The Elements and Principles of Design: A Designer’s Toolbox

Every designer is different. We all have our individual strengths, tastes, opinions, and preferences. But what great designers all share is an understanding of the elements and principles of design.

Consider the aptly equipped builder tasked with building a home. Despite the fact he has the correct tools for every situation he could encounter, he is only comfortable using a handful of them.  He does the best with what he understands, but many of his otherwise useful tools lay in the toolbox unused and/or misunderstood.

The elements and principles of design are the fundamental tools in our design toolbox.  Most of us, if not all, have “tools” sitting unused and misunderstood in our collection. It is through the study and experimentation of these tools that we can become masters of our trade.  No matter how many times we have heard the lectures, read books on, or otherwise studied them, a good designer knows they are never finished learning and embraces the opportunity for review and continual learning.

The Elements of Design

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The seven basic elements of design are color, shape, texture, form, value, and space. All different and individually and collectively important, these are the basic elements that make up any design.  As a designer you should be able to identify these elements in your daily surroundings.  Once you have a sound understanding of the elements of design you can learn how to effectively apply the principles of design.

For a great practical definition and example of each of the elements of design read A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design by Cameron Chapman.

Other Great Resources:

The Principles of Design

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Other Great Resources:

Make Learning a Habit

Once you have studied up on the elements and principles of design and feel comfortable with your understanding of them put a plan in place to continually experiment and grow. Here are some ideas:

Learn from Your Environment:

Get in the habit of evaluating the designs that surround you. When you are eating cereal in the morning, place the box behind your bowl and analyze the design. Look for the different elements of design and the principles that have been applied. Ask yourself some of the following questions:

  • What principles are effectively/poorly applied?
  • What elements of design can I find in the design?
  • What could be done to make this design more effective?

You can run through this again and again in your head throughout the day:

  • When you are in line at the store check out the magazines and product packaging on the shelves.
  • When you are in traffic, take notice of the billboards you pass by
  • Analyze the ads during the commercial break while you watch TV.
  • Study the menu layout while you wait for everyone to decide what they will order.

Learn from Those Who Inspire You

Take some time to search through sites like Behance, Dribble, Pinterest, and the like. Find designers that you look up to and analyze what they do well. Subscribe to their feeds, their blog, or whatever they may offer.

Check out Inspired: My Favorite Sites for Design Inspiration for a more detailed look at each of those sites and how they can be utilized to help you find and organize content and creative that inspire you.

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About the author

Josh Kunzler