You can’t call yourself a graphic designer just by opening Photoshop and drawing some shapes. Graphic design has rules, or guidelines, that help designers create an image that conveys the intended message. These basics of graphic design are second-nature to experienced designers. But they’re critical for beginners to learn as soon as possible so they can avoid the most common design mistakes. Here are some of the most critical tenets of design and how you can use them.
The takeaway: Don’t cram your design full of content. Leave white space or negative space so your core components stand out.
Just look at the Google homepage! This is the definition of using white space. Google knows you don’t care about anything except the search bar, so they put it front and center with absolutely no distractions. Not all of your designs have to be this minimalistic, but it shows the importance of negative space. You need to let your designs breathe, so that people can actually notice what you want them to notice.
The takeaway: Fonts can make or break a design, and with so many cool fonts out there it can be tempting to use a ton. But designs are best served with no more than two, maybe three, fonts.
There are a lot of wild fonts out there, and some can work in the right situation. But in general, you should use easy-to-read fonts that all work together. Don’t use a techy-looking font with a handwritten script, because that will probably look a bit unusual and confuse the intent of your design.
The takeaway: Much like with fonts, it’s easy to get carried away with using colors. Use 1 – 3 main colors in your design, and another 1 – 3 accent colors.
A great resource for beginners is to seek out websites that can generate color palettes based on one or two starting colors. This way you can be sure that the colors you use work well together. Once you have those colors down, use the main colors for most of the design, and the secondary colors for little details. The fewer colors you use, the less confusing and busy the design is, especially in something like a logo or social media graphic.
The takeaway: Elements such as text should not be randomly placed. You should align elements with each other, in most cases, such as centering different text titles.
Don’t just place your text and other elements randomly. There needs to be some sort of intentional aspect to it. The easiest way is to center all of your elements within the image, but it’s not the only way. Text can be aligned to a horizontal or vertical line at any point. Breaking your alignment helps a specific element to stand out from the rest.
The takeaway: Texture or a lack of texture makes a big statement, and can give your designs additional depth.
Texture is the sense of feeling and touching. It can make certain elements stand out as lifelike or three-dimensional. Organic textures from nature can make a big impact on viewers. Texture can be smooth, rough, and everything in between.
The takeaway: A balanced design balances the design elements so there is equal “weight” and symmetry. That being said, there are creative reasons to create an unbalanced design.
Creating something symmetrical is fairly easy. Just center your subject on a simple background. You can have an image that is balanced down the center or out from a radial point, or even balanced with a repeating pattern. Breaking balance is a creative choice. An unbalanced image can evoke an emotion such as uncertainty.
The takeaway: Contrast helps design elements stand out from each other. If you want elements to blend, use low contrast. When you want something to stand out front and center, use high contrast.
Contrast can be accomplished through color, size, font, texture, and alignment (hey, those sound familiar) to create a focal point. The goal is for an important element of your design to stand out, such as the movie or event title on a poster.
The takeaway: The focal point is the focus of your design, and the eye should be drawn to it through other design elements. Keep it in mind, and don’t distract from it with other elements.
Using elements like contrast or deviating from your alignment can create a focal point in your designs. The focal point will draw the eyes and attention of viewers. Just make sure you’re selective with what you highlight – if everything is emphasized, then nothing is emphasized!
The takeaway: Hierarchy mostly refers to text, and is about the scale and importance of elements. Larger elements are the ones that will garner the most attention, so it’s important to understand how to structure information.
A normal hierarchy would include a shorter title that stands out, following by subheadings, then even smaller details.
The takeaway: The relationship between different graphical elements is important. They can be connected by including them all together near the same area, or connecting them through a consistent shape or color.
Proximity is the art of grouping related items and distancing unrelated items. This helps viewers understand what information is relevant and which may not be. For example, you wouldn’t want your business card to scatter your contact information all around the card. Instead, your email, phone number, and title should all probably be stacked near each other, since they are closely related.
These are just 10 of the basics of graphic design, but there is so much more to learn! Like any skill, you will get better at design through practicing good habits. Check your practice designs to see if they incorporate these basic elements. You can also run your drafts by a more experienced designer so they can see if you’re on the right track.
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