8 Graphic Design Principles every Designer Must Know

Graphic Design is not simply about making things look good. In graphic design, there are rules that could be considered. These rules are called the principles of design and they typically separate good design from bad design.

These principles all have a relationship with each other and appear in every well-designed piece of work you see. A good grasp of design theory will mean there is always substance behind your work.

The key principles of design are:

Contrast, hierarchy, alignment, balance, proximity, repetition simplicity, and function.

Whatever work you produce be it for a magazine, a poster, a website or advertisement, the principles of design should be considered.

A good designer keeps these principles as guidelines in their toolkit and will consciously use them to develop their ideas.

In this post, we shall discuss these principles in detail. Stay on and relax.

Principles of graphic design
Graphic Design Principles

1. Contrast

Contrast in graphic design afritech academy
Contrast in Design

Contrast occurs when two or more visual elements in a composition are different. In design, we use contrast to generate impact, highlight the importance, create exciting graphics, and create visual interest and dynamics.Now context is integral to contrast.

We may think that the chosen visual object in a composition says something about itself but it is more often the visual elements around it that give it it’s meaning.

Contrast in Graphic Design

So contrast creates interesting relationships between the visual elements, it can push visual elements away, connect them, or complement them.

Without contrast, visual elements can be meaningless. Contrast provokes our visual senses. Our eyes like contrast because it grabs our attention and makes it easier to digest and make sense of what we are seeing, which is why it can be a strong method to communicate visually without the presence of type.

2. Hierarchy

Hierarchy is the control of visual information in an arrangement or presentation to imply importance. Hierarchy influences the order in which the human eye perceives what it sees.

In design, we use hierarchy to: Add structure, create a visual organization, create direction, add emphasis and help a viewer navigate and digest information easily.

Hierarchy is typically created by the contrast between visual elements in a composition. Typically, visual elements with the highest contrast are noticed first.

Using hierarchy, we can control how a viewer engages with information to ensure that information is navigated and digested in the way it is intended.

For example where we want the eye to look first, where we want the eye to look second, and where we want the eye to look third, and so on…

See a clear example in the image below:

Graphic design Principles Hierarchy
Hierarchy in graphic design

Establishing a clear visual hierarchy is important because it holds the design together. Used effectively, hierarchy can make a complex message simple.

In design, hierarchy can manifest itself in many visual ways. It’s through the careful consideration and arrangement of visual elements that create a clear hierarchy. Hierarchy can manifest itself in many visual ways such as in scale, colour, contrast, space, alignment, shape and form.

Hierarchy in contrast
8 Graphic Design Principles every Designer Must Know 11

In this example above, the thinnest stroke in the image above is the darkest colour and the thicker stroke is the lightest colour. Even though the strokes are larger above the thin stroke is perceived as bolder and stronger because it’s more apparent and appears closer, more in focus. By changing the colours we have changed the hierarchy structure.

3. Alignment

Alignment is the placement of visual elements so they line up in a composition.

In design we use alignment to organise elements, to group elements, to create balance, to create structure, to create connections between elements, and to create a sharp and clear outcome.

In design, there are two alignment principles: Edge alignment and centre alignment.

Edge alignment either to the left or to the right to the top or bottom. Centre alignment as it states is aligned to a centre line down the middle or across the horizontal.

Graphic design Principles Alignment
Alignment in graphic design

Good alignment is invisible. There doesn’t have to be a literal line in your design. In design, one should try and avoid the appearance of having made arbitrary decisions. When visual elements are out of aligning it is noticeable and can devalue a piece of work if done unintentionally.

4. Balance

Balance is the visual weight of elements in a composition. We use balance to add stability, add structure, create emphasis, and to create dynamics.

In design, one will attempt to place visual elements in an aesthetically pleasing arrangement or particular arrangement to fulfil a purpose or achieve a particular look and feel.

In design, there are three main types of balance: Symmetrical balance, asymmetrical balance, and radium balance.

balance in graphic design
Balance in graphic design

Symmetrical balance is mirror image balance. If you draw a line down the centre of the page all the visual elements on one side of the screen are mirrored on the other side. They don’t have to be identical visual elements but can be similar in number, colour or shape and scale. When visual elements are equal weight, they are in balance. 

Asymmetrical balance itself has nothing to do with balance. The term is used to describe a kind of balance that is not identical on both sides of a central line, not relying on symmetry, opposite of symmetrical balance. Asymmetrical balance occurs when several smaller visual elements on one side are balanced by a large visual element on the other side or smaller visual elements are placed further away from the centre of the screen than larger visual elements.

The third type of balance is radial balance where all elements radiate out from a centre point in a circular fashion. It is very easy to maintain a focal point in radial balance since all the elements lead your eye towards the centre.

5. Proximity

Proximity is the grouping and shaping of objects in a composition. In design we use proximity for two main reasons:

First to create connections. Proximity can create relationships between visual elements in a composition, create relevance, hierarchy, create organisation and structure.

The second reason is to dispel connections. Proximity can also be used to suggest no relationship between visual elements, to break organisation and structure.

By moving visual elements closer together or further apart we are applying the design principle proximity. In design, these two forces can be applied in various degrees to help achieve a particular effect or outcome to communicate a message.

Graphic design Principles
Proximity in design

When visual elements appear randomly or poorly positioned it is noticeable and can devalue a piece of work if done intentionally. When we begin to place shapes together we create a particular relationship between them.

When you look at design ask yourself how proximity has been considered. What relationships have the designer created or dispelled? How has proximity been used to create the overall composition? and how well does it work as part of the design?

6. Repetition

Repetition is the reusing of the same or similar elements throughout a design.

Now, this is not to be mistaken for repetition of visual elements as a pattern. Visual elements as a pattern is more to do with visual style or visual artwork in an overall piece of design work.

Good design practice seeks to repeat some aspects of a design throughout a piece of work be it for a simple or complex piece of work.

repetition in graphic design
Repetition in graphic design

We use repetition to create a sense of unity and consistency throughout a design. Repetition creates a particular style and create cohesiveness, creates emphasis, hierarchy structure, and strengthens a design.

 the ultimate goal of any piece of graphic design is to make an impression, hopefully, a lasting impression. If a design achieves this goal it will be fulfilling its purpose to communicate and insist upon the particular message which lingers and becomes familiar.

It could be said that repetition in design is a type of visual brainwashing; the more we see something the more we familiarise ourselves with it, thus remembering it. Whether we like it or not repetition is impressionable.

It’s human nature to find comfort and attraction to familiarity. A good example of the use of repetition in design is its branding. In any good brand, there will be consistent use of a graphic style or language. This can manifest in many forms such as the use of a particular colour or colour scheme, consistent use of a typeface or set of chosen typefaces, shapes and motifs, patterns, alignment, photography style, tone of voice and so on.

7. Simplicity

Simplicity is the discipline of minimizing refining or editing back a design. The ultimate goal of any piece of graphic design is to make an impression, hopefully, a lasting impression.

If a design achieves this goal it will be fulfilling its purpose to communicate and insist upon a particular message. More often than not in graphic design keeping it simple works really well.

In design there is a general consensus that less is more, less is more striking. We consider simplicity to ensure that a piece of communication has maximum clarity. We consider simplicity to create balance and impact. Simple design is easier to understand that is more likely to make a lasting impression.

Photopea logo
Faithworks Tech logo

For beginners, it is easily assumed that a simplistic design might not be a good or interesting design. However, simplicity is recognised as adding a level of function, elegance, consideration, premium and luxury to a design.

In graphic design, it’s harder to take away than it is to add. This is what separates amateur designers from professionals and takes experience confidence and discipline. One of the hardest and most skilful disciplines in design is knowing how to edit a piece of design.

8. Function

Function is the consideration of the main objective for a piece of graphic work and how well a design is explored and executed to meet that end. The ultimate goal of any graphic design is to communicate and make an impression, but what’s equally important is that the right impression is made and the intended outcome is achieved.

Before a designer starts any piece of work there is key information that will need to be understood. This will ensure that a designer is put in the best position to produce the right creative solution. A good and thorough brief will include at least three key things. An overview, requirements and an intended outcome.

This could be anything from a printed poster, a brochure to a website. The intended outcome should clearly state what the client hopes to achieve with the graphic work, how it wants people to respond to the work and how it wants people to think, feel or act.

A brief may go as far as to suggest what is required visually, a particular style or colour scheme to be used or typeface. A brief may be creatively limiting or open to exploration. So a brief will set out all the challenges and boundaries a designer will have to deal with in order to create the right quick solution. It will be the details outlined in the brief that will influence the creative solution. Now if a piece of design fails to deliver on what the brief asks then it fails in its function.

One of the most important things you can do is understand your audience and the required goal. Considering language, colour and layout will enable you to communicate well and engage with a particular audience to encourage the intended result.

As a rule, you can always ask yourself the question why? Why am I using that colour? Why am I using a typeface? Why am I arranging my elements in this way? Why am I using these shapes photos and so on? Is it adding anything to the piece of design or is it distracted, misleading, thus taking away? Always ask yourself why and have a good rationale for each decision. In design, one should always try and avoid the appearance of having made arbitrary decisions. If noticeable this can devalue a piece of work.

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Njofie Alain

Alain is a tech enthusiast who loves exploring digital tools and platforms. His extensive work in the digital field has set him apart as one of the top digital marketing experts in Cameroon and Africa. He has exceptional copywriting and web development skills. He is Co-Founder and COO of Afritech Academy and loves writing about interesting topics in tech.