I am having a hard time identifying different principles of design in action. It is hard for me to identify the relationship between different elements on a page and to know what approach was used to create that particular relationship.

How can I identify and understand which principles were used in a design?

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    Hello Agon, I edited your question to try and make it more clear. Please feel free to edit your question if you feel like my edits do not accurately reflect what you're trying to ask Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 15:25
  • @ZachSaucier I feel like the added question at the bottom is a different question altogether (and much, much broader) from what the title is asking.
    – curious
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 15:30
  • @Emilie I (perhaps obviously) don't, so it would be useful to get clarification from the OP Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 15:35
  • @ZachSaucier I agree with Emilie and think the additional, "Why it was made that way" greatly changes and expands the question from its original.
    – Ryan
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 15:50
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    @Agon I don't think your question was hard to understand at all. I think its an excellent question in fact which is why I put a bounty on it to get more attention :) Welcome to the community and your English is fine.
    – Ryan
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 0:04

4 Answers 4


I think this is totally normal when you are new at graphic design. Our brain can only hold so much at once, and with practice we are better able to group concepts and notions together as a whole. Another issue that I think is common in our profession is that we often have an intuitive grasp of principles and how to do something (procedural knowledge) but lack a true understanding of what brings these principles to life (declarative knowledge).

To make things worse, graphic design teachers themselves often aren't trained in pedagogy and this may show in their feedback (e.g. "These colors work really well together!" while gratifying is sort of vague and not particularly helpful if you don't see what they see. Being able to word it more precisely (e.g. "This triadic harmony is completely relevant with the topic of water and the proportion of each color you've used really helps to bring out these important accented parts.") takes more time and mental effort to formulate and goes above know-how or procedural knowledge of graphic design. Don't hesitate to ask your teacher if they can be more precise as to why something work/doesn't work, you may greatly benefit from it!

My advice to you would be to try to build your declarative knowledge of design principles alongside working with these principles and increasing your know-how. Read about them and what they consist of. In parallel, deconstruct the work you do. For example, when you feel something is wrong in one of your works, take the time to go through each principle and check what could be improved.

There are many good books about design principles out there but one that I've read cover to cover and has helped me tremendously is Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye by Rudolf Arnheim. Although it's more oriented towards visual arts in general, it explains the underlying principles of how we see what we see. The improvement in my work as I was reading the book was almost surreal. It is a tough read for a non-native speaker but I really recommend at least giving it a shot.


A good way to identify principles of design is to study each of them in isolation with a definition, an explanation, and examples of the principle.

Graphic Design studies include areas in different specialties: Human Visual Perception, Applied Behavioural Psychology, and Anthropology. A cross-subject web search will help you find/sort-out individual concepts. Many of the references of interest to us fall into "Marketing."

One reference I stumbled across was/is (in revisions) a kind of dictionary, cross-referenced by design principles, many (not all) of them of interest to us. It is not complete; but, it is an excellent start. I was so impressed that I bought a dozen/case and gave them to colleagues. Universal Principles of Design - A cross-disciplinary reference; William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, Jill Butler; 2003, Rockport pub.

A second recommendation is a comprehensive, organized, and well-written Principles of Form and Design; Wucius Wong; 1993, John Wiley & sons pub. This and Principles of Color Design, also by him, influenced Graphic Design courses taught at Concordia University, LaSalle and Dawson Colleges - Montreal, Canada among others. It presents the visual language of graphic design.

David B. Berman wrote do good -design-, How Designers Can Change The World; 2009, New Riders; which gives us our ethical principles to guide our designs to be truthful, ethical, and sustainable design. It is sponsored by the AIGA and others. The message is, "Don't just do good design, do good."

I wish I could put these three books into your hands.

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    +1 Great references. Do you happen to know the author/publisher for Principles of Color Design? I don't think I've heard of it and have colleagues at those institutions so you pique my curiosity!
    – curious
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 18:07
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    @Emilie Also by Wong. I've added the attribution to the answer.
    – Stan
    Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 18:19

I'll toss in some singularly excellent resources which, though written to be specific to architectural design also greatly aided my graphic design thinking once I'd assimilated, studied and practiced the concepts and exercises therein:

Architectural Graphics, - Francis D.K. Ching, John Wiley & Sons

Building Construction Illustrated, - Francis D.K. Ching, John Wiley & Sons

Design Drawing, - Francis D.K. Ching, John Wiley & Sons

Architecture: Form, Space and Order, Francis D.K. Ching, John Wiley & Sons

With particular emphasis on that last one - Form, Space & Order is masterful, and the framework it provides around design in general is engrossing, compelling and incredibly empowering.

These, though I originally encountered them as textbooks, were pivotal enough to me that I purchased them again later to act as cornerstone sourcebooks, along with of course

Color Drawing: Design Drawing Skills and Techniques for Architects, Landscape Architects, and Interior Designers - Michael E. Doyle

Which also has continued to be as relevant sourcebook for me as an architectural illustrator and renderer (even given that most of my work the last decade has been CG versus hand rendered) as the salient concepts and best practises still obtain, and so these reference work retain their value over time.

I find for myself that design thinking is not unlike physical skills: you must build up the skillset and tools in your mind first via learning, understanding and application, then reinforce these through your habits of thinking, perceiving and questioning, and finally hone their effective use in gestalt analysis and in specific design consideration. In this way you can learn to hold top-level whole-piece design considerations simultaneously in your design mind along with typography, compositional balance, colour balance, psychological colour effects, compositional movement, proportionality, and volumetric / spatial / rhythmic relationships from all to individual elements in an organic but organised manner.

Sometimes it's worth practising the understandings you have by taking someone else's notably good work and subjecting it to a thorough dissectional analysis - both so that you can learn to see and appreciate what was done, what was achieved, and how, and so that you exercise that type of design analytics in order to establish that kind of thinking as an ever-running background, informing all your more forwardly-conscious design processes in realtime.


How to identify principles of design more easily.

Everyone immediately responds to the subject matter in a composition. Harder to understand after-the-fact is the design (as in plan or scheme) behind the finished piece. After the work is complete, deconstructing it to reveal the principle behind it can be difficult. The principle may be non-obvious because the subject matter gets in the way.

Graphic design is not a means of self-expression. Rather, it is a means of communication used to illuminate, demonstrate, tell, sell, or explain an idea or product. Knowing the purpose could make deconstruction easier. The theory being; Once you know what the “message” is, you can figure out what visual technique the designer used to communicate that message—the dominant principle is in use.

As graphic designers, we use design principles applied to visual elements like a visual grammar. The way we communicate the subject using our style of expressing visual ideas becomes the artwork we create.

Not everyone agrees what the simple elements of design are. A good start would list them.

The Elements of Two-Dimensional Design—the basic visual material used to construct the graphic design
• Conceptual Elements:
Space, Point, Line, Area
• Visual Elements as they take form (aspects of elements):
Shape, Size/scale, Colour/tone, Texture, Field/frame
• Relational Elements as they are placed into the layout:
Position, Direction, Depth, Weight
• Functional Elements we manipulate:
Illustration, Photograph, Text, Rules,

Visual Effects
Elements of design (often together with subject matter) create visual effects. When you see a visual effect, it means that some sort of organizing principle is working. The Visual Elements and Subject Matter are used separately and together to create all kinds of relationships, motion, transition, contrasts, conflicts, variations, themes, feelings, meanings, depth effects, space effects, and so on. If you can find a relationship that creates a visual effect, you have discovered a principle.
For example, repetition (repeating something) tends to insist on being seen and it can give the effect of motion.
When you discover principles, you can use them and you will understand how to make and understand artwork better.
For example, a combination of red and orange has a different effect than a combination of red and green. By looking at these color combinations next to each other, you might discover a principle of design. When you see a big shape combined with another big shape it has a different effect than combining a small shape with a big shape. By looking at size examples, you might see another principle of design suggested. There are many general principles that work to produce effects, feelings, and meanings. There is an unlimited number of ways to use the elements, subject matter, and design principles to produce effects, feelings, and meanings. This is why, when we solve problems in art, we are not looking for one correct answer, but we are looking one or more solutions out of many unknown possible solutions.

There are different kinds of design principles. Start with a list of the principles you know. Add ones you discover. When one known by an alternate name turns up, combine them.

(Rather than an exhaustive glossary of terms, the interested person is invited to do a web search of the terms for definitions, and illustrative examples)
Here’s a start:
Principles of Two-Dimensional Graphic Visual Design
- Alignment
- Balance (Symmetry) - Symmetrical, Asymmetrical, Radial
- Tone & Color
- Contrast, variation, variety
- Direction (Hierarchy)
- Emphasis: “Centre of Interest,” Focus, Hierarchy, Dominance
- Harmony/Unity:
- Opposition
- Movement/Motion/Gradation
- Proximity
- Repetition, rhythm, pattern
- Similarity
- Framing (Space)
- Transparency
- Variety/variation

You may even wish to include general Principles of Composition
- Format
- Viewpoint
- Layout
Do a search on each one in turn. Note its definition, relevant description and actual example to illustrate the principle(s) being used. Pull-up the images in your search to isolate the specific examples to illustrate the term
Here are important additions

Cognitive Behavioural Graphic Design Principles
Gestalt Law – The law of simplicity
Gestalt principles of design (Grouping) Theories of visual perception
- Proximity – closer objects are related to each other
- Similarity – objects that look similar as seen related or part of the same group. When there is something that doesn’t seem to fit or doesn’t resemble its neighbours, it is called an anomaly and according to the Von Restorff effect, it gets noticed and remembered.
- Closure/Convexity – occurs when an incomplete shape is seen as a whole
- Continuity/Good Continuation – occurs as the eye moves naturally from one part of the design to the next. It leads to the Pragnanz Effect where complex objects appear in their simplest form.
- Figure & Ground – the subject and background appear to exchange dominance. The design alternates its position or characteristics in a random fashion. The difference between the two is vague as there is no dominance of one over the other.
- Common Region

There are more…
Principles of Colour Association – The Psychology of Color
- Blue; secure, calm, honest, trustworthy, strong, caring
- Red; love, excitement, action, boldness, passionate.
- Etc.
Principles of Shape Association – The Psychology of Shapes
- Circles, ellipses, and curves have a strong femininity
- Vertical lines are seen as exciting and motivating
- Horizontal lines are perceived as tranquil and static
- Etc.
Principles of Social Influence – The Psychology of Marketing and Sales
- Reciprocation
- Authority
- Commitment / Consistency
- Scarcity
- Liking
- Social proof
Principles of Perception
- Constancy
- Space
- Depth
- Motion
- Colour
Principles of Typography
- Legibility
- Readability
- Weight/Colour
- Alignment
- Emphasis

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