The Basic Principles of Design

Over the years working in the field of graphic design, I’ve found myself faced with a few colleagues with subjective opinions on my work. Surprising, right? Totally normal, and we should all welcome perspectives and opinions.  But sometimes, you find yourself reaching way back to your college days and getting that feeling that the very basic principles of design are being threatened by this madman’s opinion.

“Make the logo bigger!” he says.  But what if that breaks the whole balance that makes the design look professional and appealing?

“Make the text dark gray on that black background. It looks… edgier!” If you really want to push back on that one, you can bring in 5 of your colleagues (be random, mix up the ages and genders).  You see, something like 1 in 5 people experience some kind of vision impairment and so you’ll likely find someone to back you up. “I can’t read that at all,” they’ll say.

If you have no friends, you could just go to a color contrast checker like the one at and show them the piece won’t be AA accessibility compliant.  If you really want to go overboard, you can  show them the lawsuits against companies like Home Depot and JC Penney for having accessibility issues on their websites.

But web accessibility is a whole other topic I’ll get into at a later date. It’s not only something to help you reinforce good design and even good web development (it can improve your SEO), but it’s just the right thing to do.

So I thought to start out this new design blog why not start where most of us do, with a reminder of what those most basic principles are and why in the majority of cases, these are the things going on in a successful design.


So, you know those things in life that just make you feel more comfortable? Like a cup of coffee, sitting in the middle of a table, centered nicely on its coaster, instead of right on the edge, in agonizing danger of falling off? Or a centerpiece of flowers centered perfectly on your table, instead in some weird, off-center place?  It’s called a centerpiece for a reason!  But it’s not just centering things, it could be two or more things positioned in a balanced way. Good balance in a design makes the brain feel good in the same way as moving that coffee cup away from the edge. But do things that are off-balance help draw attention? They can, but they can also make it look bad, so you have to find that right, um, balance…


This principle is that the viewer will figure things out a lot more easily if related elements are positioned near each other, and have unifying elements that connect them. It’s like organizing your dresser basically, most of us don’t just throw the socks and shirts into one drawer. I mean, I was a teenage boy once, so I suppose I did. But you get what I’m saying.


This is another step in just making things clean and organized. Using a grid in your designs is always a best practice, and make sure things are snapping against all of the same lines. If the elements aren’t in close proximity, aligning them can still create a connection. One alignment trick you’ll often see is bullet lists, which creates a nice hierarchy using alignment.


In design we use repetition a lot to unify things, it creates a rhythm that just brings everything together. It can be a perfect pattern, or it can be something like the same object scaling up from a central location.


Not only does contrast make your designs more dramatic, it makes them more readable. There were some horrible trends in the past couple decades of light gray on white or dark gray on black…sure, subtlety has its time and place but I believe using strong contrast makes for the best designs, as it includes everyone. Some colors, together, create more contrast for people than others who have colorblindness issues, so it is also important to study that.  But it’s not just about light and dark colors, it’s also rough and smooth shapes and textures, or large vs. small.


The negative space around your objects or copy is just as important as what you’re putting on the page. The figure to ground relationship principle is that the figure and the ground can either enhance or distract from one another, so it is very important to organize the two in relation to each other. Use negative space as a design element.   Give things room to breathe, and they’ll stand stronger in the heirarchy of your document.

Dustin Marson photoDustin Marson is a freelance multimedia designer located in Minnesota. Dustin has been a professional working designer for over 15 years. He works on a wide variety of graphic design, web design, photography, video, and motion graphics projects. He also works with clients and marketing teams on the latest SEO and Adwords strategy.

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