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June 13 2011


A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design

Advertisement in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design
 in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design  in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design  in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design

There are many elements that make up any visual design, whether it’s good or not. Becoming familiar with the parts of a design is necessary before you can start to apply the principles of good design to your own work, in the same way that a doctor needs to have an understanding of anatomy before he can learn to heal a patient.

There are seven basic elements of any design. Some are easier to grasp than others, but all are important. Once you can identify the elements of a design, whether it’s your own or someone else’s, you can learn how the principles of good design are best applied.


Lines are generally present throughout a design. They can be thick or thin, straight or curved, solid or dashed or dotted. Lines can be any color and any style. Straight lines are often used as delineations between sections of a design, or they may be used to direct a viewer’s vision in one direction or another.

The width of a line has a direct effect on its visual impact. Thick lines are bold and strong; they draw attention to themselves. Thin lines tend to do the opposite. Color also effects the impact of a line, with brighter and darker colors drawing more attention than lighter and paler colors. The style of a line also has an effect: dotted or dashed lines are less imposing than solid lines.

Curved lines often give a more dynamic or fluid look to a design. They indicate movement and energy. They’re also more common in designs with an organic nature, as they’re more likely to be seen in nature. Straight lines are more formal and structured, and indicative of “civilized” culture.



RePrint uses a number of curved lines to direct the eye of the visitor.

Reprint in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design


VideoDSLR uses straight lines of varying widths to delineate content sections.

Videodslr in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design


Justdot is another example of a site that uses a lot of curved and dashed lines to indicate movement and energy.

Justdot in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design


Forms are three-dimensional objects within a design, like a sphere or cube. You can have forms that are actually three-dimensional in your designs (like with product packaging), or forms that are actually two-dimensional but are displayed in a way as to imply that they’re three-dimensional (like a line-drawing of a cube).

Forms are common in actual three-dimensional graphic design, of course, but are also seen in web and print design. Website designs that use 3D techniques are making use of forms. Another common place to see forms is in logo designs where a sphere or cube is present.


Print Mor NYC

Print Mor NYC uses a 3D effect behind their main content.

Printmornyc in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design

Arlo Vance

Another example of a 3D effect in website design.

Arlovance in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design


Shapes are two-dimensional. Circles, squares, rectangles, triangles, and any other kind of polygon or abstract shape are included. Most designs include a variety of shapes, though deliberate use of specific shapes can give a design a certain mood or feeling.

For example, circles are often associated with movement, and also with organic and natural things. Squares are more often seen with orderly, structured designs. The color, style, and texture of a shape can make a huge difference in how it is perceived.


Method Design Lab

Method Design Lab uses ovals and other rounded shapes throughout their design.

Methoddesignlab in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design

Passion About Design

Circles are used throughout the design.

Passionaboutdesign in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design


The Cappen site uses triangles throughout their site.

Cappen in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design


Textures are an important part of just about any design. Even designs that, on the surface, don’t seem to use textures actually are (“smooth” and “flat” are textures, too). Textures can add to the feeling and mood of a design, or they can take away.

The most commonly seen textures, apart from flat or smooth, are things like paper, stone, concrete, brick, fabric, and natural elements. Textures can be subtle or pronounced, used liberally or sparingly, depending on the individual design. But texture is an important aspect of design, that can have a surprising effect on how a design comes across.


The Heads of State

The Heads of State site uses a few subtle textures.

Theheadsofstate in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design


Doublenaut uses a more pronounced texture in their background.

Doublenaut in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design

Cuban Council

The Cuban Council website uses textures on virtually every element of their design.

Cubancouncil in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design


Color is often the most obvious thing about a design. We’re taught colors from an early age, and even go so far as to identify some things with color descriptors (“my green jacket” or “my red shoes”). Color is also capable of creating strong reactions among people, who consciously and subconsciously apply certain meanings or emotions to different colors (this is also influenced by culture, as many colors mean different things in different cultures).

Color theory is an important aspect of design, and something designers should at least have casual knowledge of. You should know the difference between a shade (when black is added to a pure color), tint (when white is added to a pure color) and tone (when gray is added to a pure color). You should also know terms like chroma, value, and hue. But more importantly, you should know how all these things work together to create a mood or feel in a design.

For a more complete overview of color theory, check out our archived series, Color Theory for Designers.


Go Live Button

The very bright colors used on the Go Live Button website have a definite impact on the perception of the visitor.

Golivebutton in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design

Camp David

The more muted colors here give a completely different feeling than the site above.

Campdavidfilm in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design

Old Putney Row to the Pole

The Old Putney Row to the Pole site uses darker but still muted colors, which gives yet another impression.

Rowtothepole in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design


Value is closely related to color, but it’s more general. It’s how light or dark a specific design is. Again, this relates directly to the mood a piece gives. Darker designs convey a different feeling than lighter designs, even with all other design elements being equal. This is one reason you’ll often see designers releasing both light and dark versions of their themes.

Not every piece has a clear-cut value. With very colorful pieces, you might not really be able to tell how high or low the value is. One trick is to convert the design to grayscale, to get a better sense of how light or dark it is. You can also look at the histogram of an image to get an idea of where the value is more heavily concentrated.


This After That

This After That is an example of a site with a relatively light value.

Thisafterthat in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design

The Lounge

The Lounge has a relatively dark value.

Thelounge in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design


There are two kinds of space in design: positive space and negative space. Positive space is that which is occupied by design elements. Negative space (also called “white space”) is the area that’s left over. The relationship between positive and negative space has a strong influence on how the design is perceived. Lots of negative space can give a piece a light, open feeling. A lack of negative space can leave a design feeling cluttered and too busy, especially if the designer is careless.

Negative space can create its own shapes and forms, which impact the design. Understanding the effect of negative space and how to use it to your advantage in a design is one of the most important techniques a designer can learn, and can make the difference between a good design and a great design.


80/20 Studio

80/20 Studio has a lot of negative space in their design.

8020studio in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design

Dazed Digital

Dazed Digital, on the other hand, has very little white space in their design.

Dazeddigital in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design

Poster Roast

Another example of a site without a whole lot of negative space.

Posterroast in A Graphic Design Primer, Part 1: The Elements of a Design

Up Next…

In the next installment, I’ll be covering the principles that make up a good design, and how to apply them to the elements we covered here.

Further Resources


March 01 2011


December 08 2010


In a sea of Designers: My ‘best’ advice

Just yesterday a third year design student had contacted me asking for one piece of advice I would provide to her and other fellow graduating students. Here is my response in long form:

In a sea of Designers

It’s almost 2011, the web is crawling with great talent by the day (just check out Dribbble’s Popular page), and both clients and employers are increasingly starting to use such sources to find designers. If that’s not enough, it also seems that everyone and their mother wants to be a designer. Oops, almost forgot about the 12-year old  nephew sitting in the basement with a pirated copy of Photoshop making you reconsider changing careers.

So how do you prepare for the dive into the sea of many other designers? Learning, understanding and conveying sense of value to your work.

Learning value

It’s been awhile now since graduating college, however from what I can remember and from talking at conferences and universities with current students, schooling seems to only touch base on the craft and performance of design and designing.

“I worry about the medium, because not enough designers are working in that vast middle ground between eye candy and hardcore usability where most of the web must be built.” – Jeffrey Zeldman

Sure, adding pretty effects is a nice touch of style to a site, but if the website, for example, doesn’t function as intended or you cannot justify the decisions you have made to a client other than the fact that “they look good” you are in danger of failing as a designer and problem solver. Understanding the differences between style and design is the opening of doors to conveying sense of value.

Reading books and thinking about design from an experience and functional standpoint, rather than a stylistic standpoint is a great place to start learning.

Understanding value

Whether you are job seeking and interviewing with potential employers, working in-house and reporting directly to clients or your boss, or running your own independent design business, only half of what we do is actual design work. The other half, well, that folks is called “business”. Love it or hate it, you have to learn how to sell yourself, your services and your value. And you cannot sell any of those without understanding what exactly your value is.

If I was an employer seeking to hire a Designer for my team, I would be more focused on the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how.’ Give me a week with someone and I’m sure I could teach them the basics of Photoshop (ie: that 12-year old nephew I mentioned above), but understanding the basics of Design from a functionality and purpose perspective is what many lack, as did I fresh out of school.


How incredibly timely of this email. Just as I was in the midst of writing, Mail App goes ‘ding’ and here is what appears:

A very timely email

Well, ‘name blurred by Mosaic filter’, this one goes out to you as well.

Conveying value

My best advice for Designers, future graduates, career seekers, and career changers, and anyone else looking to succeed (and by “success” I mean love doing your job day after day, year after year): convey ‘the’ and your value of design and decision making.

From a person seeking employment’s perspective, understanding and conveying your value and the value of each decision you made for each piece of work will keep you swimming happily on the bottom of the ocean, while the other fish float to the top (one instance where you don’t want to be on top… remember that goldfish you once had?).

Also, at some point while working in-house you will be reporting to either a boss that reports to “the Board of Final Decision Makers” or you might be speaking directly to the client, so having your value guns loaded will save you endless hours of frustration and revisions. Conveying the value to others will assist in them not making decisions based on look but rather other elements such as usability, functionality – you know the valuable things.

From a freelancer’s perspective, conveying the value of your work and decisions will also prevent more headaches throughout the year. Understanding the value will help to keep projects from spiraling out of control, provide confidence in yourself and decisions, and help you better stand up for your work.

Next time someone asks you “why should we hire you?” or “why are we the best match for this project?” you might be a little more prepared for what you can bring to the table.

Even when designing that next project, think about if, for example, adding in that extra visual element is adding to the value or devaluing the task at hand. If great design lies in the details, then working with or for great companies lies in the value.

Design without meaning or reason is nothing more than a pretty picture” – Unknown (but if you do know, please let me know and I will replace).

November 23 2010


On Self Worth and Perceived Value

“Accepting a valuation that’s less than you’re worth is a quick way to lose others’ respect and diminish your chance of success. By pricing your value at full worth, you give the person an opportunity to have more than they thought they needed. Not everyone will recognize this opportunity, but the right person will. That’s the person you want to work for.”

August 13 2010


Studies prove the value of design

Some people go “by the numbers” and for those that do, this is certainly an interesting read.

“Effectiveness by design: Dutch scientific evidence prove the economic and commercial value of design. The financial performance of a new product increases by almost 20% when there is a lot of attention given to design in the development process.”

August 09 2010


The Pros and Cons of Giving Away Your Graphic Design

Tons of businesses and organizations are suffering in this economy, whether it’s graphic designers being laid off or nonprofits struggling to get funding. A number of my acquaintances who found themselves with extra time on their hands have turned to volunteering – some of them walk dogs at the local animal shelter while others clean up the shoreline. But lately, I’ve also heard recommendations for unemployed people to use their skills to give back to the community, and in turn it’s an excellent opportunity to get their name out and possibly find some business for themselves. Of course, giving away for free the talent you’ve built up for years does court some controversy.


Marketing. Graphic designers often get requests from nonprofits for free or discounted services. Rather than just delete those requests, think about the new business potential: business marketing. In exchange for your work, will your company name or logo be included on a website or promotional materials? That could offer you search engine rankings as well as just put your name out there for potential new clients.

Inspiration. Sometimes you just need to break away from the day-in/day-out grind. Slaving away at a desk can induce creative block. Doing design work for an entirely different cause than what you’re used to has the potential to kick-start inspiration, whether it’s using new shapes and colors or just interacting with other folks in a different field.

Vacation. Wanna get away? Some volunteering can take you to places you’ve never been. A recent trend called “voluntourism” allows do-gooders to travel in order to help others. Sure, you’ll likely pay most of your expenses, but sometimes room and board is thrown in, and if anything, you can feel less guilty about taking a trip if it means you were volunteering.

Networking. Volunteering your time gives you the opportunity to mingle with people – people who may need a graphic designer in the future. Sure, you’re offering up free services to the nonprofit itself, but you get to network with people who know other people who might need a designer in the future. See where this is going? If you impress the client with your work, they’ll likely remember you later on.


Too much time. So what if you aren’t one of the many unemployed graphic designers out there? What if you have a lot of work and have to accept it all to pay the bills? Taking on even more jobs – especially ones that don’t pay – could diminish the quality of the projects that do earn you cash. In turn, your paying clients might seek other designers in the future if your work for them suffers.

Devalues your work. FreelanceSwitch made a post the other day about giving back to one’s community. It discussed volunteering time locally to organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and Big Brothers/Big Sisters. A commenter said that while she does volunteer, she doesn’t do so as a designer or a photographer because “I’ve learned the hard way that offering my paid-for services for free only devalues them.” Martha Retallick went on to add, “Yes, I’ve heard that pro bono work can be a good way to get referrals to paying work, but wouldn’t it be easier to just go straight to the people who can pay you in the first place?”

Burnout. Retallick makes a good point – sometimes people need a break from graphic design in order to recharge their creative batteries. Rather than volunteer design skills, why not follow FreelanceSwitch’s advice and go bang a hammer on a home with Habitat for Humanity or donate some blood? Step away from the desk and do some physical work – you can benefit society and let out aggression at the same time!

Already working for a nonprofit. When I posed the question, “Do you give away your graphic design services for free to nonprofits?” on Twitter, Traci Pitman replied, “Nope – because I’m the in-house designer for a nonprofit.” Indeed, Pitman, who works for a regional arts council in Texas, found a way to offer her skills to her community while earning a paycheck at the same time – the best of both worlds!

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The Pros and Cons of Giving Away Your Graphic Design

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