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 process and art of combining text and graphics to communicate an effective message in the design of websites, logos, graphics, brochures, newsletters, posters, signs, and any other type of visual communication. Designers achieve their goals by combining the elements and principles of graphic design.

Basic Elements of Graphic Design

In addition to the obvious elements — 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.

  • Lines: 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, or focus the user's eye on an element. A jagged line conveys emotion, while 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 on to the next. 
  • Shapes: The basic geometric shapes are squares, circles, and triangles. They are used as boxes or borders on a design or as solid shapes for decorative purposes. Icons, symbols, and dingbats are also considered shapes, and they add interest to a design. 
  • Texture: Visual texture is created with certain graphics techniques to draw attention to an element on a page or to serve as a background in web design. Texture, which increases the overall visual appearance and draws attention, can be added to a type, images, and other elements.
  • Color: Color is an obvious element that is used to attract attention as well as to represent emotion and mood. Red presents strength, anger, or passion, for example, while blue invokes peace, professionalism, and security. 
  • Value: Value refers to how dark or light an area of the design looks. Value creates contrast and emphasis. A light object against a dark background draws the viewer's eye. 
  • Size: The size of an element in graphic design is an indication of its importance. A large size indicates the most important information and draws the viewer's attention first.

Basic Principles of Graphic Design

The elements of graphic design combine with the principles of alignment, balance, repetition, proximity, contrast, and space to create effective page compositions.

Principles of graphic design address ways in which a graphic designer can assemble the individual elements into a cohesive whole. Designers draw the viewer's attention to an important element by placing the important element in the place where the eye naturally falls. Other classic principles of design include:

  • Balance: Most good graphic designs achieve visual balance by using symmetrical, asymmetrical, or radial symmetry about 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 aren't necessarily 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.
  • 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. Using 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 empty space that 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 is strongly drawn to the part of the design that is not empty. Effective graphic design takes into account both positive and negative space.