Visual Design Principles: A Guide to Elements and Principles

Many of the basic elements and principles of visual design are based around taking advantage of the ways humans naturally view things. Organizing your designs around these basic principles will help you to create more effective and compelling visual designs.

Visual design elements

Visual design elements are the basic building blocks of design. Even though there are only a handful, designers can combine these elements in near infinite ways to create unique designs.


The most basic element of visual design, a line is simply a stroke connecting two points. Though simple, giving lines different properties can convey a variety of different meanings. Lines can also be combined to create other elements like shapes or textures.


Shapes are crucial elements of design as they are quickly identified by the human eye and are often what people first notice in a visual design. Using different types of shapes (organic vs. geometric for example) can produce wildly different designs.


In design, texture comes in two forms. Tactile textures are things we can feel like scales, sandpaper, or fur. Implied texture — which is what is used in digital design — is visual texture created by repeating lines and shapes.

Negative space

Empty space around a shape or object is known as negative space. While blank space may seem unimportant, considering negative space is just as necessary as the actual design elements. Negative space can be used to bring balance to a design, create interesting visual effects, or simply keep a design from becoming unintelligible chaos.


Color is extremely important in visual design. Colors can convey emotions, define sections of a design, add interest, or draw in a viewer's attention. Color theory is an entire branch of design dedicated to pairing colors in ways that achieve the designer's intended message.


Put simply, value is the lightness or darkness of a color. A light value would be closer to white while a dark value would be closer to black. High contrast between values create clarity in a design, while values that are closer together create subtlety.

Visual design principles

The principles of visual design explain how visual design elements should be put together to create a compelling design.


All the elements within a particular visual design should work together to create a sense of unity. A unified design appears more thought out and tends to be more visually pleasing to the viewer.


Balance in a visual design means the elements within the design are distributed evenly, creating a design that feels calm and stable. In contrast, unbalanced designs feel unnatural. Symmetry is often a good way to create balance in a design, but asymmetrical designs can also feel balanced as long as there is an overall sense of unity.


Contrast refers to adjacent elements in a visual design having different qualities (color, size, or shape) that set them apart from each other. Contrast fulfills a very important practical role in visual design by differentiating elements. If the contrast between elements is too low they'll blur together and not be as legible to the viewer.


The relative sizing between elements within a design is known as scale. The human eye tends to be drawn to the largest element in a design first, so scale can be used to assign importance to elements and organize how a visual design should be viewed. For instance, titles are usually presented larger than other text so the viewer reads the title first.


In visual design, hierarchy sets up which elements of a particular design are more important than others. Generally, color and scale are used to develop these hierarchies. A bright logo, for instance, will be viewed before the gray background behind it.


In many visual designs there is a dominant element intended to draw the majority of the viewer's attention. Hierarchy, color, contrast, and scale can all be used to draw attention to a particular design element and make it the dominant part of a visual design.


While none of these visual design elements and principles are particularly complex, learning to master all of them takes time and practice. To continue learning more about visual design, check out this helpful tutorial all about color palettes.

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