The 6 basic principles of graphic design

One of the questions that is most often asked by young designers who want to improve and by those who are approaching graphics is “how can I improve as a graphic designer?”.

And that’s a good question. I’ve asked myself that question several times myself. And I keep asking it, driven by curiosity (the most important feature for a designer).

In response, I’d like to reflect on how we all learned complex subjects like mathematics or foreign languages at school. The first thing you do when you approach a new language or subject is to learn the basics.

Recently I’ve slowly started to learn French again, as a personal whim, and I’ve obviously started studying things like names, pronouns, numbers, pronunciation and sentence structure. In short, I concentrated on the basics.

The same thing is with graphic design.

One is not born a graphic designer, one becomes one. Learn to be one. And to learn you have to study, you have to apply strictly what you studied and focus, first of all, on what are the fundamental principles of graphic design.

In this article, helping me with the best treatises of the last hundred years on design, I have identified precisely those that are the 6 fundamental principles of graphic design.

But before you go and see them, it’s a good idea to start even more from the ground up.

Line, direction, shape, size, texture, color and brightness (or value). These are the 6 basic elements of graphics and design.

If you want to approach the world of graphics (of design and also of art) from scratch, you probably have to start from here.

If these basic elements are going to build the floor of knowledge as graphic designers, the 6 basic principles I’m going to talk about now, will be the bricks. The elements with which to build everything.

How to improve knowledge about fonts and typography?

The first thing to do is to study the terminology and dynamics of fonts (read what a font is and what the elements of a font are). You need to know how things like kerning, tracking and what contrast and x-height are, among many other things, work.

It also becomes essential, of course, to be able to choose and match fonts. In this regard, read my guide to choosing fonts and how to match them.

Just because typography is one of the fundamental pillars of graphics, I created the only course for designers dedicated to fonts and typography, Font-Ninja.

Principle 1: The printing works shall be the basis of everything

Typography and font study should be one of the fundamental bases for every designer and certainly one of the very first things to know for a young designer.

You can understand a lot about the qualities of a designer with the characters he chooses to use. And how he uses them.

You can understand a lot about a designer with the characters he uses.

Typography is one of the cornerstones of graphic design. Entire projects can be created simply by using typefaces and combining them. You can completely transform an entire graphic design by better handling the fonts used. The dynamics with which texts are used can also become the real creative aspect of a project.

Principle no. 2: grids are not constraints but starting points

“The grid system is a help, not a guarantee of success. It allows you to make a whole series of uses of it, among which the designer can find a solution suited to his personal style.

But you have to learn how to use the grids; it’s an art that requires practice.

– Joseph Müller-Brockmann, in the book “Grid Systems in Graphic Design”.

In Italian, in the graphic field, the word “grid” is often replaced by “cage”. This generates a negative effect: it gives us the idea that it is something that imprisons creativity.

In reality, grids are not constraints. They are not “cages”.

Grids, in graphic design, are exactly the opposite! They are the playing field in which to play. They are the white sheet of paper from which to start in an orderly fashion. They are the starting point for every design project.

Or at least that’s how it should be.

Very often, however, many, too many designers ignore orderly design through the effective use of grids.

Principle 3: Use white space to create balance

White space should be considered as an active element, not as a passive background

– Jan Tschichold

White spaces, understood as “empty” spaces, help to establish balance and visual harmony within a graphic design. They serve to conceptually link various elements together and to increase the readability and usability of a project.

Learning how to manage white spaces and take advantage of their dynamics is really very important to create quality designs.

Of course, you can take inspiration from sites like Behance when you look at other designers’ projects. But it’s much more effective in the long run to develop your own good taste. Your ability to manage white space.

For example, you can start by learning how to manage white space within texts, in typography.

As I write in this article about white space, in typography, there are micro whitespaces and macro whitespaces. Macros are, for example, the margins of a page or the padding in a website. Micros are things like kerning, tracking and line spacing.

Learning how to handle micro whitespace well is already a big step forward. One of the most difficult aspects in typography, for example, is managing kerning (i.e. the space between characters in a font). A help in this direction is this little game, Kern Type, which I discovered where you have to arrange the letters so that they have the right kerning.

I did 92/100, I dare you to do better!  Write in the comments to this article your result!

Another way to train your eye in the management of white spaces, which I found here, is to: take a famous graphic design, draw the axis of the x and y, simplify the elements of the project into basic forms, analyze how these elements are balanced between them and finally rearrange them taking into account the spaces and relationships between them.

The advice is to pay great attention to how empty spaces affect the elements and balances.

Principle 4: Dimensions create visual hierarchies

For the human eye, something that is visually larger in size is more important: it is something to pay more attention to.

When you want to create visual hierarchies, then, the management of visual elements is of paramount importance.

It’s no coincidence that, in books or websites, chapter and paragraph titles are larger than text. Once again, in fact, you can learn a lot from typography. By distributing the texts in the right way within a poster, you get the right transmission of message to the viewer.

Within a design project, whatever it is, the biggest elements are the ones that stand out most and, therefore, are most important.

If you design the homepage of a website, you have to make sure that the user’s gaze “goes” to the most important elements or that he wants to find. If a travel search site enters the very small search bar at the top right, that site will get poor results.

While, if the site will give the right dimensional prominence, exploiting also white spaces and grids, then the effect will be radically opposite:

Principle 5: Colours convey meanings and emotions

Those who have studied art know: colours make the difference. And they play a leading role in graphic design.

Colours can convey the meanings of what you are communicating. And they do so through emotions.

Choosing a colour palette therefore becomes a very important step in the creative process. In this article I give 10 practical tips on how to choose a color palette. But the key points can be summarized in these:

Choose the colors according to the target you’re talking to. Each person, or group of people, reacts differently to a color based on their experiences, emotional situation and cultural dynamics.

Identify in detail the purpose of the colors you need to choose. What goals do you want to achieve? What message do you want to convey? These are crucial questions to be answered in order to convey the right meanings and emotions.

Simplicity. Don’t choose too many colors and choose them in an orderly and consistent way. A background colour, a primary colour and a colour to bring out certain elements are generally enough.

One way to train yourself to create effective colour palettes is to take your cue from what nature has to offer. Use apps like Adobe Color to generate palettes by photographing environments, natural scenarios, or anything else.

Likewise, you can take inspiration from the great masters of art, the cinema or other designers.

Principle 5: Colours convey meanings and emotions

Those who have studied art know: colours make the difference. And they play a leading role in graphic design.

Colours can convey the meanings of what you are communicating. And they do so through emotions.

Choosing a colour palette therefore becomes a very important step in the creative process. In this article I give 10 practical tips on how to choose a color palette. But the key points can be summarized in these:

Choose the colors according to the target you’re talking to. Each person, or group of people, reacts differently to a color based on their experiences, emotional situation and cultural dynamics.

Identify in detail the purpose of the colors you need to choose. What goals do you want to achieve? What message do you want to convey? These are crucial questions to be answered in order to convey the right meanings and emotions.

Simplicity. Don’t choose too many colors and choose them in an orderly and consistent way. A background colour, a primary colour and a colour to bring out certain elements are generally enough.

One way to train yourself to create effective colour palettes is to take your cue from what nature has to offer. Use apps like Adobe Color to generate palettes by photographing environments, natural scenarios, or anything else.

Likewise, you can take inspiration from the great masters of art, the cinema or other designers.

Principle 6: Design is beautiful if it is useful

Graphic design – which meets aesthetic needs, respects the laws of form and the needs of two-dimensional space; which speaks using semiotics, sans-serif and geometry; which abstracts, transforms, translates, rotates, expands, repeats, reflects, divides and groups – is not good design if it is useless.

Graphic design – which evokes the symmetry of Vitruvius, the dynamic symmetry of Hambidge, the asymmetry of Mondrian; which is good Gestalt; generated by intuition or by a computer, by invention or by a coordinate system – is not good design if it does not collaborate as a tool in the service of communication.

– Paul Rand, from the book “Thoughts on design”

This quote from Paul Rand is one of my favorite phrases about design. Design is neither decoration nor marketing. Design is not just aesthetics and meaning. But a combination of all of this.

This is a principle on which I value a lot and which I try to underline often in the many articles of Grafigata.

I don’t know how you can “train” yourself about understanding this aspect. Maybe it comes from experience or perhaps from the sum of the knowledge of the other 5 principles. But you always have to take into account, when designing, both the meaning and the aesthetics.

Conclusions

To write this article I used as sources, apart from my knowledge and my own articles here on Grafigata, a series of books and online content.

First of all the book “Design Thoughts” by Paul Rand, “Grid Systems in Graphic Design” by Joseph Müller-Brockmann, this article on Freecodecamp by Jonathan Z. White, the ebook “Universal Principles of Design” by William Lidwell, the “Canone Vignelli” by Massimo Vignelli, the English Wikipedia page “Visual design elements and principles”, partly taken from this article by John Lovett.

This is because the topics of this article, being the basis of a topic like design, are enormously vast.

If after reading this article you’re still tempted to study and deepen the world of graphic design and its fundamental principles, then you’re on the right road!