The Principles of Design: What are they, and why do they matter?

deep necessity

If you’ve been around any sort of creative industry or practice, you’ve probably heard about the “Principles of Design” and their importance to every piece of art.

For some, these principles are hard rules to be followed to a tee (though this is a highly ethnocentric stance) while others, like experts at the Getty Museum, believe that the principles of design are the core descriptors for art rather than rules for creation. 

Whatever the case, if the Principles of Design are new to you, then this post is a great place to start! The goal here is not to persuade you of how the principles should be viewed and used, only the surface definitions of “what are they?” I’d love to hear in the comments how you perceive or use the principles of design in your work. 

Whether you’re a lifelong studio artist or a hobbyist creative, finding some consistent information on the Principles of Design can be overwhelming. Everyone and their paintbrush seems to have written a post or webpage talking about the way they see the Principles, and everyone’s got something different to say. Well lucky for you, I’ve compiled a condensed list that every creative can use as a solid, at-a-glance resource. 

To begin, how many principles are there? 5? 6? Maybe 8 or 10? Or even 12? 

What and how many of the Principles there are is a highly debated topic, largely because of the many different ways that we can describe different works of art. For this post, we’re going to focus on the 12 that come up most frequently across different blogs and art history sources (plus a bonus 12.5th courtesy of my painting professor and friend Paul Flippen from Colorado State University). 

To keep things nice and easy for reference, as well as to avoid any notions of ranking, the principles are arranged in alphabetical order.

Balance: The distribution of visual weight of objects, colors, texture, and space. (Getty)

The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo, 1512

Every “thing” ever made by human hands carries with it a very unique visual weight. Two pieces of paper stapled together aren’t necessarily the most noticeable or aesthetic things in the world, especially when blank. Think though, what happens when the pieces of paper are colored? They catch your eye much faster than plain white. 

Taking it a step further, what happens if the pieces of bright yellow paper are covered in tons of tiny text, top to bottom? Or instead, one giant bold word? Paper like that is gonna stand out amongst the stack for sure, because it carries more visual weight than the plain white paper around it. The way the artist plays with the visual weight of the different parts of a piece  creates balance (or purposeful imbalance). 

Contrast refers to how the artist differentiates two (often adjacent) elements from one another. 

The Calling of Saint Matthew, Caravaggio, 1600

If you’ve ever messed around with image editors, you’re probably familiar with contrast in the creative world as meaning “How bright are your brights and how dark are your darks?”. This isn’t the whole story. Contrast is used in combination with each of the other principles of design, including how to Balance visual weight by adjusting an element’s color, Proportion, Repetition, or  Movement

A good way to think about contrast is to consider how you make two objects the antitheses of one another. Is one blue like sky and red like lava? Or perhaps they’re the same color, but one is sharp and one is soft and rounded? 

Emphasis deals with the different methods for focusing the viewer’s attention to different elements of a piece. 

Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh, June 1889

I’ve got a challenge for you. Pull up an image of Van Gogh’s Starry Night and try NOT looking at the stars or the night. Pretty hard right? That’s because they’re emphasized in such a way that they become the focal point rather than say the tree or the town. Using other Principles of Design, like Proportion and Contrast (a great example of this are what I like to call the “POW” fonts in comic books), we’re able to give certain elements of a piece more sway, be it visual, emotional, conceptual, etc. 

Hierarchy: In the simplest terms, the most important elements of a piece should be perceived as the most important.

Writing board stela of Mentuhotep, ca. 2030–1652 B.C.

If you take a picture of the queen, it’s obvious why you took the picture. Everybody knows the queen. But, say your picture is of the queen in her plane 5 miles up in the sky. The picture starts to become much more about the plane than the fact that the queen is in it, especially if you’re the only one that knows she’s in there!

Another way to learn about hierarchy is through old Egyptian carvings or paintings. As they had yet to master perspective, one of their primary methods for displaying hierarchical power was by making divine beings physically larger in comparison to normal people. Scale is a great way to play with hierarchy, as is color contrast.

In my experience, hierarchy is especially tricky for new artists. In my case, I felt a need to make everything equally detailed, but doing that made my pieces super busy! Once I started toning back the less integral parts I found my pieces became more interesting and much more focused.

Movement: The way in which focal points of a piece guide the viewer’s eye through it, be it through line, shape, color, etc. 

All art uses our constant movement as humans to its advantage, regardless of the medium. A framed painting may not physically move like kinetic sculpture, but looking back to the Starry Night example this becomes very clear.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some art purposefully searches for absolute stillness, which greatly Contrasts our normally movement-driven lives. A fun exercise that I thought of while writing this (and am going to try later) is to create a set of pieces, one active and one still, to see how certain concepts are affected by stillness or movement. 

Pattern is the repeating of a given element throughout a piece. 

Daydream, Alphonse Mucha, 1897

People often hear the word “pattern” and think of a specific, rigidly repeating element like stripes, honeycomb, or brick. Well, I can tell you with dead certainty that my brick fireplace, while certainly rigid and patterned, is not rigidly patterned. Every brick is different, some are placed slightly higher or lower, or with a little bigger gap to one side than the other. 

Pattern is more about consistent and regular repetition than perfect tessellation. A great example of this is paisley. It’s certainly a pattern, but it rarely ever perfectly repeats itself across one piece of cloth.

Proportion and Scale describe the way size is used in a piece to give certain elements greater importance. In effect, a form of visual Emphasis

We’ve all heard the term “to scale” at least once in our life. Usually when something is “to scale”, it means that something like a model has been created that is as big as the original. More often than not though models aren’t to scale, because fitting a space shuttle into your bedroom is just a little difficult. 

When artists play with scale, they’re able to give greater Emphasis to certain elements of their piece. For instance, a blown-up print of a sunflower has much more visual draw than a “to scale” print of one. Alternatively, a painting of the solar system where Earth is no bigger than a pea brings into question our place in the universe. A wall-sized painting of earth from the moon displays the majesty of our little blue planet.

Repetition: A form of Emphasis where elements of a piece are given importance by being featured multiple times. 

Bridge Over a Pond of Water Lilies, Claude Monet, 1899

I’ve been part of the Jazz community for almost a decade now, and one of my favorite pieces of advice I’ve gleaned is “repetition legitimizes” (I picked it up from Youtuber and bassist Adam Neely). In terms of soloing over chord changes, the idea is that playing a lick once is good, but playing it any more times past that (with variation or not) makes it clear that this lick is very important. 

The same is true for elements in visual art. Monet’s Lily Pond paintings wouldn’t have the same effect on the viewer if there was only one lily near the bank. Their presence as the focal point of the painting is legitimized because of their repetition. Now, all this said, repetition is only one form of emphasis. Certain elements in a piece might be given greater importance through the use of Proportion and Scale or Movement. 

Rhythm: The feeling created when artists use Pattern and Repetition in conjunction.

principles of design rhythm spiral necklace
Spiral Necklace, Art Smith, 1958

Polka dots. Debatably attractive on clothing, but undeniably a pattern. When you look at polka dots, it feels a little all over the place, the only thing consistent about it being that it’s all circles. But if you arrange all those dots into stripes, you’re left with something more consistent, more Rhythmic.  Depending on what kind of polka dots you started with too, your resulting rhythm might come out to something like “dot dot dot dot dot dot dot” or maybe “dot Dot DOT dOt dot doT Dot”. 

Unity or Harmony: The feeling of completeness created by the interconnectivity of each element within a piece. 

Sometimes throwing everything you’ve got at a canvas just isn’t the way to go. When you look at a piece of art and think “it’s a bit much”, it’s probably because the parts don’t feel harmonious. Sometimes “all the parts” is within the piece, and sometimes it’s outside the piece. To use a previous example, a Monet is happily welcome on a plain white wall, but doesn’t look as at home on a pink and yellow plaid wall. 

Something to consider when questioning “does this piece feel unified” is how you’re going to display your work, because the display can be just as if not even more important than the work itself. In my case as a jeweler, the human body is equally the display and the canvas.

Variety: the use of several (principles) of design to hold the viewer’s attention and to guide the viewer’s eye through and around the work of art. (Getty)

principles of design variety
Necklace of Spondylus Shell, Tomb of the “Lord of Sipan”

Variety is the spice of life, right? Well it’s definitely the spice of art as far as I’m concerned. As a jeweler, I’m always looking at the details, the little things that get overlooked at a glance. To me, the sign of a great artist or craftsperson is when even the smallest aspects have been paid clear attention to. Is every nook and cranny polished (or very purposefully not)? Variety doesn’t have to be so present that it’s immediately noticeable. Sometimes the little variations, like the differences between leaves on the same tree, are exactly what a piece needs. 

Negative Space: The area(s) of a piece that contain no design elements. 

principles of design negative space
This is Not a Pipe, René Magritte, 1929

Variety is a necessity to art, but sometimes what varies is not how something looks but whether or not it’s there at all. A great way to draw attention to certain elements in a piece is to have them be totally on their own, with no potentially distracting scenery or patterned backgrounds. Those things certainly have their place, yes, but what if, instead of a few easy to read letters and some circles, the classic red Target logo was bordered in purple pinstripes? Makes it a little harder to read for sure, but also not as appealing of a logo visually.

Chop Saw Rule

To leave us off, I want to talk about the 12 1/2th and my personal favorite principle of design. When I was taking my first painting course, we eventually got into the portion about composition. My professor, Paul Flippen, gave us a good tip he calls the “Chop Saw Rule.” If you look at a painting and ask “If I took a chop saw to this, and cut off that end, would the painting be any less impactful?” If the answer is no, it wouldn’t change, then you should take a chop saw to it, or, add more to help that section feel more unified to the rest of the work. 

I hope you found this article useful, because I certainly did! It’s been good to catch up on my basics and try and simplify things. Remember, these 12 (and a 1/2) principles of design aren’t strict rules, but tools and descriptors for you to use whenever you’re creating your next masterpiece. 

Want to dig even deeper into design? Check out this post on the Gestalt Principles of design, which add to the 12 we covered here.

What principles of design do you tend to rely on in your own artwork? Share in the comments below.

-Conner L. Dobson

Author Bio: Hi all! If we haven’t met before, my name’s Conner, and I’m a jeweler and metalsmith currently living and working in Fort Collins, CO. I also specialize in social media-oriented graphic design! If you’ve been around Minette’s crazy world of creatives for a while chances are you’ve seen some of my work! As a final shameless plug, check out more of my work on my website Hope to see you again soon! -CLD


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