Elements & Principles of Design

design tips

by Deana Duffek

Back to All Posts
Elements & Principles of Design

As William Lidwell stated in Universal Principles of Design: “The best designers sometimes disregard the principles of design. When they do so, however, there is usually some compensating merit attained at the cost of the violation. Unless you are certain of doing as well, it is best to abide by the principles.”

As a person who has had the good fortune of working as a designer within both the Interior Design and Graphic Design arenas I have seen and heard quite often “design is all so subjective” or “anyone who has good taste can be a designer.” Naturally, these are not things I hear from other designers, but typically people on the marketing side of a business. Designers tend to work within the unspoken world of elements and principles and even if we do not share it in every encounter, we understand the fundamentals. Similar to learning how to drive, for instance, one doesn’t concentrate daily on the blinker, the steering wheel or the various components that make up the whole of the driving experience. The foundation and knowledge is present, because it was taught at some point. The same goes with those of us who studied design in school and have chosen to work in fields related to art, design or development. In an effort to help bridge the gap between what some would call “subjective” and what others have seemingly mastered as a fine art of well balanced design I will share with you the 6 Principles of Design.

First, it is important to note that before we can get to the design principles, we must first understand some of the fundamental elements of art and design. Some of these can vary (slightly) for fine art, graphic design or interior design, but I will try to provide a concise overview as It relates to the over arching field(s) of art and design.   I do believe rules can be broken, but before you decide to break the rules, at least take the time to understand what they are and what they were intended to do. The information below is a simple over view; there are a multitude of resources available for a more in depth look at design elements and principles and how you can apply them to your own design work.


The elements of design are the things that make up a design. The Principles of design are what we do to those elements. How we apply the principles of design determines how successful the design is.

The Elements of Design

  1. LINE– Lines and curves are marks that span a distance between two points (or the path of a moving point). As an art element, line pertains to the use of various marks, outlines and implied lines in artwork, design and spaces. A line has a width, direction, and length. A line’s width is sometimes called its “thickness.” Lines are sometimes called “strokes,” especially when referring to lines in digital artwork. Lines convey emotion. Sometimes a designer uses a line alone to divide or unite elements. In interior spaces you can use lines to direct the overall mood of a room.  Vertical lines create a formal atmosphere and balance the horizontal lines of furniture, which tend to be more casual.  Diagonal lines are attractive, though they can become distracting if overused.  They can be softened by curved lines, which will grant your room a soft, feminine atmosphere.

2. SHAPE/ FORM When lines come together they form shape. A shape is a self contained defined area of geometric (squares and circles), or organic (free formed shapes or natural shapes). A positive shape automatically creates a negative shape. Shapes have two dimensions length and width. The logo below uses implied shape and lines to create the E and the bee body. This practice of implied shape is often referred to as the Gestalt Theory, which basically states that you can infer a whole by only seeing its parts. There really is nothing more to the bee body than three lines, but you see the striped body of a bee because your mind says you should. Form differs from shape in that it has three dimensions, length, width and depth. All forms have shape. Form may be described as any three-dimensional object. Form can be measured, from top to bottom (height), side to side (width), and from back to front (depth). Form is also defined by light and dark, it can be defined by the presence of shadows on surfaces or faces of an object. The combining of two or more shapes can create form. Form may also be enhanced by tone, texture and color. It can be illustrated or constructed.

  1. SPACE – Space is an area that an artist and/ or designer provides for a particular purpose. Space includes the background, foreground and middle ground, and refers to the distances or area(s) around, between and within things. There are two kinds of space: negative space and positive space.In design, space is concerned with the area deep within the moment of designated design, the design will take place on. For a two-dimensional design space concerns creating the illusion of a third dimension on a flat surface. To be successful in interior design, you must understand and realize the limits and potential set forth by a room’s space constraints. 
  2. TEXTURE – Texture is the surface quality of a shape – rough, smooth, soft hard glossy etc. Meaning the way a surface feels or is perceived to feel. Texture can be added to attract or repel interest to an element, depending on the pleasantness of the texture. Tactile texture is the actual three-dimension feel of a surface that can be touched. Painters can use impasto to build peaks and create texture. Visual texture is the illusion of the surfaces peaks and valleys, like the tree pictured below. Any texture shown in a photo is a visual texture, meaning the paper is smooth no matter how rough the image perceives it to be. Most textures have a natural touch but still seem to repeat a motif in some way. Regularly repeating a motif will result in a texture appearing as a pattern.
  3. COLOR – Color is light reflected off objects. Color has three main characteristics: hue or its name (red, green, blue, etc.), value (how light or dark it is), and intensity (how bright or dull it is). Color can play a large role in the elements of design with the color wheel being used as a tool, and color theory providing a body of practical guidance to color mixing and the visual impacts of specific color combination. Color theory begins to get into a much deeper area of design that we will later elaborate on.

The Principles of Design

Principles are applied to the elements of design to bring them together into one design. How one applies these principles determines how successful a design may be.

  1. UNITY / HARMONY– According to Alex White, author of The Elements of Graphic Design, to achieve visual unity is a main goal of graphic design. When all elements are in agreement, a design is considered unified. No individual part is viewed as more important than the whole design. A good balance between unity and variety must be established to avoid a chaotic or a lifeless design. In designing interiors, of course everyone has their own goals. But the ultimate goal is for all the components of the room to create a harmonious unity. Pay attention to the detail in decorating the room, because if the components are not united you will not be able to create the atmosphere you desire.Unity is created when all the elements in a design work well together. Often a work of art will have a single element that is emphasized and dominates a painting; (a “main subject”) and the other elements support it. 
  2. BALANCE – Balance in design is similar to balance in physics. A large shape close to the center can be balanced by a small shape close to the edge. Balance provides stability and structure to a design. It’s the weight distributed in the design by the placement of your elements. Some things to consider when trying to achieve a balanced design:
    • Symmetry: (from Greek συμμετρία symmetria “agreement in dimensions, due proportion, arrangement” – in everyday language refers to a sense of harmonious and beautiful proportion and balance.
    • Asymmetrical produces an informal balance that is attention attracting and dynamic.
    • Radial balance is arranged around a central element. The elements placed in a radial balance seem to ‘radiate’ out from a central point in a circular fashion.
    • Overall is a mosaic form of balance which normally arises from too many elements being put on a page. Due to the lack of hierarchy and contrast, this form of balance can look noisy.
  3. RHYTHM – As in music, rhythm in design is all about creating patterns of repetition and contrast to create visual interest. You can achieve this by using the same color or shape at different intervals. Its purpose is to move your eye around the room. When lines lead the eye through the art or space you have achieved rhythm and movement. Repetition strengthens a design by tying together individual elements. It helps to create association and consistency. Repetition can create rhythm (a feeling of organized movement).
  4. SCALE / PROPORTION – Using the relative size of elements against each other can attract attention to a focal point. When elements are designed larger than life, scale is being used to show drama. Interior spaces should hold furniture, accessories and accents that fit in terms of shape and size.Proportion evaluates the relationship or ratio of parts to the whole. Proximity creates relationship between elements. It provides a focal point.
  5. EMPHASIS – Emphasis is the focal point or center in the design. It is the object that receives the most attention than the other objects in a room. There is emphasis if you put briefly colored pillows in a solid colored sofa. 
  6. CONTRAST– Contrast is the juxtaposition of opposing elements (opposite colors on the color wheel, or value light / dark, or direction – horizontal / vertical). Contrast allows us to emphasize or highlight key elements in your design. A room where everything gets equal importance will seem either scattered or boring. You need an anchor. Architectural spaces often have points of interestsuch as a fireplace or a window with a beautiful view. You can choose to enhance the built in focal point by arranging furniture around it to emphasize it.

For sources and to read more about design elements & principles:

Deana Duffek is the contributing writer for this article. She is a designer, brand developer and an artist with a decorated background within the Art & Design industry. She is dedicated to helping individuals and companies find the tools and resources they need to effectively create thoughtful and inspired design. For more information please visit: deanaduffek.com 

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.