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In the visual age of the Internet it’s relatively easy to create your own graphic designs, but they don’t have to look homemade.

Whether you’re designing a logo, an event announcement, a social network banner, a letterhead, or an email newsletter; you absolutely need to know five basic principles of graphic design. Graphic designer and best selling author Robin Williams explains these principles in her classic book, The Non-Designer’s Design Book.

Today we will be providing an overview of these principles using a few contemporary examples.

Proximity

Proximity means grouping elements together so that you guide the viewer/reader to different parts of the message. Notice below in the template on the left, taken from Apple’s Pages, related elements are grouped together, as opposed to the linear arrangement of amateur designs as shown on the right.

proximity

Though at first the elements may appear scattered, their proximity adds unity and continuity to the page. Even if you intend on sticking to templates, it still helps to know design principles for the purposes of customizing an existing design.

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Alignment

Another important design principle is aligning elements in a visual and readable arrangement. Most amateur designers start off by aligning everything in the center of the page, but that’s not the only way. Again with the “scattered” looking design, we can see the alignment of elements that helps keep the design balanced. The top group of text is left-aligned, and three larger text elements are vertically aligned.

alignment

It’s important to be consistent in the alignment of elements. When you look at the design and something doesn’t feel right, play around with the alignment and see if the design can be improved.

Repetition

Like the use of repetitious hooks in a song, repeating elements in a graphic design can be visually appealing. In the two examples below, a numbered list is used, but there’s also the repetition of the blue circles that make a bolder statement.

repetition

In the layout on the right, the image of the sandwiched is cropped and masked in repeating squares, as well as the use of repeated red strokes above the word “PANE.” Repetition puts emphasis on particular elements of a design, and it draws the reader’s attention to those elements.

Contrast

Contrast between design elements can make a presentation stand out and get noticed. Take for example this original template from the personal graphic design site, Canva.com Making Beautiful Designs The Easy Way With Canva [Signup & Free Credit] Making Beautiful Designs The Easy Way With Canva [Signup & Free Credit] What if an application promised to make it possible for anyone to create aesthetically pleasing designs? What if creating a genuinely beautiful design was just a matter of dragging and dropping? Read More . The elements of the design are grouped together, with strong alignment and repetition of  of the arrows and bullet points. But for some purposes, the original design could be a little flat.

canva_template

Adding color contrast makes the design pop, and it draws attention to important parts of the presentation and message.

2014

Notice another piece of contrast: the two arrows are followed by the check in the circle, which sends a visual message. The color of that element could also be changed to add contrast.

White Space

Depending on the presentation, the use of white space can be very powerful in design. It’s useful when you want to make a direct message, to stand out above the clutter found in many graphic designs. In this Canva business card template, the empty space helps bring clarity to the message.

business_card

A card reader first sees the graphic element, then the owner’s name, followed by the contact information. Elements on the card are balanced and uncluttered.

The same goes for this the coversheet of this Pages project proposal template. The white space provides room for the clean font style of the title, the graphic elements, and the grouped text. Don’t be afraid of leaving white space in your design. As Robin Williams points out, white space can also be a form of contrast.

Pages_Template

Learning Graphic Principles

I’m not a graphic designer, but years ago I learned a lot from working through the exercises of Robin Williams’ book. Canva.com also provides several design tutorials that cover the above basic principles and several other design techniques. The site makes it easy for users to customize templates and save designs for later use.

Try your hand at applying the above principles to your next graphic design project, and let us know your thoughts, ideas, and tips for learning graphic design.

What design projects have you been working on lately?

  1. anonymous
    June 25, 2016 at 7:01 am

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  2. Abel
    April 10, 2016 at 10:20 am

    Hi Bakari, I am new to Graphic Design..going to start a beginners course in a weeks time..any tips? thans Abel

  3. Anand Rubens
    March 8, 2016 at 12:04 pm

    It's Definitely Good stuff here...

  4. Sriram Rajan
    August 16, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    Dear Chavanu , the principles which you had listed out is simple and good. Could you explain the concept of Proximity, as Would like to know more.

    Thanks

    • Bakari Chavanu
      September 1, 2015 at 5:31 pm

      Hi Sriram. Proximity is about grouping elements in the design that relate and complement one another. Groupings don't always have to be linear or horizontal. Look through examples of good design and notice how the elements are group together. It's a little difficult to explain, but that's the nutshell of it.

  5. mathew son
    April 14, 2015 at 8:23 am

    easily understood than all other articles i came across. Thank you.

    • Bakari Chavanu
      April 14, 2015 at 10:41 pm

      Awe, thanks for that compliment, Mathew. Writing these articles can often be a challenge, and so it's good to hear from readers who say that the information came across as intended. Thanks for being an MakeUseOf reader.

  6. Bakari Chavanu
    December 20, 2014 at 4:15 am

    Here you go, Rishabh: http://amzn.to/1AD5rFW. You can find it in Amazon.

  7. Rishabh Gupta
    December 20, 2014 at 3:17 am

    Would love to. Please share the link Bakari Chavanu

  8. Rishabh Gupta
    December 14, 2014 at 2:20 am

    Simple & basic yet most important keys for designing. And I strongly agree, these certainly go ignored in day to day design practices. Thanks for sharing, I would like to share these with my team mates as well :)

    • Bakari Chavanu
      December 18, 2014 at 9:42 pm

      You're welcome, Rishabh. Appreciate the feedback. Also check out Robin Williams' new update of The Non-Designer’s Design Book.

  9. wanjiru kiragu
    November 27, 2014 at 10:21 am

    informative and easily understandable

    • Bakari Chavanu
      December 2, 2014 at 6:58 pm

      Thanks, Wanjiru, for the feedback. Much appreciated.

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