Design Tools

It turns out that professional graphic designers have some aces up their sleeves to make their work look (worth the redundancy) totally professional. Although they have the amazing free tools that exist today for those who want to be graphic designers, amateurs do not have the fundamental knowledge necessary to create designs with a coherent polished line.

To help you, we’ve put together a list of seven basic elements of graphic design. This is not a graphic design course, but rather a fundamental understanding of these seven basic elements that can stimulate your content creation skills and improve your ability to convey your design preferences should you decide to hire a professional.

Basic elements of graphic design:

  • Color.
  • Lines.
  • Scale.
  • Shape.
  • Alignment.
  • Contrast.
  • Space.

We’ll look at these seven elements in detail; we’ll look at what they mean, why they’re important, and how they should be used to create more professional-looking designs, even when you don’t have the budget.

Color

Isaac Newton is world-renowned for creating the first chromatic circle in 1706. According to history, Newton took the spectrum of colors produced when light passes through a prism (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet) and ordered them into a segmented circle. By quickly rotating the circle on a rotating disc, the colors were mixed and turned white in the sight of the human eye.

Then you can get an idea of how Newton’s chromatic circle appeared. This 1708 version was illustrated by a French painter, Claude Boutet, and refers to Newton’s research into color theory.

Over the years, different scientists, artists and philosophers adopted and deepened Newton’s system of visual categorization of colors, which resulted in the chromatic circle we know today.

The modern chromatic circle is composed of three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue), which theoretically can be mixed in different proportions to produce secondary and intermediate colors. While modern studies show that color theory is actually a little more complicated than that, the chromatic circle remains a valuable tool for graphic designers looking for aesthetically pleasing color combinations.

When selecting shades for a project, consider the colors that appear totally opposite or side by side in the chromatic circle, as these usually produce the most pleasing combinations. You may also consider using a free online tool for color schemes, such as ColorSchemer, which will make your job easier.

Line

The lines aren’t just separators. The right lines can involve movement and emotion, allowing you to unify a composition and achieve a professional look.

Rikard Rodin, a graphic designer and blogger with more than 15 years of experience in the area of design, explains that lines can form the underlying architecture of a project. Defining a line of motion in a composition before it begins can help create a design that truly reflects the desired mood.

“You can use mood lines in virtually every element of your design,” Rodin wrote in his blog. “Or you can contrast lines of different moods in different parts of your design to create a layered design. Consider, for example, the ‘STABLE’ mood line. You can use it to determine the arrangement of elements. You can use it in photography. And you can also use it in font selection.

The mood lines don’t have to be seen in the final composition, but can be a simple guide that structures and orients your work. Of course the lines can also be visibly incorporated into the final design.

Scale

The scale of the different elements of a design has a great impact on the way the public sees and makes sense of a composition. By playing with the relative size of the different components of a design, one can define a point of focus, highlight important areas, and ultimately guide the viewers’ gaze along the route of the work.

The scale is not exactly the same as the size (although many people tend to use these terms indistinctly when talking about design, such as when they ask to “make a bigger logo”). Size refers to an absolute measure (e.g., the 8-inch by 11-inch sheet of paper), while scale refers to the direct relationship between the elements of a design (e.g., the circle is twice as large as the square).

You can use scale to create a visual hierarchy for a design. When an element is shown on a relatively larger scale than other elements in a composition, our gaze naturally goes there.

Shape

The forms are not just for preschoolers. A form can be broadly explained as anything that is defined by boundaries. There are two categories of shapes to consider: geometric shapes, which are defined in perfect uniform proportions (such as a circle, square, or triangle) and organic shapes, which have less defined edges and fluctuating proportions and essentially have no rules (such as wavy or drop-shaped things, which do not fit any real category).

When working on a design, take into account both the forms you are determined to incorporate (positive forms) and those created naturally around those other forms (negative forms).

The most famous example that illustrates the difference between positive and negative shapes is probably Rubin’s cup. In 1915, the Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin designed this optical illusion, which is very popular today, to show how two completely different images can be seen depending on whether you look at negative forms or positive forms.

Alignment

Think of the alignment as an invisible axis that passes through the elements and connects them visually, either along their edges or their centers (see image below).

Alignment is an issue that arises most frequently when designers debate text and typography, but it is equally important to consider the alignment of non-text elements to create a balanced and orderly composition.

The example above illustrates an alignment of uniform edges and centers, but that doesn’t mean that all elements in a composition should always follow the same alignment pattern. In the following image, you can see that the elements are aligned by their edges, but are not joined by any axis.

Contrast

Contrast refers to the juxtaposition of clearly different elements (large vs. small, light vs. dark, etc.) to create visual interest or draw attention to certain elements.

Without contrast, our designs are not only dull and boring, but also difficult to understand. Lack of contrast is often what differentiates mediocre design work from professional looking, polished and clear designs.

Consider the following images as examples: in the image on the left, there is not enough contrast between the background photo of the man working on a desk and the white text. It is not pleasing to the eye and the message is difficult to understand. In the image on the right, the background was darkened to create more contrast and make the text easier to read.

Space

Space is exactly what it seems: the empty areas between the elements of a design. When it comes to creating your own professional-looking designs, sometimes what is not included is as important as what is included.

When working on a design, consider not only the elements you incorporate (such as images and text), but also how you sort and group them in the composition. It may be tempting to fill in every inch of your digital canvas, but try to give the elements some room to breathe.

In the following example, you can see how changing the space and grouping of the elements creates a completely different feeling in the composition. To the left, the uniform space between the elements creates a sense of order and security. To the right, the different spaces between the elements create a sense of disorder and confusion.