The 10 Essential Principles of Design
A Guide for Teachers
If the elements of art are the building blocks that build up your work, then the elements of design are the glue that make it a sturdy structure! The elements or principles of design are what take your artwork to the next level, and using them correctly in tandem with the elements of art is what makes your art go from great to fantastic!
There are 10 principles of design in total! They’re also known as the elements of visual design, and are: movement, balance, contrast, proportion, repetition, rhythm, variety, emphasis, harmony, and unity.
The first principle of design is movement! Movement affects how the viewer looks at a piece. Artists can arrange sections of a scene to dictate how a viewer’s eyes will travel across it. Movement is heavily combined with the element of art, Line! Leading lines are a very common way for artists to add movement to their piece, whether they point to a focal point on the piece, or they make your eyes travel around it! Roads, rivers, and objects that “point” (signposts, branches, etc.) are all forms of leading lines that can assist a viewer with looking at a piece in the intended way.
Movement within a character’s pose is also really important, especially with dynamic and action poses. Action lines are another way artists can use line to emphasize their movement in figure and gesture drawing. Using action lines allows artists to capture the feeling of movement on a non-moving image, which can be tricky to master!
The next principle of design is balance! Balance is how the subjects of a scene are arranged so everything feels properly distributed. This is called visual weighting, where all the “weight” within a piece is, well, balanced! Balance tends to work hand in hand with the element of art, space! Usually, your objects are placed around a scene so that there isn’t too much empty space, or that objects feel evenly spaced. When it doesn’t feel like everything is too empty or too crowded, your piece is balanced!
Balance is mainly used to create good compositions. Your composition is just your art piece as a whole, and how all the elements within it work together. There are also different kinds of balance -- symmetrical balance and asymmetrical balance! Symmetrical balance is when your elements within a scene are the same and are equally distributed. You can think of it like a mirrored image; if you cut your art in half, both sides should be the same thing. Asymmetrical balance is when the elements within a scene aren’t the same, but still feel equally distributed. This usually has to do with the volume of the objects on either side -- say if you have one large tree on half the page, and then three small ones that take up the same amount of space. That’s asymmetrical balance!
Another design principle is contrast! Contrast is used to create focal points and variety using opposite elements, whether they be opposites in colour, shape, texture, or a number of other things! Within contrast, you have high contrast and low contrast. High contrast is when two subjects are completely or nearly opposite from one another, such as the colours red and green, or a smooth texture and a rough texture. Low contrast is when two subjects are very similar or the same, such as a circle and an oval, or two slightly different shades of blue. Contrast is used mostly in tandem with the elements of art colour and value to create appropriate colour palettes for art!
The next principle of design is proportion! Proportion is how the size and weight of objects relate to one another within a piece. While you most likely thought of human proportions first, proportion can relate to a whole number of things, such as a person’s height in relation to a doorframe or a dog in relation to its chew toy.
Proportions are what keep our illustrations realistic and believable. Cartoonists like to play around with proportions to add an extra element of style to their artwork -- the crazier your proportions are, the less realistic they become! Proportions are also used to show depth and perspective. While a person is most likely smaller than a tree, a tree in the distance would be drawn smaller than the person to emphasize that perspective.
Another element of design is repetition! Repetition is exactly what it sounds like -- repeated elements within a piece! It tends to bring a sense of cohesiveness to the illustration as a whole. Artists like MC Escher and Keith Haring are known for using repetition often in their works of art by reusing elements over and over. Repetition tends to create patterns within artwork, like a striped wall or a tiled bathroom, and is usually used in tandem with rhythm and unity, two elements that will be talked about later in this blog!
Repetition, just like a chorus in a song, allows a viewer to become familiar with the work by an artist. This generally results in an art style, where an artist becomes recognized for repeated subjects, illustrative techniques, or characters.
While illustrators tend to use the same elements for their artwork, brands will repeat their logo on their merchandise and assets. This is another way of familiarizing consumers with their company.
The next design principle is rhythm! Rhythm creates a type of “visual tempo.” Rhythm is somewhat similar to repetition, but blends movement in as well to create patterns. These patterns can be structured or random, depending on what’s illustrated. For instance, a checkerboard has regular rhythm, because the pattern is identical and repeated. A crowd of people has random rhythm because no two people are the same, but the large number of people within the piece still holds rhythm.
Other types of rhythm include alternating rhythm, flowing rhythm, and progressive rhythm! Alternating rhythm can use the example of the checkerboard again, because the pattern switches between black and white squares! The patterns within alternating rhythm repeat themselves, and usually alternate back and forth. Flowing rhythm shows repeated elements that follow bends and curves. Think of waves on the ocean or a flowing river, that’s flowing rhythm! Progressive rhythm occurs when we change one thing about an element of our piece over and over as it's repeated. Say you drew a circle, and every time you drew it you'd make it a little bit bigger. That would be progressive rhythm!
The next principle of design is variety! Variety is the main principle that adds interest to a piece. It works through the juxtaposition of subject matter. Juxtaposition is placing two objects together to create a contrasting effect. For instance, drawing some rain clouds next to a bright blue sky, or having squiggly lines next to straight lines. While they’re similar in subject matter, they’re different enough to create that sense of variety!
Using the crowd of people as an example again, because every person within it is different, that means there’s a variety of people. If you enter a baker’s shop and see a ton of different cakes on display, you’ll also have a variety of cakes to choose from. Variety works in tandem with all elements of art in order to create that visual interest -- having multiple different kinds of lines, colours, shapes, and so on all create visual variety. Without variety, a piece can feel very boring.
The next design principle is emphasis! Emphasis, also known as “dominance” or “hierarchy.” is when the artist picks an element of the art piece that they wish to “call out.” It’s the element within the scene that your eyes tend to go to first. Ask yourself: what's the most important part of this picture? If there is more than one, what is the hierarchy of importance? This, like variety, is done through contrast and juxtaposition. It’s also done with space, proportions, colour, and so much more! Placement and size are also an example of emphasis. In this case, emphasis requires a large amount of contrast in order to work! For instance, if you illustrate a big blue ocean with a boat, you may want to colour that boat orange since orange is the complementary colour of blue, and will stand out the most! Or if you have an extremely detailed piece, you can have a single simplistic point that will stand out from the rest.
Designers use emphasis and hierarchy to lead your eye. For example, a birthday party invitation has the event name (Sam's birthday party), the date and time (Feb 23 at 5pm), and the location (online!). All details are important, but what information should go first, and larger? What's second and third? These are the kinds of questions designers ask themselves when they want to add a hierarchy or add emphasis to certain sections of their design!
The next element of design is harmony! Harmony is when the elements of art within an art piece have their similarities emphasized to create a sense of cohesiveness. For instance, using only dots to colour or only using cross-hatching to shade a piece uses repetition of shape and line to create harmony. Using a specific colour scheme is also a way to create harmony.
Think of harmony within a song. When you harmonize notes, they’re two separate notes, but they sound good together. Harmony within artworks the same way -- while the elements don’t have to be the same, they end up looking good together! However, a foolproof way to create harmony is by using similar shapes and edges. For instance, an art piece that uses round shapes overall will have better harmony than a piece that has a mix of both round and hard-edged shapes.
Last but not least, our final design principle is unity! Unity is what brings the whole piece together. It isn’t in correlation with any element of art in particular, but instead is something that makes the whole piece feel like it belongs together. It could be a colour scheme, subject matter, a pattern, or even an art style! While unity is often confused with harmony, it isn’t quite the same. Unity is a little broader, and harmony is meant to enhance the unity of a piece, not create it.
You can think of unity as the final sprinkle of powdered sugar on a dessert that brings the whole thing together. When you look at your artwork, is there something that brings it all together? Or does it feel like a hodgepodge of elements? Unity can be almost anything that finishes your piece off, from a common colour to the final glaze. Having that unity can make or break a piece, so getting it right is incredibly crucial!
If you want to learn more about the basics of the principles of design, check out our drawing foundations classes, designed to get you started on your artistic journey! Be sure to check out the Winged Canvas YouTube channel as well, where we post free tutorials and art resources for all levels of artists! If you want more resources on the elements of art, find them on our art resources for teachers section on our blog!