Principles of Good Design

The principles of good design are the tools used by an artist or designer to create an effective composition or design. The principles are: balance, movement, repetition, emphasis, simplicity, contrast, proportion, space, and unity. The difference between a weak design and a strong one is completely dependent upon the artist’s knowledge of the design principles and how well he/she applies them. Exploring each of these principles in a series of art lessons is a worthy endeavor.
In the study of design, we note there is no longer a clear-cut line between fine art and applied art anymore. All art, whether it is web design, industrial design, fine art, sculpture, commercial art, or graphic art, is subject to the same principles of good design. Graphic artists compose their designs and page layouts using the same design principles the fine artists use. Just as a fine artist arranges various components within a painting to create a pleasing composition, so it is with the graphic artist. The artist may use a vase of flowers, a bowl of fruit, or a figurine to design a lovely still life composition. The graphic artist will use headlines, bodies of text, photos, and illustrations to compose a page or web site.
The basis of all design is the arrangement of the elements of a work of art, using the design principles. It is the bringing together of various components into one area and arranging them in such a way as to create a composition, layout or design that is both unified and pleasing to look at. For example every artist, whether they realize it or not, is familiar with the elements of a composition. These are:
• Line – an actual or implied mark, path, mass, or edge, where length is dominant
• Form – the mass of the shapes
• Texture – the structure and molding of a surface (rough, smooth, etc.) either actual or illusory
• Value – the degree of lightness or darkness of a given color
• Color – a pigment or hue
• Shape – any flat area bound by line, value, or color
The elements are what the artist uses to create a composition. But it is HOW the artist brings these elements to together and arranges them upon the surface of a canvas that creates the composition. A design is the result of the application of the principles of design. Please note that the use of the word design is synonymous with the words layout, composition, or work of art. Wucious Wong refers to the edges of the canvas or paper as the “framal reference” or frame of reference. A good composition is where the elements fit inside the frame in a pleasing manner. The removal or shifting of any of the elements would case the composition to weaken.
The principles of design, sometimes referred to as the principles of organization are:
• Balance – a feeling of equality of weight, attention, or attraction of the various elements within the composition as a means of accomplishing unity
• Movement – the suggestion of action or direction, the path our eyes follow when we look at a work of art
• Repetition and rhythm – the act of repeating an element either regularly or irregularly resulting in a rhythm of the repeating elements
• Emphasis – the stress placed on a single area of a work or unifying visual theme
• Simplicity (a.k.a. visual economy) – the elimination of all non-essential elements or details to reveal the essence of a form
• Contrast – the difference between elements or the opposition to various elements
• Proportion – the relation of two things in size, number, amount, or degree
• Space – the interval or measurable distance between objects or forms (two dimensional or three dimensional)
• Unity – the relationship between the individual parts and the whole of a composition
Many artists use these principles more intuitively than intellectually but are nevertheless subconsciously aware of them and their impact upon a composition. A seasoned creator of visual communication or visual delights may not even be aware that he or she is using the above principles. They become seemingly innate as they are practiced over and over.
Good art always starts with an idea even if that idea is a feeling.
Before beginning any work of art every artist or designer needs to keep in mind that every composition starts with a concept. To use the design principles effectively it is necessary that the artist have an idea to express or an objective in mind. This is vital to the success of any art work. Without an objective, the most conscientious attention to balance, movement, emphasis, contrast, proportion, and space to create a unified composition, will result in uninteresting work. With an idea, however, even though the principles may be forgotten and used intuitively, a beautiful composition may emerge. Every artist’s goal should be to create a composition that is both unified and interesting to look at for more than a millisecond.