The Only Graphic Design Principles You’ll Need

You need to understand graphic design principles in order to succeed as a graphic designer. Becoming a designer is not only about learning to use Photoshop or Illustrator.

Graphic design principles apply to anything you create, from logos to newsletters to websites and videogames.  

In this complete guide, I explain the 7 most important design principles and describe how to apply them in the real world. 

Then I show you real examples of how designers have applied each principle.  

Ready? Let’s begin. 

Graphic Design Principles: A Useful Definition 

Our objective as graphic designers is to represent objects, feelings, ideas, or concepts in visual terms.  

Design principles allow us to make effective graphic representations by giving us a framework for arranging the visual components of our compositions. 

Here’s a definition for graphic design principles:

Graphic design principles are a set of guiding “rules” about what works and what doesn’t work in a design or composition.  

Design principles serve as a map for arranging visual elements in the best possible way, according to specific intentions, strategies, and objectives.  

In other words, design principles are proven guidelines that humans have put together through trial and error in their quest for understanding how to represent the world.  

But remember this: 

Each design principle works in relation to other design principles. They never exist in isolation.  In fact, each principle piggybacks on each other, creating a symbiotic relationship. 

The Problem: Design Textbooks List a Ton of Principles 

In 2013, Professor Miles Kimball examined a huge amount of graphic design textbooks and found that, together, they list hundreds of different design principles.  He then asked designers which principles they taught or used the most.  

He then correlated this information and discovered the most common principles taught in graphic design. 

Why is this important?  Well:

While there are many graphic design principles out there, you only need a handful to achieve a good level of design.  

You can focus on the design principles that matter the most as you learn to think and create like a designer.  

The more you practice and the more you apply these principles, the better you get as a graphic designer.  

The 6 Most Important Graphic Design Principles You’ll Need 

After years of reading design books and teaching graphic design, I have found the following design principles to be the most useful:

1. Unity 

The unity principle has to do with the relationship between the elements of a composition. Through relationships, we are able to communicate status, mood, structure, kinship, hierarchy, etc.   

The unity of a design establishes the purpose of its components and the cohesion of the composition.  

Unity manifests itself in terms of proximity, similarity, and repetition:

1.1. Proximity 

Proximity as a manifestation of unity relates to the distance between the elements in a composition.  

This is the rule:

The closer the elements in a composition are, the stronger the relationship is between them.  

Let’s look at some examples: 

Each of the following images has the same amount of dots.  

However, the variations in proximity in each creates different relationships not only between its respective elements but between each set:

This is an example of the proximity principle in design.

The proximity or closeness in the first set communicates a stronger relationship or kinship between its circles, while the distance between circles in the last set communicates a weaker relationship.  

In the last set, the proximity between the six dots to the left and to the right communicate that each subset belongs to a different “camp.”  

This is evident in the following example:

The proximity principle establishes unity in graphic design.

Again, the closer the elements are, the more of a relationship they present.

1.2. Similarity 

Similarity establishes a relationship among elements of the same appearance.  

This is the rule:

The more elements look alike, the stronger the relationship between them.  

Similarity can be established through:

  • Size
  • Color
  • Form
  • Position 
  • Texture 

In the next examples, how are elements united? 

Similarity unites elements by color, shape, size, and form.

Can you see how similarity achieves unity? 

Shape, size, and color establish relationships of kinship between certain elements. 

Also, did you notice that similarity is not the only unity principle at work?

Exactly!

Similarity is working hand-in-hand with proximity.  This is what I mean when I say design principles never work in isolation.  

1.3. Repetition and Rhythm 

Repetition can work in the same way as similarity, but may be more dramatic.  

This is the rule:

The more elements are repeated, the stronger we associate them with a certain idea or effect. 

Also, the more we repeat an element, the more rhythm a composition has.  

Look at the following examples:

The repetition principle creates rhythm in design.

Notice how the repetition of elements and shapes in each example creates an effect of rhythm that results in visual unity.  

Also, notice how the variation in repetition (size of elements and position) in the second and third examples results in a more dramatic, less boring composition.  

This is called variation.  

Unity in Graphic Design: Real-World Examples 

The work of Piet Mondrian and Chuck Close present excellent examples of unity as a principle of design:

The work of Piet Mondrian exemplifies the use of unity in design.

In Mondrian’s painting, notice how shapes, color, and size, and their repetition, creates a unified composition that is rhythmic and interesting. 

In Close’s self-portrait, we see a more complex application of unity as design principle: 

This self-portrait by Chuck Close exemplifies the use of the graphic design principle of repetition.

Each tile is a repeated element that is strategically positioned, making use of color and size to form the face we recognize as Chuck Close.  

In sum:

The strategic unity of elements creates the portrait in a rhythmic, complex way.  

2. Totality (Gestalt)

The German term Gestalt refers to the “totality” or “wholeness” of a design.  

Gestalt comes from the field of psychology, and attempts to understand how humans perceive meaning in the world.  

I will use the term “totality” to refer to this human capacity to perceive things as a whole.  

When you encounter a chair, do you perceive its parts separately (the legs, the cushion, the wood) or do you perceive the totality of the chair?  

We perceive the whole thing all at once, right?  

So, “totality” (in the sense of Gestalt) is our ability to create some kind of visual “closure” about the things we perceive in the world.  

Totality in design is our ability to create structural wholeness in a composition.  

There are three important components of totality: 

  • Figure/Ground
  • Closure 
  • Continuity 

2.1. Figure / Ground 

Figure/Ground in design relates to the interplay between an object and its surrounding space.  

What does this mean? 

It means that graphics can only be formed by white space and the actual object in a piece of paper or computer screen.  

This is what designers usually call “negative” and “positive” space.  

The play between these two elements, space and object, can lead to complex designs that can communicate at various levels.  

Have you seen this image before? 

Classic example of the figure ground principle: A chalice or two faces facing each other?

What do you see?  

If you see some kind of chalice or coupe, you’re right.  If you see two faces, you’re right as well!

This is the thing:

The play between space and object, or negative and positive space, create the graphic representation. 

Here’s another example of figure/ground: 

This is an example of how the figure/ground principle works: what writes the letter "e," positive or negative space?

What “writes” the letter “e”? Is it the stroke or is it the space? 

Figure/Ground in Graphic Design: Real-World Examples 

Many great logos use the principle of Totality (Gestalt) to create memorability and distinction. 

Look at these examples using Figure/Ground

The FedEx, Baskin Robins, and Girl Scouts logos use the graphic design principle of figure/ground very effectively.
Can you see the images hidden within positive and negative space?

2.2. Closure 

Closure in design relates to our ability to “fill out” the blank spaces. 

Have you seen this meme before? 

You can read the scrambled letters because of the closure principle.

Why were you able to read it? 

It’s because of our ability to “complete” what’s missing if we have enough background information.  

If we have enough visual information, we are able to imagine what’s missing and process designs in complex ways.  

If we make designs using the closure principle, we create compositions that are interesting, complex, and eye-catching.  

Look at the next example:

Notice how you can "see" a border line where there isn't one. This is closure at work.

Here, there are no boundary lines defining the letter “X”, and yet your mind “creates” the line for you, which allows you to decipher the content of the design.  

Closure in Graphic Design: Real-World Examples 

The following logos use the closure principle nicely.

Notice how your brain “creates” the missing border for each icon even if it’s not there. This creates interest and a level sophistication:

The Norelco, TNT, and Adobe logos use the closure graphic design principle very nicely.

2.3. Continuation (Continuity) 

Continuation (also called continuity) in design is the idea that the elements of a design can create the illusion of going beyond the space that contains them (for example, the page, t-shirt, or screen in which it is shown). 

By using the continuation principle, design elements seem to go off the page, which makes the design seem larger and highly dynamic.  

Look at the following example:

These arrow exemplify the movement produced by the continuation principle.

The arrows convey a sense of looking beyond the page, which reflects the continuation of the composition  

Continuation Principle: Real-World Examples

This work, by Oli Stelander, is an excellent example of the continuation principle.

This 1961 design, by Oli Stelander, is an excellent application of continuation.  

See how the “pipes” go beyond the composition in order to convey a feeling of flow, length, and extension?   

Also: 

Can you see repetition and rhythm working their magic? 

Here’s another example: 

This composition by Piet Zwart uses the continuity principle to convey a sense of direction.

This classic composition, by Piet Zwart, uses the continuity principle to convey a sense of direction that goes well beyond the composition.  

3. Space

Common sense tells you that space is empty, right? 

Wrong!

Space is one of the most powerful elements of design.  

Just like zero is not nothing but something (a number), space is the all-encompassing fabric that holds all the elements that make-up a design.  

Space is a design principle because you can manipulate it to create a sense of cleanliness, clarity, focus, and attention in a composition.  

Space is a “presence” in design, it is never “absent.” 

This is the rule:

We can use space to enhance the quality, sharpness, and focus on the elements of a composition.  The strategic use of space implies the use of “white” space as a force and presence in a composition.  

Space Principle: Real-World Examples

Look at this clever 1959 ad from Volkswagen: 

The 1959 "Think Small" as uses the principle of space effectively.

Here, space is used as the main component of the ad.  

Even if the ad is selling a car, space is “bigger” than the car, because it accentuates the message being communicated.  It creates focus on the car and projects a sense of “cleanliness” and “craftsmanship.”  

Here’s another example from a 1974 cover of Print magazine: 

This 1974 cover of Print magazine uses the space principle to create drama.

Space here works to highlight the drama of the blood and the “motion” of the blade that just created this mess.  

Bonus insight:

The space principle closely relates to the figure/ground principle, because the interplay between positive and negative space is a strategic use of space as principle.  

4. Dominance

Dominance in design is the ability of one element to control other elements in a composition. This results in creating a focal point in the composition, which “directs” the “eye” of the viewer.  

This is the rule: 

Use the dominance principle when you want to convey a sense of urgency, direction, drama, or emphasis.  

Dominance Principle: Real-World Examples

Look at these examples: 

The graphic design principle of dominance produces emphasis and interest.

By having one element dominate over the others, we can create interesting compositions that create emphasis or drama.  

Without dominance, these designs would be dull and uninteresting.  

5. Hierarchy 

Hierarchy has a close connection to dominance. 

However, while dominance refers to the structuring of design elements (such as icons, shapes, and images), hierarchy refers to the structuring of information.   

Look at the following examples. Which one is more readable?

Hierarchy as a principle of graphic design allows to organize information effectively.

The example to the left has images, color boxes. and headings to structure information and make it more readable.

Here’s the rule: 

Use the hierarchy principle to direct the viewer’s attention and establish the logical order in which he or she must “read” the information in a design.  

Use the hierarchy principle to give levels of importance to the elements of a composition.  

Note that you may use color, size, or form to establish hierarchy.  

Also, you establish a hierarchy of elements to direct the viewer’s attention toward the order in which he or she should “read” the design.  

6. Balance 

Balance is the design principle that binds all other principles up. The goal of a finished composition is to achieve balance. 

That is: 

Balance in design is a state in which all visual elements are arranged in complete harmony, each one serving its precise purpose in the composition. 

Now, balance doesn’t necessarily mean that all elements are perfectly centralized and organized. It means that the relationship among all visual elements has been carefully planned and works. 

Having said this, balance can be symmetrical or asymmetrical. 

An example of balance in graphic design.

With symmetrical balance, all the elements of the composition are placed equally on the page. They are arranged within an imaginary grid (rows and columns) that distributes them equally in relation to one another. 

Symmetrical balance is the easiest to recognize. 

With asymmetrical balance, visual elements are not distributed equally. 

However, they are distributed in a way that their asymmetry creates what Alex White calls “equalized tension”

Balance Principle: Real-World Examples

The following examples best describe balance: 

Symmetrical and asymmetrical balance in magazine layouts.

Conclusion 

Understating and applying the fundamental principles of design is crucial for achieving effective visual communication. If you are an aspiring graphic designer, you must spend time studying these principles.  

Without design principles, we will most likely create work that is uninteresting, unappealing and, worse, unable to communicate effectively.  

You must learn to see these principles in action all around you. With practice and experience, you will be able to see these principles in action everywhere you look. 

These are the main points to remember:

  • Design principles are time-proven observations about how the world is visually arranged all around us.  
  • Graphic design principles do not work in isolation. Each principle complements the other. 
  • Design principles serve as a blueprint for arranging visual elements in strategic, effective ways.  

In sum: 

Learn how to apply these graphic design principles and you will be on your way to becoming an effective graphic designer. 

Advantages of Vector Graphics

Vector graphics are widely used for creating digital graphics today.

This is because of the many advantages of vector graphics over other image editing processes, such as pixel graphics.

Here are the most important advantages of vector graphics:

  1. They have “infinite” resolution
  2. They are scalable
  3. They are lightweight (small file size)
  4. They are intuitively created
  5. They are easily manipulated
  6. They are easily reusable
  7. They are multipurpose
  8. They can produce very realistic results
  9. They can be animated
  10. They can be edited with code
  11. They can be interactive

In this post, I cover 11 important advantages of vector graphics in detail. Also, I briefly explain how they work and some of their most important uses.

#BONUS: I discuss when to use raster (pixel) graphics software, such as Photoshop or Gimp, instead of vector graphics.

How Vector Graphics Work

Graphic designers continually work with vector images as part of their daily routine.

So, you naturally ask yourself:

What are vector graphics?

An example of a vector graphics drawing

Vector graphics are made up by points (or coordinates) on a screen that are connected through lines and curves called paths. Vector graphics are widely used for creating logos, line art, 3D-like renderings, and animations, among other examples.  

First, a little history:

In the early 1960s, Ivan Sutherland pioneered one of the very first computer programs for generating graphics on a screen.

He used his software Sketchpad for drawing lines on a screen. This program was a precursor of CAD (Computer Assisted Design) software and vector graphics in general.  

However:

The mathematical grounds for vector graphics date back to at least the 1800s with Euclidean vectors, which are able to describe two points on a plane by determining their location and direction.

Why does this matter?

Well, vector graphics are basically coordinates on a plane.  

If we know the position of at least two points on a plane, we are able to draw a line between those two points.  

Remember those connect-the-dots drawings from our childhood?

Vector graphics work like connect-the-dots drawings
Vector graphics work like connect-the-dots drawings

This, in a nutshell, is how vector software renders drawings.

Now, let’s look at their advantages.

Advantages of Vector Graphics

Vector graphics have a very specific set of advantages that make them unique and powerful.

Let’s look at each one more closely:

1. Vector Graphics Have Infinite Resolution

We say vector graphics have “infinite” resolution because they never lose their quality, even if you zoom in on them indefinitely.

This means that they are “resolution independent,” unlike pixel (raster) graphics, which depend heavily on the resolution of an image.

Vector graphics have infinite resolution
An advantage of vector graphics is that they have “infinite”resolution.

Because vector graphics do not depend on pixels but on coordinates on a plane, we can enlarge a line, curve, or shape to whatever size we want and always see their exact form and features.

Because the software always knows where the points are on the screen, it always knows the line that connects them.

In other words, it knows the position and direction between two points.  

If we were to zoom in on a line at 3,000%, we would see a black screen indefinitely (unless our screen is the size of a buildings).

2. Vector Graphics are Scalable

Scalability is “the capacity to be changed in size or scale.”

With vector graphics, scalability means three main things:

  • You can view objects in any size you wish
  • Objects can be easily scaled down or up
  • You can export vector graphics at any size you want without compromising quality

First, this means that you can grab an object and quickly zoom in on a tiny detail and examine all its features and quickly return to a more manageable size. With vectors, you can zoom in and out effortlessly.

Second, vector software allow you to grab an object (a circle, square, or star, for instance) and simply scale it down to microscopic or huge proportions in a heartbeat.

Vector graphics are scalable
Vector graphics are scalable.

Finally, you can export any vector object to any dimension you want without quality loss. This means no unwanted pixelation or blurring and, more importantly, not multiplying the size of the file.

3. Vector Graphics Are Lightweight (Small File Size)

Vector files have less information in the them than, for example, pixel files (such as a picture taken by a phone or digital camera).  

They only contain in them a bunch of coordinates instead of more complex information, like the thousands, or even millions, of pixels in a digital photo.  

This comes as an advantage of vector files, since they can have very compressed drawings in them that require less information to produce.  

What does this mean?

You can have a very complex vector drawing, with many shapes, text, colors, and gradients, and still have a very lightweight file.

Moreover, you could increase the dimensions of the object and still have a light file.

The same drawing in pixel format would require much more information and, therefore, would create a heavy file (in terms of resolution).

4. Vector Graphics Are Intuitively Created

You can create vector graphics in ways similar to the way you draw on paper. This is so because the building blocks or vector graphics are lines.

Vector editing software allows you to easily create shapes such as squares, rectangles, circles, and stars with gestures that resemble drawing on paper.

Vector graphics are created just like drawing
Vector graphics resemble drawing

Also, you can draw lines to create anything you want, just like drawing. You can join lines to draw simple shapes or even complex, realistic illustrations.

5. Vector Graphics Are Easily Manipulated

In addition to creating objects intuitively, You can manipulate vector graphics easily and precisely.  

For example, you can create a square, pick it up, and move it around the canvas (the computer screen). You can now take that square and scale, rotate, skew, or invert it.

You can create a line (called stroke) with two points (called nodes) and easily add other nodes to it.

You can also create curves or arches along the way by moving and editing the nodes (these are called Bézier curves).  

Vector graphics can be easily manipulated
Vector graphics can be easily manipulated.

You can also easily add color to the objects you create, even gradients.  

6. Vector Graphics Are Easily Reusable

With vector graphics, you can easily create an object, duplicate it, and put it anywhere else on the canvas.

Also, you can grab an object and duplicate it exponentially, quickly and easily creating numerous copies of an object.

You can even create clones of an object that change according to the transformations of the original.

Finally, you can copy any element of a drawing and composition and export or copy it to another vector composition effortlessly.

7. Vector Graphics Are Multipurpose

One cool thing about vector graphics is their versatility.  

Modern vector graphics programs, such as Inkscape or Illustrator, can do so much more than lines on a screen.

Here’s a few of the things you can do with vector programs:

  • Draw shapes, such as rectangles, circles, stars, polygons, and spirals.  
  • Create and manipulate text by changing their shape, scale, tilt, and so on.
  • Make certain transformations to pixel images, such as clipping them into shapes or adding filters to them.
  • Create color gradients and adding them to drawings.
  • Adding a great deal of filters to drawings, such as textures and other effects.
  • Applying extensions (mini-programs) that let you transform drawings even further.

So here’s a really cool advantage:

You can also perform pixel operations on vector objects, such as add gradients, pixelation, blur, and a wide-ranging list of filters.

But:

You can also perform some editing on pixel images, such as basic cropping, blurring, or masking, and even some retouching.

So, in the end, vector editing software allow you to create and manipulate not only vectors, but also text and even pixel images.

8. Vector Graphics Look Realistic and Precise

Vector graphics can produce drawings that look very realistic and precise.

Realistic car illustration using Inkscape.
You can draw realistic illustrations in Inkscape.

For example, you can produce scientific illustrations, technical drawings, blueprints, maps, charts, and data graphs.

This is possible because vector software allow you to manipulate an object to the last millimeter.

You can move it precisely, through coordinates, along vertical and horizontal axes, and bend it to mathematical precision.

But here’s the catch:

In my experience, you can achieve this realistic look only with inanimate objects (although animals can look pretty realistic too).  

You can definitely draw amazing people with a vector program.  However, they will always look more like a drawing than a photograph.  

Pixel, or raster graphics, are better suited for dealing with actual images of real people and natural things.

9. Vector Graphics Can Be Animated

You can use vector graphics software to make basic, frame-by-frame animations.

This is a cool feature, since you you can create drawings easily with vector software.

You can animate vector objects by moving them, transforming them, changing their color, bending their strokes, and so on.

You can create a frame for each transformation. Then, you can combine the frames into a GIF, for example.

You can find many vector formats that allow animation, such as SVG or Flash, throughout the web.

10. Vector Graphics Can Be Edited With Code

Most vector formats are text-based, readable by both humans and computers.

What does that mean?

It means that a vector drawing can be written (programmed) as a file.

For example, a vector format such as SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics), is based on XML, which stands for eXtensible Markup Language.

XML and HTML are very similar in that both are designed to be self-descriptive and human readable.

In this sense, you can easily learn and write in a vector format such as SVG . Not only that, but software such as Inkscape allow you to even edit vector drawings not only on the canvas, but on its source code as well.

11. Vector Graphics Can Be Interactive

Document Object Model (DOM) is a programming API for HTML and XML documents. In a nutshell, this allows you to make SVG objects interactive on the web.

With vector formats such as SVG, you can use this interactivity for responsive web page design or to signal certain events on a web page.

These vector objects may be animated or made responsive to user actions, with objects changing their properties with user interaction.

Example of interactive vector graphics
One cool advantage of vector graphics is that they can be interactive.

This makes posible the creation of complex, yet crisp and fast, interfaces with buttons, links, and drag-and-drop, for example.

Uses of Vector Graphics

Vector graphics are extremely useful for graphic design. Also, they are extremely common and versatile.

In fact:

The aesthetics of vector graphics have come to dominate the look and feel of everything on the web.

They offer a minimalist, clean look with expressive, colorful illustrations and clean, geometric icons.

Vector design examples
Vector graphics strongly influence current design trends

These are some of the things you can do with vector graphics:

  • Digital illustrations, from simple to very complex and realistic
  • Icons for apps or web applications
  • Mockups for apps or websites
  • Logo and logotype making
  • Printables, such as flyers or posters
  • 3D-looking objects or renderings
  • Video-game characters, imagery, and assets
  • Images that look modern, clean, and minimalist
  • You can upload pixel images to vector software to add text, filters, and drawings
  • Website assets, such as buttons, banners, flags, and calls to action
  • Text
  • Grid-based technical drawings
  • Descriptive statistics (data graphs)

And so much more.

Vector graphics’ versatility make vector graphics an excellent option for design and a superb starting point for learning graphic design on your own.

When To Use Raster (Pixel) Graphics?

Vector graphics, of course, are not the only way for creating computer graphics, and that’s because their uses and applications have limitations.  

In general, you can’t use vector graphics to transform pixel images (such as pictures you take with a digital camera or smartphone) in fundamental ways.

If you want to edit a red eye, hair color, or change the background of a pixel image, you need a raster program such as Gimp (which is free and open source) or something like Adobe Photoshop.  

difference between vector and raster
Vector and pixel (raster) graphics use different approaches to rendering objects

The bottom line:  

If your projects primarily deal with images of natural things, then you will not get great results from vector graphics.  

Here’s a list of tasks better done with raster editing software:

  • Editing preexisting pixel files, such as a picture taken by a digital camera
  • Color corrections and retouching
  • Removal of red-eyes
  • Drawings that emulate natural media, such as watercolor or oil-painting
  • Rendering of complex natural textures, such as hair, grass, or fibers
  • “Painting” any portion or selection of a pixel image
  • Changing the illumination or lighting of an image

Retouching the picture of a model or modifying the illumination of a portrait are some of the operations that require a pixel graphics program.

For example, if you’re working with a fashion magazine, a photojournalism blog, or some types of advertising, then you will need to use a great deal of pixel programs.  

Conclusion: Vector Graphics are Excellent for Learning Graphic Design

In this post, I showed you the features, uses, and advantages of vector graphics in design.  

This is the bottom line for vector graphics:

  • They are historically one of the first methods for generating computer graphics.  
  • They have very important features, such as resolution, file-size, and multi-purpose capabilities, that make them ideal for many applications, including some raster operations.
  • They are frequently used today for creating a clean, minimalist feel and have heavily influenced current design trends, especially in all things digital.
  • They allow you to create drawings and illustrations from scratch, with very realistic results.
  • They are an excellent tool for learning graphic design because they allow you to gain confidence and experience with shapes, geometry, color, text, layout , and even raster operations.  

There you have it! start experimenting with vector graphics right now.  

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