What are the Principles of Design?
Principles of design refers to the conventions, artistic traditions, and theories that inform how artists and designers create impactful visual compositions. Examples of design principles include alignment, various forms of balance (symmetrical, asymmetrical, and radial), color theory, contrast, emphasis, proximity, and repetition.
Design Principles are a sort of grammar for visual language: they inform both the interpretation and production of information. Yet rather than defining how words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs can go together to create clarity, they govern visual language. Just as we learn grammar informally as we read the works of others, we learn design principles largely through informal processes: from trial and error, from practice, learning, observing, and thinking. Consider, for instance, the global preoccupation with selfies: some surveys estimate that people take 450 selfies a year, and over 25,700 selfies in a lifetime. That’s a lot of practice when it comes to framing and working with images.
The Big 4 Design Principles: P.A.R.C (aka C.R.A.P)
In 2015 Robin Williams argued that non designers should be aware of four major design principles: Proximity, Alignment, Repetition, Contrast. These principles, sometimes referred to as P.A.R.C. or C.R.A.P., play a king-size role in any composition.
|Proximity||Proximity in design pertains to the strategic placement of related elements close to each other to create a cohesive group or section. This principle is used to enhance the organization and clarity of a composition. In writing, for example, you may see proximity in action when a paragraph is devoted to a single idea or argument. All supporting sentences are placed in close proximity to each other, reinforcing the main idea and making it easier for the reader to follow the argument.|
Tips: Place related items together. Chunk liked-minded content together and separate disparate chunks of content.
|Alignment||Proximity in design pertains to the strategic placement of related elements close to each other to create a cohesive group or section. This principle is used to enhance the organization and clarity of a composition. In writing, for example, you may see proximity in action when a paragraph is devoted to a single idea or argument. All supporting sentences are placed in close proximity to each other, reinforcing the main idea and making it easier for the reader to follow the argument.|
Tips: Align copy and visuals in consistent manner. Avoid a jumbled look, the feeling of puzzle pieces scattered willy nilly.
|Repetition||Repetition in design is used to create consistency and unity. It involves repeating visual elements such as shapes, colors, or patterns. In writing, repetition can serve a similar function. You might notice an author repeating a certain phrase, image, or theme throughout a piece of writing. This repeated element can underscore a central idea or emotion, lending coherence and emphasis to the work. For example, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the phrase “I have a dream” is repeated multiple times to emphasize his vision of equality and freedom.|
Tips: Repeat design elements (e.g., consistency in alignment and headings) throughout a text. Repeat words and phrases for emphasis and clarity.
|Contrast||Contrast is a design principle that highlights the differences between elements to create visual interest or to guide the viewer’s attention to a particular area. In a visual composition, contrast can be achieved through differences in color, size, or shape. In writing, contrast can be employed to highlight differing viewpoints, to create tension, or to emphasize a particular point. For instance, an author might contrast a character’s actions with their stated intentions to reveal hypocrisy, or contrast a hopeful beginning with a tragic ending to create a poignant narrative arc.|
Tips: Create focus by using design elements (such as use of bold face or font) to highlight texts and the ideas behind those texts.
Since the publications of Williams’ book, The Non-Designer’s Design Book, other designers have seconded her opinion that these are the four most important considerations for anyone endeavoring to communicate visually. Examples:
- Zhenghui Shen. (n.d.). Robin Williams’ four basic design principles for non-designers. Wiredcraft.
- Reynolds, G. (2008). Presentation Zen. Pearson Education.
Other Principles of Design
|Balance: Symmetrical, Asymmetrical, & Radial||Balance in design refers to the distribution of visual weight in a composition. |
In symmetrical balance, elements are arranged evenly around a central axis, creating a mirror image on each side, which can convey a sense of calm and stability. An example in writing could be a well-structured argument where both sides of a debate are given equal attention, creating a balanced perspective for the reader.
Tips: Place design elements in relation to other design elements. Place equal weighting of design elements on the left, right, top, and bottom quadrants of the text to achieve balance
Asymmetrical balance, on the other hand, involves arranging elements of differing sizes or visual weights to create interest and dynamism while still achieving an overall sense of balance. In writing, this might look like balancing a detailed, lengthy discussion of one idea with shorter, but equally compelling, discussions of related ideas.
Radial balance is when elements radiate from a common center. This type of balance can be seen in poetry or prose where themes or motifs radiate from a central idea or image, creating a sense of cohesion and unity in the piece.
|Color – Color Theory||Color theory is a fundamental concept in visual design that explains how colors interact, how they affect one another, and how they influence human perception. In the realm of visual arts, color theory guides artists in choosing colors that evoke specific emotions, guide the viewer’s eye, or create a certain aesthetic.|
In writing, color theory translates into the mindful use of descriptive language to evoke specific feelings or moods. An author might describe a sunset in warm hues of red and orange to evoke a sense of tranquility, or a cityscape in stark monochrome to create a sense of alienation or melancholy. Color words can also symbolize various emotions or ideas; for instance, ‘seeing red’ might signify anger, while ‘feeling blue’ could represent sadness. Thus, understanding color theory can help writers use description and symbolism more effectively to influence readers’ perceptions and emotional responses.
Colors, like words, have connotations. Be sure to choose colors that reflect your intentions.
Why Do Principles of Design Matter?
Design Principles inform reading and writing practices. They constitute a basic literacy competency for a knowledge worker, especially given the visual turn in professional, workplace, and academic writing. Declarative and tacit knowledge of design principles can help you avoid creating discordant designs that detract from your intended purpose.
By learning about design principles, you can enhance your creative process, critically appreciate art and design, and deepen your understanding of how to create visually striking and meaningful compositions.