The Principles of Design for Non-Designers

Principle of graphic design for non-designers / principles of design / graphic design for beginners / basic graphic design

If the elements of design are the building blocks of design, then the principles of design can be described as the rules and guidelines on how to use those building blocks to create effective and aesthetically pleasing design.

Similar to the elements of design, depending on who you ask you will probably get a different answer to the number of principles of design and what exactly are they. This post isn’t meant to be a fully comprehensive discussion on the principles of design, just a brief overview to get non-designers thinking about what they can do to create more effective design collateral for their own brand, or how to effectively communicate with a designer when they decide to work with one.


The rule of balance relates to how elements are balanced and distributed across a design. When dealing with balance you’re also dealing with visual weight.

The simplest type of balance is symmetry. Symmetrical layouts are stable and balanced. They are more formal looking. Take an imaginary axis and divide the photo or design and half either horizontally or vertically, and it will appear balanced or symmetrical on both sides of the axis.

To be symmetrical a design doesn’t have to be mirrored on both sides. For example in the design below, on the left side of the imaginary axis is a photograph and on the right is block of text that is equally weighted to the photo. As you can see, alignment also plays a major role in helping achieve this sense of balance.

Asymmetrical balance is when the design is not visually weighted on both sides of an axis. However through intuitive placement of the design elements, a sense of balance occurs. Asymmetrical balance can be more dynamic, playful or dramatic.

Radial balance gives the appearance that the visual elements are radiating out from the center of the design. Because everything is extending out from the center, the viewer’s eyes are drawn to the center or out, away from the center depending on the size, color and placement of the elements.


The design principle of proximity is actually very simple. Like or related elements should be placed near one another in the layout. Unrelated elements should be placed away so as to not accidentally communicate a relationship between the elements.

It is inferred that when objects are close together in proximity they are related, and when objects are further apart they appear as though they are not related. As shown in the second image above, even if the objects  at the bottom of the image are not the same, they seem more related to each other than the objects at the top because the elements at the bottom are in close proximity to each other.

Proximity also provides organization and helps us to understand the content. The second business card below is much easier to read and immediately understandable.



Scale or proportion is another way to show emphasis or what’s important in the design. Size is how big or small something is, but scale and proportion are always relative. You need something else on the page to compare the size or proportion of one object to another within the design. Something is only seen as “big” when it is seen in relationship to other elements on the page.

Scale can also show a sense of depth and convey meaning. Something smaller can appear further away from the viewer than something larger. Overlapping objects helps convey this sense of depth as our eyes try to make sense of the scene.

Of course playing around with scale can certainly lead to fanciful, playful and jolting compositions.


Repetition simply means reusing elements throughout the design to provide a consistency, unity and cohesiveness. Repetition should also be considered in terms of reusing elements and styles across various projects to tie them together. A well-known example of this is to reuse your font styles, color scheme and logo across all of your design projects and brand collateral to tie them together and provide a recognizable cohesiveness everywhere your brand shows up, online and off.

Besides visual branding, another well-known way you probably already use or understand the principle of repetition is on websites. Typically, the header, logo, navigation bar, footer and sidebars are consistently placed throughout the entire site on every or almost every page.

Repetitive elements help organize content, and help move your eyes across and down a design. Take a look at the screenshot of part of a webpage to the left.

The colored headers on the page are repeated in the same color, size and font. They help break up the content and make it more readable. But they also provide a way to move the viewer’s eye down the page. Making the headers the same color, size, font, etc. also provide a unity. The reader understands what to expect as they read the page.


Movement in a design helps guide the viewer’s eye around the design. It helps show the viewer where to look in the design. This can be accomplished through lines, shape, images, text, color and even the subject and cropping of a photograph used in the design.

Movement is closely related to repetition. Take a look at the example below. By using the rule of repetition with color and shape, the viewer’s eye moves across the design.


Variety in many ways is the opposite of repetition. Repetition is important for consistency and to help the viewer more easily understand the message and content being provided. But too much consistency can make the design feel a bit homogenized.

Variety can work very closely with the rules of contrast and emphasis. Some variety can be a welcome thing in a design. Too much of course can produce chaos and disorganization. But as the designer, you have to help the viewer understand what is important in a design’s message. For example, using a pop of color in a call-to-action button draws the viewer’s attention to that button because it is different, not the same, as the other design elements on the page.


Contrast does a few things to a design.

  • It adds visual interest to a design.
  • It can create a rhythm in the design, helping the viewer organize the content as well as move the viewer’s eyes around the design.
  • It helps create a hierarchy and organization for the content.
  • It helps to provide an emphasis and visual cues as to what is more important.

In order for contrast to be effective, it must be noticeable. The contrast between the two elements must be significantly different. There are several ways you can add contrast to a design: size and color are the easiest ways to do this.

Graphic design basics / contrast


Emphasis and contrast are interrelated because by definition when you create an element in the design that is contrasted from other elements, it stands out and is emphasized compared to the other visual elements.

Emphasis uses the principle of contrast to show importance to the focal point of a design. Contrast can use size, color, shape, etc. to cause something to stand out from the rest of the design.

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