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10 Basic Elements of Graphic Design

There are hundreds of rules when it comes to creating beautiful designs on and off the web, but these ten are the basic essentials to craft appealing and professional work. Make sure to download our free PDF poster!

Maryam Taheri April 26, 2024 · 8 min read
Pinterest

Creating beautiful design is about more than inspiration or a great idea, it’s about understanding the fundamentals of the subject. Although it’s possible to spend years studying the nuances of design and the many varying takes on how to be successful at it, there are a handful, or two, of basic elements that every designer should know before beginning any project. Even amateurs in the field who maintain personal blogs or only make a hobby of it can utilize these following ten tips to create professional looking pieces, and anyone who intends to earn money from the endeavor must know them. Rules were made to be broken, of course, but you have to know what they are first.

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10 design fundamentals, summarized
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Why the Basic Principles of Graphic Design Matter

Before we dig into the elements themselves, we need to answer a key question:

Why does learning any of this matter?

After all, designers create. Surely, they shouldn’t feel hampered in this endeavor by having to stick to seven elements there and a few basic rules there. But as we said in the introduction, though the rules are made to be broken, you still have to know what those rules are to break them well. So, here are the reasons why each of these graphic design elements were about to share is such a significant component in your development as a designer.

Visual Communication

Think of your artwork as a language and you’ll see why the concept of visual communication is so vital. You’re sharing something – a message of sorts – through every image you create. But, as with any language, there are rules to follow to make sure that message comes across clearly. Speak to somebody in garbled English and they’ll have no idea what you’re saying.

The same goes when you don’t follow the elements of graphic design – you just get garbled imagery.

Make Use of Positive Space

Clutter is a problem in so many areas of graphic design.

The novice designer will often see space as the enemy. Something to be filled, rather than embraced as they create their piece. But the reality is that any design you create is a combination of your artwork and the space surrounding it. Without understanding the elements of graphic design, you’ll struggle to allow your pieces to breathe as they need to breathe.

Convey Movement

Have you ever seen an image that seemed a little… static?

There are different color combinations, sure, and the artists have tried to use different shapes to convey their key message. But there’s no sense of movement. No life in the design. Usually, that happens because the artist doesn’t understand the principles of graphic design, leading to them breaking the rules without actually knowing how to break them properly.

Know How to Use Different Color Schemes

Color can add depth and draw attention to a piece… as long as you know how to use it properly.

Understanding the subtle differences between different colors – and how some colors work better in tandem than others – is one of the keys to building your design knowledge. Otherwise, you’re either left with muted pieces or designs that use colors that contrast so heavily that the colors themselves take away from the message you want to convey.

1. Line

The first and most basic element of design is that of the line. In drawing, a liene is the stroke of the pen or pencil but in graphic design, it’s any two connected points. Lines are useful for dividing space and drawing the eye to a specific location. For example, think about how a magazine uses lines to separate content, headlines and side panels.
Here are a few examples of what we traditionally think of when we think of lines:

LineTypes
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Further Reading:

Explore the power of lines to create visual interest in your design projects with these geometric background patterns:

2. Color

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Color is one of the most obvious elements of design, for both the user and the designer. It can stand alone, as a background, or be applied to other elements, like lines, shapes, textures or typography. Color creates a mood within the piece and tells a story about the brand. Every color says something different, and combinations can alter that impression further.
Further Reading:

Check out these classic swatches and see what vintage colors can do for your design pieces:

3. Shape

Shapes, geometric or organic, add interest. Shapes are defined by boundaries, such as a lines or color, and they are often used to emphasize a portion of the page. Everything is ultimately a shape, so you must always think in terms of how the various elements of your design are creating shapes, and how those shapes are interacting.

That’s even the case with abstract shapes. As weird and wonderful – as well as unconventional – they may seem, they ultimately still follow the same rules as standard shapes in terms of their construction.

2dshape_2d_shape

Further Reading:

We recommend that every graphic designer starts playing around with shapes to improve their skills. Start with the basic geometric shapes – squares, triangles, and the like – before moving on to creating your own organic shapes as you build on what you’ve learned.

4. Space

Negative space is one of the most commonly underutilized and misunderstood aspects of designing for the page. The parts of the site that are left blank, whether that’s white or some other color, help to create an overall image. Use negative space to create shapes as you would any other element. Check out this article if you’re interested in learning more about frequently used design terms like negative space.

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Further Reading:

Experiment with white space using a pre-designed template like Holo:

Ultimately, the use of space allows you to emphasize the visual texture of the pieces you create. Think of the shapes and images as the building blocks of your project, with the space in between being akin to the cement used to bind those blocks into a cohesive visual hierarchy.

5. Texture

It’s counter-intuitive to think about texture when the piece isn’t ever going to be touched. Websites and graphic design do rely on the look and impression of texture on the screen, however. Textures can create a more three-dimensional appearance on this two-dimensional surface. It also helps build an immersive world.
Further Reading:

Texture packs like these make it much easier to try subtle touches of visual interest:

6. Typography

Perhaps the single most important part of graphic and web design is typography. Like color, texture, and shapes, the fonts you use tell readers you’re a serious online news magazine, a playful food blog or a vintage tea tins shop. Words are important, but the style of the words is equally essential.
These shop owners have created flexible font families that can make your text look distinctive and memorable:

7. Scale (Size)

Playing with the scale and size of your objects, shapes, type and other elements add interest and emphasis. How boring would a symmetrical website with all similarly sized ingredients be? Very. But the amount of variation will depend heavily on the content within. Subtle differences suit professional content, while bold ones prefer creative enterprises.

size

Further Reading:

Tweaking size and pressure effects on your Photoshop stamp brushes can create visual interest around scale:

8. Dominance and Emphasis

While you can talk about emphasizing one thing or another, the element of emphasis has more to do with an object, color or style dominating another for a heightened sense of contrast. Contrast is intriguing, and it creates a focal point.
If you want to test out how dominance and emphasis can change your project’s visual impact, try a saturated Lightroom preset like this one:

9. Balance

There are two schools of balance: symmetry and asymmetry. While most designers, artists, and creative folks much prefer asymmetry for its eye-catching nature, symmetry does have its place. Sometimes.

Further Reading:

10. Harmony

Harmony is “The main goal of graphic design,†according to Alex White, author of “The Elements of Graphic Design.†So, you know it must be important. Harmony is what you get when all the pieces work together. Nothing should be superfluous. Great design is just enough and never too much. Make sure all the details accord with one another before you consider the project complete.
Further Reading:

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Graphic Designers Can Use These Elements to Spark Visual Interest

There are hundreds of rules and many more principles when it comes to creating beautiful designs on and off the web, but these ten are the basic essentials of visual design that will ensure anything you create is appealing, professional and perfect.

Leverage them and you’ll see how various design elements can be pulled together to allow designers to build imagery that’s capable of delivering their messages and grabbing a viewer’s attention.

We highly suggest you continue your learning path looking at this infographic featuring ten essential commandments of graphic design.


Products Seen In This Post:

10 Basic Elements of Design Poster
10 design fundamentals, summarized
Free Design Poster

Download this printable PDF poster and hang these 10 design principles on your favorite wall.

Get the file
About the Author
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Maryam Taheri

I'm a recent graduate of the University of San Francisco with a degree in Biology and a passion for the creative arts. I love building websites, trying new things, and I have a passion for social media.

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