Design 101: Back to Basics
Welcome to Design 101. Over the next few weeks, I will be trying to cover as much of the design basics as I can. I will start the series off with the fundamental elements and principles of design. Whether you are a new to design or a seasoned designer, understanding the basics is crucial. If you are new, it creates a strong foundation for you to start building your design career. If you are seasoned, getting a refresher on the basics reminds you of what to keep in mind and you can always be improving. Researching this post still taught me a lot and I am excited to share it with you. So stick with me as we go over the theories, elements, and principles that design is built on. Pull up a comfy chair and let’s get started!
Note: Ultimately design is all about communication so every element and principle used and applied to a design should enhance the message being communicated.
The Gestalt Theory
The world is a very visually complex place that our mind somehow handles fairly well. To try and figure out how our mind handles this complexity, a group of psychologists in Germany developed the Gestalt theory in the 1920s. The theory explores visual perception and the relationship between the parts and the whole. The word gestalt roughly translates as “whole” or “form”. When the mind is faced with a complex problem, it tries to simplify the problem by comparing the characteristics of the problems’ elements and grouping the elements accordingly to create a gestalt. For example, when you are walking down the street and see a group of people, instead of your mind seeing them as “5 legs, 4 eyes, and 2.5 sets of lungs” (The Fault in Our Stars, anyone?), it sees 3 people. It groups the individual elements together and your brain understands that element grouping as a person. Your brain creates unity as much as possible to make sense of the world around you. This same concept applies to how we see the basic elements of design--points, lines, shapes...--so designers can use this psychological process to their advantage to create unity in designs. They can also reverse the rules to create variety and make designs unique. Because of this, the Gestalt theory is the most fundamental tool in a designer’s toolkit.
The Elements of Design
The elements of design are the backbone and structure of the work. What those elements are and how many there are do differ, so this is not a definitive list. But these are the ones I feel are essential:
- Form & Space
- Color & Value
So let’s start with the point. It is the most basic of the elements since every other element is made up of points. A point is used to attract the viewer's attention to a spot in the space of the design in order to highlight important info. Ultimately, the point is a spot of focused attention no matter the points size.
A line is defined as a series of points. This series can be two points or 100 points, and whether or not the line is visibly drawn, your mind connects them together (Gestalt theory at work, ladies and gentlemen). A line shows movement or direction. Connect elements with lines to lead a viewer’s eye around the design. Or use a line to direct the eye to an important piece of information. Lines can also be used to separate spaces or elements. For example, you can separate a title from the information below it with a divider line.
Different styles of lines have different meanings as well. Horizontal lines suggest calmness and restfulness--a person laying down--while vertical lines suggest strength and grandeur--a tall skyscraper. Diagonal lines suggest energy and movement since they are unstable in comparison to horizontal and vertical lines.
A shape is an area defined by a boundary (made up of lines, which are made of points, so it’s all building on each other), and again, this boundary can be visibly drawn or implied. The boundary can also defined by differences in value (lightness or darkness), color, or texture compared to the space around it.
Shapes are split into two major categories: geometric and organic. Geometric shapes are shapes with straight edges or regular curves like circles, squares, and triangles. Geometric shapes suggest order and control. Organic shapes are more free-form and complex like leaves, swirls, and splats. Organic shapes are associated with nature because they are more variable. Perfectly geometric shapes do not exist in nature. A sort of subset of organic shapes are abstract shapes. Abstract shapes are simplified and stylized versions of organic shapes--icons.
A shape is typically considered a two-dimensional element. When you give a shape depth, it creates a mass or volume (or at least a perceived mass or volume).
Patterns & Textures
Most people define patterns as repetitions of shapes in a way that is repeatable. And that is true. Patterns like this are called geometric patterns. But patterns can also be defined as an underlying structure for organizing elements consistently and regularly, like a grid. The three types of organizational patterns are flowing, branching, and spiraling. Flowing patterns are based on the repetition of an undulating line that moves you organically through the composition. Branching patterns are the repetition of forking lines, like a tree. Spiraling patterns are circular and wind in and around themselves.
Textures are the way a surface feels (tactile) or the perception of how it feels (visual). For the purposes of design, I will stick to talking about visual texture. As designers we can create implied textures so that the viewer will perceive a texture even though they can’t actually feel it. Applying textures to your designs can add depth and realism.
Both pattern and texture should play a supporting role when it comes to adding them in your designs. Too much of either can be overwhelming.
Form & Space
The form vs space, or positive vs negative, relationship in a design is one of the most important things to keep in mind when you are working. A form is a positive element that we add to a design. Forms include all the elements that we have already talked about above plus any text or images that we use. Space is the area in between the positive elements. It is usually referred to as negative space or whitespace. The ability to control and use the whitespace effectively improves the flow of the design.
I love this comparison of the use of space to music.
“Music isn’t sound. It’s a balance between sound and space. Without both there is no music. The same is true visually. There’s gotta be enough space. Without whitespace none of your elements gets seen. They become noise.” -Steven Bradley, Vanseo Design
Whitespace can be used like an implied line to separate or connect elements. It can also be used to create emphasis, hierarchy, and improve the legibility. It’s all about finding the balance between the form and the space.
Color & Value
I will dive deeper into color later on in the series. Color theory has it’s own post! But to give you a basic definition, color is the reflection of light waves. Different colors can help convey different meanings and moods as well as aid in emphasis, contrast, and even just definition of shape.
Value is the relative lightness or darkness of an element. Value is what gives depth to a texture and helps define a 3-D form. Light values, or high intensity, are more subdued while dark values, or low intensity, are more foreboding.
Let’s go back to gestalt for a moment. The Gestalt theory goes one step further by outlining 5 principles that the brain uses to group elements. These 5 principles are closure, continuance, similarity, proximity, and figure/ground.
Closure happens when your brain completes an incomplete shape. Your brain fills in the missing information when enough of the shape is visible. This principle works best when the shape is fairly simple and recognizable.
In the example, even though the star isn't outlined, the five circles give your brain enough information to fill in the star in the middle.
Continuance is the principle that your eye will follow a path, line, or curve until another object stops it. In design, this can be used to move the eye from one element to another.I use this principle in my logo with the tail of the "R" leading your eye to the "A."
A good rule of thumb when using images of people (or animals, anything with eyes) is to have the person looking toward the rest of the design. A person looking off the page draws your eye off the page.
When you have a group of similar elements, whether it is in their shape, color, size, texture, or value, you will see the elements as part of a bigger pattern, illustration, or image. When one element breaks the similar pattern it is called an anomaly and it stands out.
The shapes on the left altogether create a honeycomb pattern. The anomaly of the yellow shape makes it look like a basic flower illustration.
If elements are placed in close proximity to each other, they will be perceived as being a group. The proximity relationship is strongest when objects are overlapping. This can also be used in conjunction with similarity to help group the elements.
In the grouping of elements on the right, our eyes will group the triangles and squares into two groups because of the similar shape and color and then the sets of overlapping triangles and squares will each be grouped because of proximity.
I talked about this earlier in the elements section, but from a psychological standpoint, the figure/ground relationship is your brain separating foreground objects from the background and seeing them as two planes even if they are on a flat surface. So the cloud and sun are the figures in the image on the left, and the blue area is the background.
The principle of figure/ground is applied very creatively in some logo designs (the FedEx arrow) and in artwork by artists like MC Escher (below).
Other Design Principles
Unity and harmony are achieved when no individual piece of the design is seen as more important than the design as a whole. It is a balancing act. Creating unity in designs can involve the use of some of gestalt principles--proximity, similarity, and continuation--and the principles of repetition and rhythm (applying changes to the elements or intervals of the elements that are being repeated). It’s finding the right balance between too much variety and the design being chaotic or not enough variety and having nothing stand out.
As mentioned in the Unity principle, finding balance in a design is important. But there are different kinds of balance that can be used: symmetrical balance, asymmetrical balance, and radial balance. Symmetrical balance is elements on either side of an axis being arranged similarly. Asymmetrical balance is elements on each side of the axis differing in shape but still in visual equilibrium. Radial balance is elements arranged around a central element and radiating out in a spiraling pattern.
Achieving hierarchy in your designs means that the viewer is easily guided through the information in order of importance. So when designing, make the most important information big and prominent in the design and the less important information smaller.
Scale is the relative size of the element in comparison to elements around it. Using scale creates contrast in a design. The bigger the difference in scale, the greater the contrast.
Proportion is the harmony of the scale and can create rhythm as well as unity in a design. Having elements in proportion and out of proportion affects the balance. Placing elements out of proportion puts more emphasis on them.
Dominance and emphasis are achieved through the use of contrast. This contrast can be in size, proportion, position, color, style, or shape. The focal point of the design should be the dominant element without overpowering the unity of the design as a whole.
As you can see, many of the design basics play off each other because it all boils down to visual perception and how our brain processes things. And on many levels the brain is still a mystery to us. But as mentioned at the beginning of the post, design is all about communication of a message so every choice you make in the design process should be toward emphasizing the message, not cluttering it. As you grow as a designer, you will learn the best times to follow the rules and principles and when to break them to get the message across.
Next week, I will be covering color models (RGB and CMYK and Pantone, oh my!) and color theory. Check out Design 101: The Power of Color Theory