The Principles of Design are guidelines used for putting elements together to create effective communication. The elements are the “what” of a design and the principles are the “how.” Using the recipe metaphor – the elements are the ingredients and the principles are the directions. The principles of design, perhaps even more than the elements, are difficult to separate from one another even for the sake of discussion, as it is only when they are working together that an effective design is created.


The principle of unity is perhaps the most important of the design principles, yet it is often the most difficult to understand. Unity is the fundamental principle of design and it is supported by all the other principles. If a design is not unified, it cannot be considered successful.

Unity creates an integrated image in which all the elements are working together to support the design as a whole. A unified design is greater than the sum of its parts; the design is seen as a whole first, before the individual elements are noticed . Unity can be compared to harmony, integrity or wholeness.

Unity is based on the gestalt theory of visual perception, which states that the eye of the viewer seeks a gestalt or unified whole. This means that the viewer is actually looking for a connection between the elements, for some sort of organization, for unity in the design.

A gestalt is created because the mind simplifies and organizes information. It does this by grouping
elements together to create new wholes. Understanding how the mind groups elements (by proximity, similarity, continuation and alignment) helps us understand how unity can be achieved.


Proximity is based on grouping by closeness; the closer elements are to each other, the more likely we will see them as a group. Proximity is one of the easiest ways to achieve unity.


Repetition is based on grouping by similarity; elements that are similar visually are perceived to be related. Any element can be repeated – line, shape, color, value or texture – as well other things such as direction, angle or size. Repetition helps unify a design by creating similar elements and is one of the most effective ways to unify a design.


Alignment consists of arranging elements so that their edges are lined up. The common alignment allows the eye to group those elements together. A grid is often used to create unity through alignment, not just in a single design but also between related designs (the pages of a magazine or book, for example).


Continuation means that something (a line, an edge, a curve, a direction) continues from one element to another. The viewer’s eye will follow the continuing line or edge smoothly from one element to other and the mind will group the elements because of this connection. Implied lines are one example
of continuation.


Variety means “to change the character” of an element, to make it different.

Variety is the complement to unity and is needed to create visual interest. Without unity, an image is chaotic and “unreadable;” without variety it is dull and uninteresting. Good design is achieved through the balance of unity and variety; the elements need to be alike enough so we perceive them as belonging together and different enough to be interesting.

Varying the elements creates variety. Ways to vary elements include:

• Line – thinness, thickness, value, color, angle, length
• Shape – size, color, orientation and texture, type
• Color – hue, value, saturation
• Value – darkness, lightness, high-key, low-key, value contrast
• Texture – rough, smooth

An effective way to integrate unity and variety is by creating variations on a theme. Just as a composer can repeat and vary a musical theme throughout a
composition, a designer can repeat and vary an element throughout a design.

Variety provides contrast to harmony and unity . If this is harmony, then variety might be something like this. Variety consists of the differences in objects that add interest to a visual image. Variety can be achieved by using opposites or strong contrasts. Changing the size, point of view, and angle of a single object can add variety and interest to a visual image. Breaking a repeating pattern can enliven a visual image. Variety is the last design principle.


Emphasis creates a focal point in a design; it is how we bring attention to what is most important.
Emphasis is what catches the eye and makes the viewer stop and look at the image. Without emphasis, without getting the viewer to look at the image, communication cannot occur.

Emphasis can be created by contrast. An element in contrast with something else is more easily seen and understood; something different attracts the eye.

Any of the elements can be contrasted:

• Line (a curve in the midst of straight lines)
• Shape (a circle in a field of squares)
• Color (one red dot on a background of grays and blacks)
• Value (a light or dark area in the middle of its opposite)
• Texture (rough vs. smooth)

Contrast can also be created by contrasting orientation in space (horizontal,
vertical, diagonal), style (a geometric shape in an otherwise naturalistic image) and size. An anomaly, or something that departs from the norm, will also stand out and grab our attention, for example a person wearing a snowsuit on a tropical beach.

Emphasis can also be created by placement. Implied lines all directed toward the same place can create a focal point there. Isolating an element from the others by its position in space will also create emphasis.

An important thing to remember about emphasis is that if everything is emphasized (all text is large and bold, all images are animated or flashing, everything is in bright colors) then nothing will stand out, nothing will be emphasized, nothing will grab the viewer’s attention.


Balance is the equal distribution of visual weight in a design. Visual balance occurs around a vertical axis; our eyes require the visual weight to be equal on the two sides of the axis. We are bilateral creatures and our sense of balance is innate. When elements are not balanced around a vertical axis, the effect is disturbing and makes us uncomfortable.

Symmetrical, or formal balance, is also known as bilateral symmetry. It is created by repeating the reverse of a design on the opposite side of the vertical axis; each side, in essence, becomes the mirror image of the other. Symmetrical balance is considered formal, ordered, stable and quiet. It can also be boring. Symmetrical balance is often used in architecture.

While symmetry achieves balance through repetition, asymmetry achieves balance through contrast. Asymmetrical, or informal balance, involves different elements that have equal visual weight; the weight is equal but the elements are not identical.

Visual weight is influenced by:

  • Position: The further out an element is from the center, the heavier it will feel; a large
    object placed near the center can be balanced by a smaller object placed near the edge.
  • Size: Larger feels heavier.
  • Texture: An element with more complex texture is heavier visually than one with a simple texture or no texture at all.
  • Isolation: An isolated element has more visual weight.
  • Value: Darker feels heavier.
  • Value Contrast: The higher the value-contrast, the heavier the weight.
  • Quantity: Multiple small objects can balance one larger object.
  • Orientation: A diagonal orientation carries more visual weight than a horizontal or vertical one.
  • Shape: Elements that have more complex shapes feel heavier than those with simple shapes.
  • Color: The brighter and more intense its color, the heavier the element will feel.

Asymmetrical balance is casual, interesting and more dynamic than symmetrical balance.

Radial balance occurs when all the elements radiate out from a central point and the visual weight is distributed equally. Radial balance creates a strong focal point in the center of the design. Clock faces and daisies are examples of radial balance.

Crystallographic balance, or an allover pattern, is created by repeating elements of equal weight everywhere. Emphasis is uniform; there is no distinct focal point. Quilts and chessboards are examples of crystallographic balance.


Space, in two-dimensional design, is essentially flat; it has height and width, but no depth. There are certain visual cues, however, that can create the illusion of space in the mind of the viewer. By using those cues, artists and designers can create images that are interpreted as three-dimensional.


Size is one of the easiest ways to create the illusion of space. A larger image will appear closer than a smaller one because we observed (very early in life) that objects appear to become smaller as they get farther away.


Overlapping is another easy way to suggest depth in an image. When objects overlap each other, the viewer perceives the one that is covering parts of other to be in front and the one that is covered to be in the back.

Compositional Location

Compositional location refers to where a form is positioned vertically in the image. The bottom is seen as the foreground, the part of the image that is nearest the viewer and the top as the background, the part farthest from the viewer. The higher an object is place in the image, the farther back it is perceived to be.

Atmospheric Perspective

Atmospheric perspective uses value, contrast and color to give the illusion of space. Atmospheric perspective is based on the fact that the farther something is away from us, the more the atmospheric haze may obscure our view of it. By lightening the value, lowering the value contrast, softening the edges, decreasing detail and muting the color, you can mimic the effect of atmospheric haze and create the illusion of increasing distance. Increasing the bluish cast of an image also creates a sense of depth because cool colors recede and warm colors come forward.

Linear Perspective

Linear perspective is based on the visual phenomenon that as parallel lines (such as railroad tracks) recede into space, they appear to converge at a distant point. Linear perspective not only evokes a feeling of great depth, but it also creates a strong focal point at the place where the lines converge.

Using these visual cues in combination with each other strengthens the illusion of depth.


Write a response which answers the following questions:

  1. Which principle of design do you find to be the most important?
    1. Why do you find it to be most important?
  2. What (or which) principles of design were you aware of?
    1. How did you learn about them?
    2. Which were you unaware of?
  3. How do you think you can integrate these principles into your work? Which exist in your work now that you were unaware of?
  4. Through scientific discovery, we have learned that quarks form protons and neutrons, while protons and neutrons form atoms. All things are made up of much smaller parts. Do you view compositions differently now that you have more experience analyzing the smaller components that create them?

Your response must be at least 3 paragraphs.

You may decide which questions to answer as long as you have fully and thoughtfully responded to at least 3 of the questions and meet the required text length.

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