Graphic Design Basics

Good graphic design is no accident

woman working at graphic design home business, dishware designs

Robin James / Getty Images

Graphic design is the art and science of combining text and graphics to communicate an effective message in the design of websites, logos, graphics, brochures, newsletters, posters, signs, and other types of visual communication. Designers achieve their goals by combining the elements and principles of graphic design. Some concepts, such as contrast, are both elements and principles: the former, as a visual characteristic; and the latter, as the technique by which it's employed.

Elements of Graphic Design

In addition to the obvious ones such as images and type, graphic design elements include lines, shapes, texture, value, size, and color. Graphic designers for print and web pages use some or all of these elements to generate effective designs. The goal is usually to attract the viewers’ attention and, sometimes, to motivate them to take a specific action.

Line

Lines are the most basic of the design elements. Lines can be straight, curved, thick, thin, solid, or not solid. They are used to connect two points, separate sections of a design, and focus the user's eye. Their qualities create emotion, movement, organization, and more. For example, a jagged line conveys emotion; a line that ends in an arrow forces the viewer's eye to look in a specific direction. A line that meanders among several elements guides the viewer from one element to the next and onward through the page. 

Shape

The basic geometric shapes are squares, circles, and triangles. They form boxes or borders on a design or solid shapes for decorative purposes. Icons, symbols, and dingbats are also considered shapes, and they add interest and clarity.

Mix lines and shapes - logo design

Texture

Certain graphics techniques, such as the use of rhythm and shadow, create texture—the visual "feel" of an element. Texture can serve as a background, enhance overall appearance, and add character to other elements such as type and images.

Clear styrene sheet textured with acrylic tar gel medium to make a model pool water surface
Lesley Shepherd

Color

Color attracts attention and conveys emotion and mood. For example, red represents strength, anger, or passion. Blue invokes peace, professionalism, or security. 

Value

Value is a measure of darkness and lightness in an element or design. Value creates contrast and emphasis. For example, a light object against a dark background draws the viewer's eye. 

Example of Simultaneous Color Contrast

Size

The size of an element in graphic design generally indicates its importance. The most important information is typically the largest on the page and draws the viewer's attention first.

Balance

Most good graphic designs achieve visual balance by using symmetrical, asymmetrical, or radial symmetry around a visual center.

  • In symmetrical balance, both sides of a page layout are the same in weight, shape, lines, and other elements.
  • Asymmetrical balance occurs when the two sides of a website aren't the same, but they have similar elements.
  • Radial symmetry places elements in a circular pattern. Although it is popular in print layouts, radial symmetry isn't seen much on websites because the circular placements are difficult to achieve.

Occasionally, a graphic designer intentionally produces an unbalanced design, usually to focus attention on a single element. In design, as in other areas, you need to know the rules before you can break them effectively, but unbalanced designs can work.

Alignment

Alignment refers to lining up the elements of a design along the top, bottom, center, or sides of the elements. The aligned elements don't have to be of the same type. They are frequently aligned along the left edge of the layout. Different-size photos appear as a unit when they are aligned across the top or the bottom. 

Repetition

Repetition duplicates the characteristics of similar elements to contribute to design consistency. Repetition can also create rhythm in a design. A series of bulleted points of interest in the same color, type, and size appear as a complete unit.

Example of bullets in graphic design
crispyicon / Getty Images

Proximity

Proximity maintains a relationship between items that go together. The elements don't have to be positioned closely together, but they should be connected visually.

Contrast

Contrast occurs with the juxtaposition of opposing elements: big versus small or dark versus light, for example. Contrast can highlight important elements of a design. Contrast is easily achieved with color, but it can also occur with texture, type, and graphic elements.

Space

Space is the part of a design that is left blank. Negative space is is intentionally placed in the design. The margins and gutters between other elements are referred to as passive space. Space in a design adds emphasis to an area because the eye gravitates to the part of the design that is not empty. Effective graphic design takes into account both positive and negative space.