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Fundamental Design Principles

category: Design | course: Graphic Design | difficulty:

Design has always been a large part of our lives. Whatever product you make, you want it to be as beautiful and simple to use as possible. Even stories need a form of visual design – good typography – when they are to be successfully published as books. Because design is always present in any and every project, I think everybody should know and understand the basic principles underpinning what makes a good design.

The Two Fields

There is, however, an important distinction to be made between two fields of design: graphic design and usability. The first field looks at how a product looks and feels, be it a photograph or webpage or an actual real-world object. The second looks at how a product works, sells and interacts with its users. These two fields are closely related, and creating well-designed products will always be a combination of applying principles from both fields. To make a design usable, everything has to be laid out in a clear and simple manner. To make a design look good, every part and process needs to be at the right place and executed in the right way. Furthermore, for a product to be embraced by society, it needs to sell and be fun and memorable. The two fields influence each other all the time.


This course will only look at the first one: graphic design. We will look at what techniques you should use to structure your information and convey a message, as well as the actual methods you should use to create the visual shapes belonging to these techniques. In other words: the course starts with a description of the basic building blocks of visual design, and then continues with explaining how they relate to each other to create good design.

Because visual design is such as huge topic, though, some parts (colour theory and typography) have received their own separate course. I highly recommend reading those as well, as they raise your design skills to a more advanced level. You can read them at any time you want, and I won’t include them in this course’s table of contents, but I suggest you read them very early in your design learning process.

The Two Main Purposes

Throughout the course, you’ll notice that there nearly every design wants to meet one of two main purposes, which are

  • Aesthetics: You want a design to convey a sense of beauty. It needs to leave a positive impression, make somebody feel positive emotions, make people happier and impressed by looking at the design.
  • Functionality: You want a design to convey information of any kind. People need to be able to understand things from a quick glance at your design, and they need to learn about your product, company, mission, or story by looking at the design.

The best designs of course want to mix these two purposes, but you’ll notice that they are not easily combined. Some elements of a design increase beauty but decrease usability, while other elements are very practical and efficient but don’t look so good. Keep this distinction in mind, and decide which of the purposes is most important for your design before you begin.

Good luck becoming a designer!

Table of Contents

  1. What is Graphic Design?
  2. Point
  3. Line
  4. Shape
  5. Form
  6. Light
  7. Scale
  8. Texture
  9. Pattern
  10. Mass
  11. Hierarchy
  12. Gestalt Principles of Perception
  13. Figure-Ground
  14. Layering
  15. Grid
  16. Contrast
  17. Alignment
  18. Proximity
  19. Repetition
  20. Balance
  21. Proportions
  22. Space
  23. Symmetry
  24. Tension & Motion
  25. Framing
  26. Abstraction
  27. Composition
  28. The Design Process
  29. Conclusion: what now?


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