The Elements of Graphic Design

The power of graphic design lies in these six areas

All graphics are composed of one or more graphic design elements. They are components such as color, type, and images, as opposed to principles of design such as balance, focal point, and white space usage. Not all pieces incorporate every element; for example, lines and shapes can provide balance without a photo.

Shapes

Sphere of linked stars, artwork
 ALFRED PASIEKA / Getty Images

From ancient pictographs to modern logos, shapes are at the root of design. They can be geometric (squares, triangles, circles) or organic and free-formed (anything t all). They can have soft curves, sharp angles, and everything in between.

Shapes are the workhorses of graphic design, allowing you to:

  • Establish layouts.
  • Create patterns.
  • Emphasize portions of a page.
  • Define boundaries by connecting or separating parts of the page.
  • Create movement and flow, leading the eye from one element to another.
  • Interact to create additional elements—for example, creating a shape using text on a page.

With graphics software such as Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and the free GIMP, creating and manipulating shapes is easier than ever.

Lines

Diminishing perspective of seamless golden lines
Ralf Hiemisch / Getty Images

Lines divide space, direct the eye, and create forms. At their most basic level, straight lines in layouts separate content, such as in magazines and newspapers, and on websites. Designers can go much further, of course, with curved, dotted, and zigzag lines used as defining elements and as the basis for illustrations and graphics. Graphics specialists frequently combine lines with type.

A common technique is to use an implied line to lead other elements along its path, such as type on a curve

Color

Prismatic colors cube
Jorg Greuel / Getty Images

Color evokes deep emotion, and a designer can apply to any other element. Color's uses are nearly infinite; for example, color can make an image stand out, help convey information, emphasize a point, enhance meaning, and indicate linked text on a website.

Color theory, in part, hinges on the color wheel, something we've all seen in school with its primary red, yellow, and blue colors and their relationships to one another. Using color requires an understanding of more than just mixing them, however; color properties such as hue, shade, tone, tint, saturation, and value combine in various color models—for example, CMYK (called a subtractive model) and RGB, an additive model.

Type

Word
CSA Images / Getty Images

In graphic design, the goal is not to simply place some text on a page but rather to understand and use it effectively to further the goals of the piece. Fonts (typefaces), size, alignment, color, and spacing all come into play. Typefaces are generally broken into type families, such as Times and Helvetica.

Designers also use type to create shapes and images, communicate a mood (warm, cold, happy, sad), and evoke a style (modern, classic, feminine, masculine)—and that's just for starters.

Understanding type is an entire art unto itself; in fact, some designers devote themselves exclusively to font design. This requires expert knowledge of type terms such as kerning (the space between letters), leading (the space between lines), and tracking (the overall space between type on a page). Further, type has its own anatomy that designers must understand to design with fonts effectively.

Art, Illustration, and Photography

Monkeys doing photo shoot with sports car
Chris Clor / Getty Images

A powerful image can make or break a design. Photographs, illustrations, and artwork tell stories, support ideas, evoke emotion, and grab an audience's attention. Photos often play a large part in branding, so their selection is important.

Some graphic designers create this work on their own. A designer might also commission an artist or photographer, or purchase photos from one of many photo houses.

Texture

red blue and white texture
Manuel Breva Colmeiro / Getty Images

Texture can be tactile (the actual surface of a design) or visual. In the first case, a viewer can feel the texture physically, making it different from the other elements of design. The paper and materials used in package design create this texture. In the second case, style implies texture. Rich, layered graphics can create a visual texture that mirrors actual texture or creates the overall impression of it.

Texture can apply to any other element in a design. It can make text appear three-dimensional, flowery, sunken, or jagged. Texture can make a photograph appear as smooth as glass or jump out like a mountain range. In fact, ​texture is part of all graphic designs because everything has a surface, whether physical or perceived.

The skilled designer combines these elements in ways that contrast and complement one another to help the piece reach the ultimate goal: sending a message, creating an emotion, and/or provoking action.