An Introduction to the Basics of Graphic Design

Combining form and function to send a message

Close up of
Jacquie Boyd / Getty Images

Graphic design is the use of color, shape, layout, typography, and other elements to create and promote a message. At its best, it combines scientific communication principles with aesthetics to resonate with its audience and provoke action and/or emotion.

Graphic Design Principles

At its root, graphic design relies on principles gleaned from decades of psychological and social research. The various techniques that designers employ, such as using specific color palettes to elicit predictable emotional responses, are part of the science of design. 

Designers consider elements such as:

  • Typography—The selection and sizing of specific typefaces can convey meaning. For example, a heavy sans-serif font conveys an authority that a thin-stroke scripted font does not.
subliminal font meanings
Rita Shehan
  • Shape—Shapes can convey tone. Rounded elements, for example, tend to be welcoming, whereas square shapes present a tidier appearance. The placement of graphic elements into predictable or random patterns constitutes a shape of sorts, too, contributing to the overall communication effect.
Heartwood Forest welcome sign
Peter O'Connor / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
  • Color—Colors and their combinations directly influence the audience's emotional engagement with a designed piece.
  • Texture—Ink on paper gets the job done, but adding non-standard elements such as fabric, foil, or embossing offer a tactile experience that influences and extends the audience's perception of the design as a whole.
Embossed metallic greeting card
Candice Cruz
  • White space—The absence of an element can be as powerful as the presence of one. Designs with plenty of white (or "negative") space sometimes convey sophistication or refinement; at a minimum, in print-heavy contexts, more white space leads to easier reader engagement.

Although the research behind great design is sound, designers build on it with their own creative genius to develop pieces that meet their clients' needs.

Graphic Design Tools

A graphic designer typically creates and arranges elements using graphics software. Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign are among the most used.

  • Adobe Illustrator supports sophisticated vector graphics and scalable art. Designers use Illustrator to build infographics, icons, and related pieces.
  • Adobe Photoshop features hundreds of specialty editing tools and filters to adjust photographs and other image files.
  • Adobe InDesign is a frame-based layout program geared toward composition.

Designers on a budget often use open-source alternatives to these standard applications. For example, GIMP offers many of the same features as Photoshop. Inkscape is an alternative to Illustrator, and Scribus is a decent substitute for InDesign.

Graphic Design in Daily Life

You're exposed to the work of professional designers every day, from complex advertising campaigns to simple stationery templates. All start with a designer applying the art and science of their craft.

Professional design even inserts itself in the most humdrum of places. For example, the Federal Highway Administration maintains detailed technical design specifications for federal highway signs, specifying with great precision such aspects as spacing, layout, typeface, and even the angle and placement of arrows.

California 1 highway sign
Robert Ashworth / Flickr / Attribution 2.0 Generic License