5 Basic Principles of Graphic Design

by | Apr 5, 2023 | Branding, Design

A cohesive look across all media—both digital and print—is vital to creating a strong brand. Clearly defining expectations and then consistently meeting them builds trust and reliability with clients. In this post, I share 5 basic principles of graphic design to help you improve your DIY design projects.

1.  Typography

​Paula Scher, one of the most influential graphic designers in the world, says:  “Words have meaning. Type has spirit. The combination is spectacular.”

You start with choosing your words. To communicate the intended spirit or tone of your message, you use typography. Typography is defined as the art of arranging letters and text to achieve legibility, visual appeal, and emotional impact.

Every font emits an attitude or emotion. Choose the right ones and your message will have more impact. Choose the wrong ones and your audience will be confused.

You can use 1 font, but it’s quite common to use two: one for headings, titles, or as an accent, and another for the main body of text. Avoid using more than 3 fonts within one design as it can be overwhelming and confusing to the audience.

4.  Contrast

Dark versus light. Thick versus thin. Big versus small. Horizontal versus vertical. When we use elements that are opposites, we create contrast. Contrast helps direct the eyes as to what’s most important. What stands out the most?

Another example of contrast would be the large image and headline on the front page of a newspaper as compared to the multiple columns of small print text.

Remember the advertising campaign for the Apple iPod in 2003? Brightly coloured backgrounds with black silhouettes of individuals rocking out to tunes on their white iPods and earbuds. It’s iconic, and it used contrast to highlight the product.

2.  Alignment

Alignment is used to help create a sense of order and balance. Beginners typically understand that balance is important, so they click that center alignment button like it’s the Staples Easy Button.

Boom! Everything lines up vertically down the middle. The work is done.

Not so fast! Consider the viewer experience.

When you look at a poster, for example, your eyes will move in a Z-pattern across the graphic as a whole. You start at upper left corner, then over to upper right corner, down to lower left, then lower right. And when your eyes encounter multiple lines of text, they will move in a F-pattern as you read the text line by line. Aligning multiple lines of text to the left makes it much easier for you to read the message.

I focused on text here, but alignment does apply to all elements of a design.

3.  Repetition

Repetition is used within a design to connect individual elements together. One example would be the use of bullet points to group information. Another example would be repeating shapes. Take a deck of playing cards, for example. Look at any of the cards and you’ll notice that the icons are in both the top left and bottom right corners. So that any time you have the card in your hand, you can see what card you’re holding without flipping it around. That’s an example of repetition.

Repetition is also used across multiple design projects. Have you ever noticed that advertising pieces for successful companies all have the same look? From packaging, to billboards, to magazine spreads, to social media, everything has a familiarity. Like they all belong together.

Consistency across all forms of media instills a sense of stability and reliability in you or your business.

5.  Heirarchy

Elements in a design vary in importance. To get someone to read about the thing you’re promoting, you need to grab their attention. When it comes to grabbing attention, size does matter.

Larger text will be read first regardless of where it appears in a design. Your eyes will then move around to other text in the design based on size with the smallest text being read last.

The same happens with other elements. Think of any movie poster that features multiple cast members. The most prominent character(s) will usually be the largest in size, and they’ll be up in front. Other supporting characters will appear smaller in size.

Now that you’ve learned some of the basics…

You may feel a bit overwhelmed with all the possibilities and how to implement this newfound knowledge. One of the best ways to narrow things down and make the process easier is by using a brand style guide.

This document outlines everything about your brand. Your mission, vision, values, logo variations, colour palette, font selections, and more. All this information within one easy-to-reference resource that you can use in-house, as well as pass along to those who are providing you with marketing services.

And I have a FREE brand style guide template you can download and customize. Happy designing!