Learning the Basic Elements and Principles of Graphic Design

Florida Flourish is a good example of a total symmetric website

Duplos uses an asymmetrical layout which works really well.

2. Dominance and Priority

These two principles are together because they are strongly linked. They both have a lot to do with the user experience because a lack of priority and element dominance can be confusing. The dominance level is the one which prioritizes the importance of different elements, such as menu, logo, content or footer. Sure, this is also done by playing with the font and size, but let’s go a bit deeper and see what dominance and priority mean.

There are three main levels of priority. We have the headline or call to action, which comes as a primary element; then we have the secondary elements like images needed to make a point or, most of the time, the navigation.

They are obviously not the most important element of a website, but you can’t do it without them either. The tertiary elements are information like footer links, meta information on blogs or different elements, and a website can most of the time exist without them. However, they are used frquently because they complete the design in different ways, either by offering more information, or by completing the layout with some elements.

Area17 emphasizes the dominant element in the top left corner and the welcome message pulls you in as well because of the color.

3. Proportion

Proportion is important and represents the scale of elements compared to each other. They have a strong effect on the user and are also linked with the previous principle. It is no surprise that larger elements have a stronger impact on the user than the small ones. Dominance, priority and proportion work together to assure the user sees the information properly on a website. Having a larger font in the footer than in the content is a mistake because it does not respect these three principles.

Bluecated Interactive uses proportion to draw the attention on the image.

4. Contrast

This is another important principle not only of design, but also of photography and any other visual art. I don’t think we need to go too deep into this, because everybody knows what contrast means. Having enough contrast between elements makes sure that some of them stand out more than others. If designers wish to blend elements together, they do it by having minimal contrast between them. If the contrast is high, the elements are distinct from each other.

If balance is created through shapes and lines, the contrast can be created through color. However, lately the contrast has also been changed through typography and texture, so this becomes more and more popular. Having perfect typography can help you achieve not only the perfect contrast, but also proportion, dominance and priority. It is easy to see that the last three concepts we’ve talked about are slightly linked to each other in some ways.

If we would talk a bit more general about this whole topic, we would be able to put all of them into the same paragraph.

eHarmony’s “Find My Matches” button stands out because of a good use of contrast.

5. Rhythm

This might be a new one for you. The rhythm of the page is the principle that makes the human eye move from one element to another. It ensures the flow of the eye and in which order users should see the elements. Now this is a difficult one to make, because everybody has their own way of looking at a website and making all of them do it the same way might be too overwhelming.

There are two types of rhythms: the fluid and the progressive. The first one is a variation and the best example is the movement of water, which flows in the same direction basically, but has a lot of variation in how it moves. The progressive rhythm occurs when there is a clear sequence on how the eye should move between elements.

David Desandro’s portfolio follows a very regular, progressive rhythm

6. Harmony and Unity

The last principle of design wants to ensure that even if all the principles above are used properly, it is still impossible to create a stunning design without harmony and unity, and this is quite often seen in real life. We often hear of rich people who have everything they want, but lack harmony and unity in their lives. It is the same rule in design. If all these elements work together properly, then you’ve achieved what we call unity.

Only placing all these elements on a page without linking them to each other does not create a design, but a page with a bunch of elements. If the elements complement each other and the website is easy to the eye and offers a good user experience, then the work you’ve done is more or less finished.

There is no really need for an example here, we all know that websites with harmony and unity can be spotted all over the place; think of a website that you like a lot and that you always remember. That’s probably a website that has harmony and unity.


The second article of the series wraps up the process of analyzing the very basic principles of design you really need to know about. After reading the first two articles you pretty much have most of the knowledge you need to start designing your own layout, but wait a bit more.

The third and last part covers the basics of composition such as focal point, grid theory, gestalt laws and others which can also be used for products like magazines, flyers or brochures.

The Basics of Graphic Design: Composition

The second was about the Principles of Graphic Design and we took a look at concepts such as Balance, Dominance, Contrast and Harmony. Today we go a bit more in-depth with the last article and talk about the composition and its basic elements.

1. Single Visual

This composition is where a single image is used for the design. This means the image is usually powerful, creates an impact and the whole design is built on it. Examples of single visual pages include landing pages, but this is more popular in print than in web.

The single visual composition is one of the easiest to achieve, although you need to carefully select the image, otherwise it won’t have the desired effect. The main principle behind this pattern is to make sure the typography and the other design elements reinforce the visual element and do not compete with it.

There has to be a clear definition over which one is more important and in this case the image, illustration or graphic element used have to be the most powerful.

Glitter Denmark is a very good example of a single visual pattern design.

2. The Golden Ratio

The Golden Ration, which is also known as the Fibonacci Spiral or Phi, is around 1:1.618. The Fibonacci Spiral is found all over the world in different things and the web is no exception. It is a good idea to place the elements into a website along the lines of the Spiral, because this is the way the human eye works. Managing to use the Golden Ratio properly will bring the focus of the visitors onto specific things you wish to emphasize.

3. Focal Point

This is another important one because the focal point is the one who gives the viewers something to look at. The focal point adds a more specific idea to the design and acts as a starting point for most of the visitors. The focal point can be represented through simple typography, a button, illustration, a picture or any other element. It is totally up to the designers which is the way he wants to create a focal point through.

The focal point has to be in focus and has to be the first element a viewer sees when he enters the page (especially for the first time).

However, making it too important and visible will break the balance of the layout. Keep the focal point within your site’s goal and make the purpose of the page be shown through it. For example, having a call to action button is a focal point, because that is the final action you want the user to take on your page.

4. Grid design

This should not be a new one for you. Grid theory is maybe the most popular element of a composition, because we do it all the time even without realizing. Grids add structure to a design and are used to hold a good proportion among the elements on the page.

You can find lots of grid frameworks on the internet, which are free to download and build on, and I actually recommend you to use them if you are a beginner in this domain. Working from the beginning with grids will make you feel comfortable with this approach and this is good for your layouts. Grids do not have to be rigid all the time, they can also be subtle, but if you go for this option, then make sure the design will still be clean and refined before the delivery.

When working with grids it is always a good idea to ask feedback from the ones around you, because working for hours long with a grid framework in front of you will probably make your eyes not see small mistakes that need adjustments.

The Grid System

5. Gestalt Laws

When I learned this principle in school I was amazed by the difference it made in my designs. The laws are the result of the human visual perception of things, including websites and elements. The laws are created by the way different elements impact the viewer.

There are five principles Gestalt Laws: closure, similarity, continuation, alignment and proximity.

Shortly explained, the law of closure says we are accustomed to close things in our imagination that are not really closed. A good example is a near circle which you draw only on 330°. The human brain will perceive it as a whole, completed circle. The law of proximity shows we tend to group objects that are closer to each other, while the law of similarity emphasizes the same thing, only that we group  things that have the same color, shape or texture.

The law of continuation emphasizes that objects will be grouped as a whole if they are co-linear or follow a specific direction, while the last rule, the one of alignment, shows that objects are aligned based on their edges (very popular pattern), or based on their centerlines. The objects can also overlap each other.

The Gestalt Law of Closure

The Gestalt Law of Proximity

There are actually more Gestalt Laws, but not all of them are important for designers. At the end of the article you can find a link with all the laws and you can learn more about each one of them.

6. The “Z” and “F” Layout

The so-called “Z” layout is based on the normal movement of the human eye. As the name says, most of the people who’ve been eye-tracked look at a webpage in a Z shape, meaning they start in the upper left corner and finish in the bottom right one. Managing to align all the objects on a home page along this shape will definitely provide better results and will make your design more efficient.

Layout in a Z shape

There is another type of layout as well, shaped as an F. This means users read the first line and then continue to read the second, continuing like that in a specific order.

Goal Arena is a layout in a visible F shape

Bottom line

These are the most important principles of design and by having a strong knowledge of each one of them your layouts will not only look better, but will also offer a better user experience. Creating good interfaces for the user will make them keep your page in mind and, if you get used to working with these principles, at some point in time it will even get normal and logic.


Sure, there is much more knowledge to get about all these laws, but this knowledge comes along with the experience and you can’t really get it only from books, but by practicing. By looking back, you should already have enough knowledge of the basic elements of a graphic design and I really hope that if you are a beginner, this series of articles made you think more seriously about a graphic design career.

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