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. Some 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

  • Organize by separating or grouping text elements on the page​​.
  • 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.

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 can 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 have come to represent various states of mind.

  • 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:

  • Maps
  • Graphs
  • Floorplans
  • Calligraphy

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 in zebra or tiger stripes. Lines can also be more subtle, like the line implied by children standing in a row or people lining up at a cash register. 

Types of Line Drawings

In contour drawings, lines can be used to trace the outline of an object. This type of drawing is called a contour drawing. Gesture drawings do more than follow an outline; they depict movement as well.