The Basics of Lines and How to Use Them in Design

Lines do more than connect the dots in a design

Linear multicolor fractal lines

Mmdi / Getty Images

As an element of design, lines can stand alone or be part of another graphic element. They are versatile and one of the building blocks of graphic design that can communicate emotion and information.

Lines are the most basic of all the elements of design. Lines can be long or short, straight, or curved. They can also be horizontal, vertical, or diagonal. Lines are solid, dashed, thick, thin, or of variable width. A line's ending can be ragged, blunt, or curved.

The value of lines in graphic design cannot be understated. However you choose to combine them, lines tell a story and give a design its personality.

Line Uses in Design

Lines fill several roles in graphic design. You can use them to:

  • Organize by separating or grouping elements on the page​​ — one prime example being using the grid system.
  • Texturize by using specific types of lines to suggest or simulate a rough or smooth texture.
  • Guide the eye by using lines as arrows or in other ways that lead the eye to certain parts of the page.
  • Provide movement with wavy lines that suggest moving water or vary line thickness to create an illusion of shape and movement.
  • Make a statement by using lines of different sizes and contrast.
  • Convey universal meanings by using dashed lines to suggest coupons, wavy lines to suggest water, or spirals to suggest a whirlwind of activity.

When used alone, lines can be rules or leaders used to separate, organize, emphasize, or provide a framework for the page. Alone or as part of another graphic element, lines create patterns, set a mood, provide visual texture, create movement, and define shapes.

Characteristics of Lines

Whether lines are drawn or appear in nature, they represent various states of mind, including:

  • Horizontal lines indicate a sense of motionless rest and peace.
  • Vertical lines are seen as tall and represent grandeur.
  • Horizontal and vertical lines used together in a square or rectangular shape convey structure and represent stability.
  • Diagonal lines move the eye in a direction and indicate movement and fluidity.
  • Shallow curves are relaxing, while deep curves represent violence.
  • A series of diagonal lines with abrupt changes of direction give chaos to the design that puts off a sense of energy.

Lines That Express Information

Some specific arrangements of lines are widely recognized as suppliers of information. Among them are:

Lines All Around Us

Your design may make use of lines that appear in cityscapes or nature. The vertical lines of a skyscraper or the horizontal lines of a low building both direct the eye. Lines exist in nature as tree branches and as zebra or tiger stripes. Lines can also be subtle, like the line implied by children standing in a row or of people lining up at a cash register. 

Types of Lines

Lines can be used to trace the outline of an object. This type of drawing is called a contour drawing. Gesture lines do more than follow an outline; they depict movement as well. Lines can be patterned, non-solid, curved or freeform lines. All serve a graphic designer in different ways.