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Graphic Design Elements & Principles

Learn the basics of Graphic Design with these elements and principles

By , 13th February 2016 in Graphic Design

Graphic design elements and principals are very important, and once you understand them, you will become a better designer. These tips are beneficial to amateurs and professionals alike and correctly utilizing them will improve your graphic design skills.

These graphic design elements & principles are not steadfast rules, and like photography composition rules, can be broken. You have to understand the rules to know when to break them.

Graphic Design Elements

It is important to understand these graphic design elements, or ingredients, even if they do seem a little trivial at first. These are what makeup designs.


Lines are one of the most important elements of design. They define a subjects form or shape. A line is a form with a length and width, but it has no depth. They can be thick or thin, smooth or jagged, mechanical or organic. The direction of a line can convey a mood. Lines can also be literal or implied. Lines are used to organise, connect or separate graphic design elements.

There are several different types of lines -

  • Contour - defines the boundaries or borders of an object.
  • Dividing - Defines edges but also divides space - between columns of text for example.
  • Decoration - Used to embelish a design, add shading to a form.
  • Gesture - Rough continuous lines to capture shape and motion of a form.

There are lots of ways to describe lines, and each description has characteristics and communication. Each is an important aspect of graphic design elements.

Different Types of Lines
Different Types of Lines

Thin lines can appear fragile, easy to break, but also elegant. Thick lines communicate solidity, strength and robustness.

Horizontal lines appear at rest, calm and quiet with a sense of connecting with the horizon (hence the name). Vertical lines are perpendicular to the horizon and can portray potential energy, strength and robustness. They also convey height and formality.

Diagonal lines are fun and unbalanced, is it falling over or standing up? They are filled with restless energy.

Curved lines are also fun, they curve gracefully and playfully. Depending on how much they curve portrays calming or energetic moods.

Zig-Zag lines portray a very dynamic and possess high energy characteristics. They are often used in comic books to portray action.

Natural Lines are less artificial, and while not strait, they can portray an organic, natural or hand drawn characteristic.


A series of lines can form patterns. Patterns can also convey meaning in a similar way to lines.

Examples of line patterns
Examples of line patterns

Uniform lines, parallel, vertical or diagonal, create a very static or orderly effect if they are even width and space.

Varying lines, spaced differently or different thickness creates a more dynamic, chaotic or confusing effect.

Crosshatch line patterns are often used for shading in hand drawn illustrations but can also be used in digital graphic design.


Shapes can also convey moods in the same was as lines. Shapes have an endless variety of characteristics. They can be used to create a focal point in a design.

Examples of Different Shapes
Examples of Different Shapes

Geometric Shapes - circles, squares, triangles. These are easily recognisable and feature regularity and symmetry. Because of this, they suggest structure and organisation.

Circles have been used to represent the Sun, the Earth and the universe as well as infinity. They are rounded shapes and convey completeness. They can also roll and can be used to convey movement. They can protect or restrict indicating safety and connection.

Squares and rectangles have right angles, represent order and rationality. The majority of text we read is set in rectangles or squares. Rectangles are often seen as boring and not attention getters since we see them everywhere.

Triangles can be stable or unstable and can be used to represent energy and tension. They are often associated with danger or warning. They can represent a steady strength when balanced or conflict, danger and energy when unbalanced.

Organic Shapes are more natural, irregular, free form and asymmetrical. Organic shapes are often more pleasing and representative of shapes in nature. They are generally captured through illustration or photography.

Spirals indicate fun and are expressions of creativity. Often found in nature and growth designs. They can move in either direction and represent trust, renewable, the projection of intention or fulfilment of an intention.

Abstract Shapes have a recognisable form but are not real, they are a stylized version of things. For example fonts, stick figures, road signs, icons. They all represent ideas or concepts and are often universally understood.

Crosses symbolise spirituality, meeting places, self-nature, wisdom, unity and balance. Relationships and synthesis and a need to relate to something.

Negative shapes are created through every other shape and are an important concept for things like logo design. This creates two different images using white space to present different ideas.


Colour is vital in design and one of the most important concepts. This is just a brief introduction to colour theory, the next tutorial will cover this in greater depth.

Different colours affect us and communicate different messages. An important thing to note is that colour is relative. What I see may not be what you see, especially true in colour blindness. The absence of colour is also important and your designs should work in the absence of colour - i.e. black and white. Colour should be used to enhance a design, not be a design itself. A good example of this idea is the Apple logo - it works both in colour and also silhouetted with the colour removed.

Apple Logo is minimal and distinctive
Image Credit: Apple
Apple Logo is minimal and distinctive

Colours can be subtle or loud depending on the message we are trying to portray, and colour can portray more than words and be attention grabbing.

Studies have shown that people in mostly red environments have a higher heart rate and stress levels than those in mainly blue environments. Different colours evoke different feelings. This is expressed in the colour wheel which is explained in the next tutorial on colour theory.


Texture refers to the characteristics of a surface that can be tactile as well as visual. Adding texture can draw the viewer in builds a more immersive design. Texture has to be used well and in the right context else it can mix up or confuse your meaning. It is a secondary element to reinforce your primary content.

Mass (Size)

Mass equals size. The physical mass or size is the actual dimensions of the piece. Each element in a design has its own relative mass and can be used to good or bad effect.


Space, or whitespace, is the distance or area between or around things. White space does not need to be white. Space give the eye a visual rest which is essential for two reasons. Firstly for legibility and secondly aesthetically.

Legibility means how clear something is. If things are tightly grouped together with no space around them, they can be difficult to read or visualise.

Aesthetically pleasing designs are uncluttered, even pretty, and white space allows this. It allows the graphic design elements to breathe.

Graphic Design Principals

If the elements of deigns are our ingredients, then the graphic design principals are the recipe. How we apply design principals determines how successful the design is.


Alignment allows you to arrange graphic design elements in a way that matches how people naturally scan the page. This include how to balance the mass within the page. There are two main alignments - edge alignment and centre alignments. Edge alignments allow items to be aligned around the proximity of another object or the boundary of the design. Centre alignment is alignment around a central point. These principals are important for text alignment and typography.

Typographic Alignment
Typographic Alignment

Centre alignments are weak. This alignment is often overused, especially by amateurs, and it holds little visual appeal. It makes text more difficult to read, especially when used for full paragraphs or blocks of text. This is because both leading and trailing edges are jagged and the eye has to work harder to find them.

Left alignments are strong. They are the default, comfortable and secure alignments. At the end of each line, the eye unstintingly knows where to go for the next line.

Right alignment is rare and can be used to give a unique or off beat feel. It should be avoided for blocks of text as it creates a ragged left edge making reading difficult for the same reason as centre alignment. Obviously left/right alignment rules are reversed for cultures reading right to left.

Justified alignment can be tricky but creates the most legible type. It is often used by newspapers as blocks of text with strong left alignment as well as right alignment is very easy to read. There is one huge caveat to justified text and that is it is tricky to pull off. If there is excess space, i.e. not enough characters to fill the line, the characters must be spaced out to compensate. If there is too much space between letters, words are more difficult to read. This letter spacing is called kerning and will be explained more when we look at typography.


Balance is about the distribution of mass within the design via the placement of the design elements. This provides stability and structure to the design.

There are two different types of balance - symmetric and asymmetric. Symmetric balance occurs when design elements are evenly distributed, almost mirror like. Asymmetric balance occurs when elements are not balanced around the central axis. This relies on scale and colour to create a balance.


Contrast is the proximity of opposing graphic design elements, much like complimentary colours on the colour wheel, or creating big/small, light dark, horizontal/vertical. Contrast allows us to emphasize or highlight key elements in the design. Without contrast, a design can seem uninteresting and not clear. Contrast can be used to lead your viewer into the design.


Proximity creates relationships between graphic design elements. It provides a focal point. They don't have to be placed together, but they should be visually connected in some way, be it colour or shape.


Repetition is a series of repeating graphic design elements. It helps strengthen a design by tying together individual elements and creates association and consistency. It can create a feeling of organised movement.

Further Reading

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