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The Elements & Principles of Graphic Design

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Get a better understanding of the basics of graphic design by studying the elements and principles of graphic design that govern effective design and page layout. Graphic design is the process and art of combining text and graphics and communicating an effective message in the design of logos, graphics, brochures, newsletters, posters, signs and any other type of visual communication.

Designers achieve their goals by utilizing the elements and principles of graphic design.

A. Building Blocks of Design

The 5 elements of design: lines, shapes, mass, texture and color.

A1. Lines

Everyone knows what a line is, right? Look more closely at the great variety of lines, straight, curved, thick, thin, solid and not-solid.

Alone or in combination with other lines or shapes they can aid in the readability, appearance and message of a design. Use lines to:

  • organize
  • texturize
  • guide the eye
  • provide movement
  • make a statement
  • convey universal meanings
A2. Shapes

Squares (and rectangles), triangles and circles are the three basic shapes. Examine their role in design including the psychology of shapes in logo design.

Shape is one of the basic elements of design. Alone or in combination with other shapes or lines they can convey universal meanings as well as guide the eye or organize information. The three basic types of shapes are geometric, natural and abstract.

Geometric shapes are structured, often symmetrical shapes. These include squares, circles, and triangles but also octagons, hexagons and cones.

Natural shapes are found in nature or they can be manmade shapes. Natural shapes are often irregular and fluid.

Abstract shapes are stylized or simplified versions of natural shapes. Symbols found on signs, such as the stylized wheelchair shape for handicapped access, is one example.

A3. Mass

How big is it? Take a look at mass or visual weight of graphic and text elements.

Mass is one of the basic elements of design. Mass equals size. Each piece you create has a physical mass. Additionally, each element within the design (graphics, photos, lines, text blocks) have their own mass relative to the whole piece.

A4. Texture

In addition to the actual texture of the paper we print on, look at the textures we create through techniques such as embossing and the visual texture created with certain graphics techniques.

Texture is always a part of our designs whether intentional or not. It is the visual or tactile surface characteristics of a piece.

In desktop publishing, texture comes from the paper we use. We may also add visual textures through the arrangement of lines and shapes or the use of photographic images of specific surfaces.

A5. Color

What is the meaning of red? Which colors go well together?

Color is not essential to a good design. Black and white and shades of gray can create ‘color’ that is just as effective as reds, blues and greens. However, color is an added dimension that can evoke moods and make powerful statements when used wisely.

 elements and principles of graphic design

B. The Big Picture

Different instructors or designers have their own idea about the basic principles of design but most are encompassed in the 6 principles of balance, proximity, alignment, repetition, contrast and white space. See the definitions of each principle.

B1. Balance

Symetrical, radial, formal and informal ways of arranging elements on a page to achieve visual balance.

B2. Proximity/Unity

Learn how to arrange elements on the page through proximity — keeping like items together and creating unity by how close or far apart elements are from each other.

B3. Alignment

Alignment is the placement of text and graphics so they line up on the page. It’s one of the principles of design that help us create attractive, readable pages. Use alignment to: create order, organize page elements, group items and create visual connections.

Good alignment is invisible. Most readers won’t conciously notice that everything is lined up neatly but they will feel it when things are out of alignment. There are several types of alignment that can work together to create a pleasing layout:

  • horizontal alignment
  • vertical alignment
  • edge alignment
  • center alignment
  • visual or optical alignment

Lack of alignment creates a sloppy, unorganized look. Mixing too many alignments can have a similiar effect. However, it’s also OK to break alignment when it serves a specific purpose such as to intentionally create tension or draw attention to a specific element on the page.

B4. Repetition/Consistency

Get an understanding of the importance of consistency for the reader and ways to create a consistent and balanced look through different types of repetition. Newsletters, magazines, brochures, annual reports and books often have many visual elements: columns of text, headlines, photos, illustrations, pull-quotes, etc. Grids allow the designer to build page-to-page consistency into these documents.

Readers expect to find page numbers in the same location on each page. When all the text in a given article — even when it spans several pages — has a consistent look, including column width, it enhances readability. Readers often expect to find sidebars, informational text and other oft-repeated elements in the same place from page to page.

A grid, used consistently on all pages of a multi-page document, makes it easier for the designer to provide the consistent look that readers often expect. A carefully conceived grid system also allows the designer to introduce variations without forsaking readability or consistency.

B5. Contrast

Big vs. small, black vs. white. These are some ways to create contrast and visual interest. Learn a variety of ways to use contrast.

Contrast occurs when two elements are different. The greater the difference, the greater the contrast. The key to working with contrast is to make sure the differences are obvious. Four common methods of creating contrast are by using differences in size, value, color, and type.

Contrast adds interest to the page and provides a means of emphasizing what is important or directing the reader’s eye. On a page without contrast, the reader doesn’t know where to look first or what is important. Contrast makes a page more interesting so the reader is more apt to pay attention to what is on the page. Contrast aids in readability by making headlines and subheadings stand out.

B6. White Space

The art of nothing is another description for this principle.

Techniques to do so are: Increase paragraph spacing, Increase space between columns of text, Put space at the end of lines of text (e.g. ragged-right alignment), Put more space around outer edges of page (margins & guters), Leave more room around graphics, Increase space around headlines & Increase space between lines of type and individual characters (leading of body text, using a lighter type).


This article contains pieces text from different blogs around the world, it’s rewritten so that it all fits together. Bottom-line: maybe not all the techniques, examples, etc. are mentioned in the above post. But most certainly the basics of graphic design can be found here.


Author: Jan Rajtoral

Jan Rajtoral AKA Gonzo the Great is the Founder of and Designer at gonzodesign, providing design services across the full spectrum of Brand Identity, Graphic Design, Print and Advertising Design & Website Design.

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