If you’re taking any of AP Art courses, like 2-D or 3-D studio art, you absolutely have to understand the core principles of design. That’s because the elements and principles of design are a foundational element of great art!
In this article, we’re going to teach you everything you need to know about the seven principles of design, including:
- An overview of the principles of design
- An introduction to key concepts
- An in-depth look at each of the principles one-by-one
- Three top tips for incorporating these principles into your own work
Let’s get started!
What Are the Principles of Design?
If you’ve ever played a sport, then you know that there are some fundamental rules that you have to follow if you want to be successful. For example, if you play soccer, then you know that one of the rules is that you have to kick the ball into the opposing team’s goal in order to score a point! While you don’t have to follow this rule—your team could just kick the ball to one another for 90 minutes—you’ll have a much better chance of winning if you do.
The principles of design are a lot like the rules of a sport. That’s because the principles of design are the rules and principles that artists and designers use to create visual compositions. Artists use these principles to make sure whatever they’re making accurately and effectively delivers their intended message to their audience.
2 Key Concepts: Visual Language and Design
In order to understand the principles of design, you first have to have a handle on two key concepts: visual language and design in general.
Visual language is the idea that we communicate through visual symbols. For example, take a look at the clothes you’re wearing. Do they have a logo on them, like the Nike “swoosh” or the Ralph Lauren “polo pony”? If they do, you’re participating in visual language!
Visual language is the way that designers and artists communicate messages and meaning through their work. They can use things like colors, lines, and shapes to make you feel or think a certain way. And since this is the ultimate goal of design, it’s important to understand how visual language works!
The second key concept is the definition of design itself. You probably hear the term thrown around a lot, whether it’s about the design of the newest Tesla car or the launch of a new designer clothing label.
But when it comes to principles of design, the term “design” has a very specific definition. In this case, design is the process of selecting and organizing elements or components in order to fulfill a specific purpose. This purpose may be functional, aesthetic, or both!
So when we talk about design in this article, we’re specifically talking about how design elements are used to support the artist’s ultimate goal, whether that’s marketing a product, telling a story, or creating the next great artistic masterpiece.
What Are the Principles of Design Used For?
Artists use the principles of design to make sure that the work they’re creating...well, works. For instance, let’s say a graphic designer is supposed to create a poster for a presidential candidate. It’s going to be really important for the designer to use the principles of design during their design process to ensure the finished poster is visually communicating the right message to potential voters.
The same holds true for fine art, too. Artists paint, sculpt, and create in order to communicate with their viewers. Let’s say an artist is worried about how much Americans consume on a daily basis. That may become the subject of their work, and they’ll pay close attention to how their finished piece speaks to viewers about issues of capitalism. (A good example of how opinions on topics like consumerism and capitalism can be expressed through fine art is the painting “Landscape,” by American painter Mark Tansey.)
On the flip side, these principles are also used to determine whether a piece of art is a success or failure. When a visual composition uses the principles of design well, it will succeed in fulfilling its purpose (whatever that purpose might be). But just because a work is successful doesn’t mean you have to like it. That’s because liking or disliking a visual piece involves your personal taste.
The difference between the principles of design and taste is important. As an artist, it's important to separate your work from taste. This is true for many commercial artists, where their clients’ tastes might not reflect their own. Even fine artists need to be able to do this so that they aren’t conforming their art to others’ tastes.
For a critic, the separation helps them make better judgements. While there’s no real objective way to critique art, the principles of design provide a kind of rubric for assessing whether a piece of art functions.
It might make more sense to think of this in terms of baking. Let’s say you’re judging a cookie baking contest, and when you go to taste one cookie, it’s actually a small, round pizza. The baker argues that you should consider it a cookie: it’s small, flat, round, and baked in an oven. But just because the pizza lines up with the qualifications of a cookie in some ways, it’s missing some other important criteria: it’s not sweet, it’s not cake-like, and it’s certainly not dessert. At the end of the day, a pizza just isn’t a cookie.
The seven principles of design work the same way. Critics can use them as a measuring stick for art. If the goal of art is to communicate a message, then the fundamentals of design give critics a way of checking whether an art piece does so effectively. For critics, the seven principles of design also help ensure they aren’t labeling works as “bad” just because they don’t suit their personal tastes, too.
The 7 Principles of Design: Explained
Now that you’re familiar with the ideas behind the principles of design, let's take a closer look at each of the seven principles. How an artist uses these elements is important to the overall quality and effectiveness of their work.
One quick note: if you Google the principles of design, you’ll find lists that feature five, six, or even eleven principles! That’s because there’s not 100 percent consensus on what the fundamental principles of design are. So to create our list, we picked the principles that appeared the most often across the widest variety of sources.
Ginevra de'Benci by Leonardo da Vinci
Principle 1: Contrast
Just like in literature, visual contrast happens when different elements of a piece are noticeably different from one another. When contrasting elements are juxtaposed, or place next to one another, it draws the viewer’s attention.
One of the common ways artists do this is by using contrasting colors close to one another. (These are colors that appear on opposite sides of the color wheel from one another.) But this can also be done through the size or types of objects, too.
Take a look at Leonardo da Vinci’s work, Ginevra de’ Benci, pictured above. Notice the contrast of the woman’s skin against the dark background of the trees. Da Vinci uses contrast to draw your eye to what he considers to be the most important part of the piece—the woman’s face.
Jurassic Park/Universal Pictures
Principle 2: Emphasis
Emphasis is important for helping viewers see the most important part of a visual design. Oftentimes, we don’t notice emphasis when it’s done well...but it definitely stands out when it’s done poorly! For example, think about the billboards you see when you drive down the highway. The best ones put the most important information in big, bold letters, or use a related image to capture your attention. But when the type is too small or the images are too cluttered, the advertisement doesn’t work as well.
The movie poster for Jurassic Park is a great example of emphasis. It puts the most important information front-and-center: from a glance, you know that title and opening date of the movie. But the prominent outline of a skeleton also gives you a pretty good idea of what the movie is going to be about. (Spoiler alert: it’s about dinosaurs!)
It’s important to note that emphasis is closely linked to other principles of design. For example, the Jurassic Park poster uses contrast and space to create emphasis. Other posters, like this one for Gravity, use movement, space, and contrast to do the same thing.
Principle 3: Pattern
Pattern happens when an object, image, or symbol is uniformly repeated throughout a visual composition. Anything can be turned into a pattern, though some classic examples include intersecting lines, shapes, and spirals.
Patterns can do many things for a design. It can set the tone for the piece, like if the background features a 70s mod pattern or a repeating image, like an animal. A pattern can also set the stage for other design elements, like contrast or emphasis. In the image above, you can see how the star pattern combines with contrast to reveal a patriotic star, which becomes the emphasis of the advertisement.
Principle 4: Repetition
In design, repetition is used to unify and strengthen a design. Unlike a pattern, where one thing is repeated consistently throughout a design, repetition is the repeated use of certain elements, like color, shape, or font.
When repetition is used correctly, it creates consistency in a design. As a brand, Target Stores are famous for their use of repetition. They use color repetition to help viewers immediately associate an advertisement with their store. A good example of this is the advertisement above, which uses the repetition of colors and shapes (the concentric circles of the Target logo) to reiterate their brand.
Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh
Principle 5: Movement
It can seem strange to talk about movement when some visual compositions are still images. But movement as a principle of design is about the movement of a viewer’s eye across a work. Good art leads the viewer from one important element to the next. If a viewer’s eye tends to get stuck in one place, it’s a sign that some of the principles of design aren’t working quite right!
Using movement as a part of your design process has an added benefit: it helps viewers feel connected to what they’re seeing. Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh is an excellent example of movement in action.
In this painting, the swirls of color in the sky carry the viewer’s gaze from left to right, which makes you feel like you’re experiencing the night breeze. But on a mechanical level, Van Gogh’s brush strokes create movement, too. The sweeping lines on the mountains, for example, help[ bring your eye to the village, and following the vertical lines on the plant in the foreground return your gaze back to the sky.
Steve Jobs Tribute by Jonathan Mak
Principle 6: Space
In design, space refers to the area around different visual elements. There are two types of space: positive space and negative space.
Positive space is the area that the subject of the composition occupies. If you go back to da Vinci’s portrait above, you’ll see that the woman occupies a lot of the portrait’s positive space. As a designer, you use positive space to display the most important elements of your design.
On the other hand, negative space—which is sometimes called “white space”—is the space around objects! If you look back at the Jurassic Park poster, all of the black surrounding the central image and the other copy is a textbook example of negative space. Negative space can be tricky for designers since it seems empty, but it’s actually helping to create emphasis. It helps viewers quickly discern what’s important while also giving a design “room to breathe.”
Positive and negative space work together to create emphasis and visual appeal. Check out the piece above by graphic designer Jonathan Mak, which he made as a memorial to Steve Jobs after his death. He plays with the negative space of the Apple logo, turning the normal bite mark into the profile of the company’s late founder.
Principle 7: Balance
Now it’s time to talk about the last (but perhaps most important) principle of design: balance.
Every element in a visual composition carries weight. The more an element is emphasized, the heavier it is. A designer’s goal is to balance the weight of each object on the canvas in order to create a feeling of balance for the viewer.
There are two ways to do this: through symmetrical balance and through asymmetrical balance. Symmetrical balance adds objects to both sides of the center of a work to create symmetry. You can think of this as balancing a set of old-timey scales. You have to add the same amount of weight to each side to keep them level!
Asymmetrical balance happens when objects and elements aren’t spread evenly across the composition, but how they’re placed creates a sense of balance anyway. Oftentimes, asymmetrical balance helps create a sense of movement and draws your eye from one element to another.
In the photo above, you can see asymmetrical balance at work. The hand and donut are in the bottom of the image, and there’s no identical image at the top! The balance here comes from the amount of negative space in the photo. By limiting the emphasized image to a small part of the picture, the photo maintains its balance.
The 3 Best Tips for Using the Principles of Design
So how can you use the principles of design in your own work? Here are our three top tips for using principles of design to take your art to the next level.
Tip 1: Embrace Negative Space
Like we mentioned earlier, it’s tempting to fill up every corner of a composition with something. After all, we often think of space as “wasted,” right? But remember: negative space is incredibly important to helping the more important elements of a work shine.
A good way to do this is to follow the advice of Coco Chanel, the famous French fashion designer, who famously said: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” Take a step back and look at your composition. Is there something you can take off, shrink, or move that will help create more balance and space in your work?
Tip 2: Rethink the Axis of Symmetrical Balance
When it comes to symmetrical balance, we sometimes think about it like a Rorschach test where the balance of an image is either left/right or top/bottom. But in fact, the axis of balance for a visual composition can bisect the image at any angle.
Take a look at the picture above. The line of symmetry is on a diagonal from bottom right to top left. The image is still balanced, but the axis is tilted, which gives the image a lot more visual interest. It also comes across as more modern, too!
Tip 3: Take a Step Back
When you’re working on a composition, you’re normally pretty up close and personal with it. But that can sometimes skew your perspective of the piece as a whole.
That’s why one of the best ways to see if a composition works is to view it from a distance. (This is especially true if your composition is meant to be viewed from a distance, like with a large painting or advertisement.) Backing away from the screen or canvas will blur the elements together and help you get a better sense of whether the contrast, movement, and balance of a piece communicates your message.
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.