Design Principles – The Big Design Principles You Need to Know to Create Compelling Messages

Principles of design refer to the discourse conventions, artistic traditions, and theories that inform the design of messages, products, and services.  P.A.R.C. refers to the four primary design principles (proximity, alignment, repetition, contrast that not only guide how artists and designers create impactful visual compositions, but also inform how readers interpret visual representations, such as infographics or tables and figures.  Learn about the principles of design so you can use the elements of design -- e.g.,  color, shape, line, texture, and space --  to communicate with clarity and authority. 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.

What are Design Principles?

Design principles, also known as principles of design, are the fundamental guidelines and artistic frameworks that shape the creation of visually compelling compositions. These principles — which include alignment, balance in its various forms (symmetrical, asymmetrical, and radial), color theory, contrast, emphasis, proximity, and repetition — act as the “visual grammar” for creating and interpreting visual content. Unlike traditional language grammar, which dictates how words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs can work together to create clarity, design principles guide the composition of visual elements to convey meaning effectively.

Much like how we internalize language grammar through reading and practice, our understanding of design principles is honed through a combination of observation, trial and error, and experiential learning. The pervasive culture of selfies serves as an example; the sheer volume of selfies taken annually—estimated at 450 selfies per person per year per person—offers myriad opportunities for hands-on practice in framing and composition.

Related Concepts: Design Thinking; Elements of Design; Visual Language


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

Alignment in design refers to the arrangement of elements along a common axis or grid to create visual harmony and order. This principle serves to improve the composition’s readability and cohesiveness. In visual mediums like graphics or web design, you may see alignment in action when text, images, and other elements are lined up consistently along margins or other guide lines. In writing, alignment can be observed when text is uniformly justified to the left or right, or perhaps centered, making the content easier to follow and more visually pleasing for the reader.

Examples:

  1. In a web layout, the header, body text, and footer are often aligned to the same vertical axis, creating a clean and organized look.
  2. In a magazine or newspaper, columns of text are aligned to help guide the reader’s eye down the page.
  3. In infographics, the titles, subheadings, and data points are usually aligned to either a central axis or to each other, aiding in readability and viewer comprehension.
  4. In presentations, consistent alignment of text and visuals can help convey professionalism and improve the audience’s ability to absorb the information presented.
  5. In a novel, text is usually left-aligned, creating a uniform look that aids readability and allows the reader to focus on the story rather than the layout.

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:

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.
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.

FAQs

Why Do Principles of Design Matter?

Enhances Communication and Engagement

Effective design isn’t just aesthetically pleasing; it also facilitates better communication. By understanding and applying design principles, you can create compositions that allow your viewer to effortlessly absorb and interpret the presented information. This is especially critical in a world increasingly flooded with information, where grabbing and holding attention is a key challenge.

Influences Emotional Impact

Good design can evoke emotional responses that reinforce the message or purpose behind a composition. Whether it’s evoking a sense of urgency, nostalgia, happiness, or any other emotion, design principles guide creators in generating the desired emotional impact.

Encourages Efficient Information Processing

The human brain is wired to recognize patterns and structures, and the principles of design play into this natural inclination. Utilizing concepts like alignment, balance, and contrast makes information easier to digest. This is especially valuable in academic and professional settings, where complex data or concepts often need to be understood quickly and clearly.

Nurtures Creative Problem-Solving

Design principles are not rigid rules but rather guidelines that can be adapted and manipulated to solve specific design challenges. Understanding these principles equips you with the tools to be an effective problem solver. You’re not just placing elements haphazardly; you’re strategically organizing them to convey meaning or to guide the viewer’s eye.

Elevates Branding and Identity

In a commercial context, consistent and effective design is crucial for brand recognition and trust. Companies invest heavily in making sure their visual communication is in line with their identity, which is guided by design principles.

Increases Accessibility

Good design isn’t just for the benefit of the average user; it also considers those with disabilities. Principles like contrast and proximity are essential for making designs that are inclusive and accessible to everyone, thereby widening the reach of your message.

Reinforces Credibility and Professionalism

Well-executed design signifies a level of professionalism that can set you apart from competitors or affirm your credibility in academic and professional settings. A poorly designed report, presentation, or website can inadvertently cast doubt on the quality of the content it holds.

Facilitates Multidisciplinary Applications

The universality of design principles means they can be applied across various disciplines, not just in arts and graphic design. Whether you’re laying out a business report, creating a presentation, or displaying data in a graph, design principles help in making the output functional and impactful.

Understanding and applying the Principles of Design is, therefore, not just an added skill but a critical competency for effective communication in our visually saturated world.

In summary, 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.

11 Visual Hierarchy Design Principles – Learn How to Improve and Create Beautiful Graphic Designs

References

Williams, R. (2015). The Non-designer’s design book. Peachpit Press.

Shen, Z. (n.d.). Robin Williams’ four basic design principles for non-designers. Wiredcraft. https://wiredcraft.com/blog/robin-williams-four-basic-design-principles-for-non-designers/

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