What I Learned In Design School: 9 Key Principles of Effective Design

1. Organization. There are seven essential elements to any design-line, direction, shape, size, texture, value, and color. The process of graphic design is the awareness of all of these elements, and organizing them in a way that allows each to interact in a meaningful way. It’s the placement of text, graphics, white space, and backgrounds that lead the eye through the hierarchy of information on the page.

2. Balance. Once all of the elements are placed on the page, it’s important to balance the weight of the text, graphics, color, and positive and negative space. Without balance, the eye gets confused, doesn’t know where to go weight of any of these elements are related to it’s size, density, and color. Essentially, an element that is large and contains darker, more saturated color is “heavier”, and will need other elements on the page to distribute the weight as evenly as possible. My trick is to squint while viewing the page to make sure the heavier elements are balanced.

3. Contrast. Big, small. Short, tall. Contrast occurs when two elements are different. The greater the difference, the greater the contrast. In design, big and small elements, black and white text, squares and circles, can all create contrast. Contrasting elements immediately attract attention.

4. Rhythm. Repetitive elements similar in nature, such as sidebars and figures, can create a visual rhythm that will unify the design. These elements are picked up as “pulsations” and causes the eye to briefly pause as it moves around the page. These pauses and shifts in rhythm can bring attention to important information.

5. Readability. Even if all of the key principles of design are followed, attention is lost without content that is readable. Factors such as size, background, and letter spacing determine the readability of text. And, studies indicate that some text is more readable than others. For instance, serif typefaces, such as Times New Roman, are slightly more legible than sans-serifs, such as Helvetica, for long body copy. And, three quarters of all readers prefer black text on a white background.

6. Proximity. The distance between elements on a page creates a bond, or lack thereof in a design. If elements are related to each other, for instance, they should be placed on the page together. Unrelated elements should not be in close proximity. The process of grouping related information and graphics creates visual cues, which help the reader scan and absorb the information easily.

7. Consistency. While working to achieve a successful design, keeping the overall aesthetic integrity of the elements of the page must be considered. This means keeping all of the visual and typographic elements simple and clear, and applying these styles uniformly. For example, using the Garamond Bold typeface in orange for all subheads, or framing all customer testimonials in a 3 point green border. There should be an overall visual system to all of the elements that unify the design into a coherent whole. Consistency brings recognition, which makes the reader more comfortable, and more likely to respond.

8. Demographics. Gender, age, social, physical, and cultural demographics play a key role in who will pay attention to the design. Before starting any design, research is required to understand the audience, and tailor specifically to their needs. For instance, a brochure targeted to seniors over 60 should incorporate a larger (minimum 12 point) and more readable (Serif) typeface throughout. Also, use a color palette that is more appealing to the 60 and over audience.

9. Color. Last, but certainly not least, is the use of color in design. Color is a key principle that affects everything we’ve talked about so far: organization, balance, contrast, rhythm, readability, proximity, consistency, and demographics. Similar colors will bond elements together (light blue and dark blue), just as colors located on opposite sides of the color wheel (purple and yellow) will create visual contrast, rhythm, and balance on the page. Studies have shown that women are more sensitive to color than men, women prefer reds, and men prefer blues. Therefore, audience demographics must be considered before choosing a color palette.

Graphic design is a creative process that combines art and technology to communicate ideas. The designer’s job is to work with a variety of communication tools, images and typography to convey a message from a client to a particular audience. Using these basic principles from Design school, can help anyone design a piece that is both beautiful and functional.