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Design Basics

Basics for creating better designs and incorporating improved graphics into your work.

Principles of Design

Emphasis and Contrast

Proportion and Scale



Rhythm and Pattern

Unity and Harmony

Emphasis  - when the artist creates an area of the composition that is visually dominant and commands the viewer's attention. This is often achieved by contrast.

Contrast - the difference between elements of art in a composition, such that each element is made stronger in relation to the other.

  • When placed next to each other, contrasting elements command the viewer's attention. 
  • Areas of contrast are among the first places that a viewer's eye is drawn.
  • Contrast can be achieved by juxtapositions of any of the elements of art. 
    • Negative/Positive space is one example of contrast.
    • Complementary colors placed side by side is another example of contrast. 

This image uses color , texture, and shape to achieve contrast, and emphasis of the red pixelated video game critter against the yellow brick wall.

  • Emphasis requires Subordination, where some elements of the composition are toned down, blurred, minimized, or subdued to bring attention to the focal point.
  • The Focal Point refers to an area in the composition that has the most significance, an area that the artist wants to draw attention to as the most important aspect.


This image uses the lines of two arms against a stark black backdrop to draw emphasis to one hand grasping at the pinkie finger of another. The contrast of the body parts against the empty backdrop also draws a clear emphasis as well.

From The principles of Art and Design and Design in Art:  Emphasis

Scale - the size of an object (a whole) in relationship to another object (another whole).

Proportion - The juxtaposition of elements of different sizes in relationship with each other as parts of a whole (such as parts of a human body).

This image provides an example of scale as the flower provides a scale reference for the car.

This image demonstrates the importance of proportion to the conception of a hand. The right proportions shape the concept of a hand.


Balance - the distribution of the visual weight of objects, colors, texture, and space.
If the design were a scale, these elements should be balanced to make a design feel stable.

It provides a sense that a work "feels right"

Balance can be achieved several ways:

  • Symmetry  is where both sides of a composition have the same elements in the same position, as in a mirror-image, or the two sides of a face.

this image of a display of collared shirts in an illuminated display shows a well-balanced symmetry

  • Radial Symmetry is where elements are equally spaced around a central point, as in the spokes coming out of the hub of a bicycle tire.

this image of a fern is a good example of radial symmetry because the leaves flow out from a central point providing equal balance

  • Asymmetry is where the composition is balanced due to the contrast of any of the elements of art. For example, a large circle on one side of a composition might be balanced by a small square on the other side.

this abstract photograph of a white slatted architectural feature bisected diagonally by a strong black shadowy area is a good example of asymmetrical balance

Movement - the result of using the elements of art such that they move the viewer's eye around and within the image.

  • Movement can be achieved through using a flow  directed along lines, edges, shape, and color within the work.
  • Without movement, artwork becomes stagnant
  • Strategies to create movement:
    • Use diagonal lines
    • place shapes that extend beyond the boundary of the picture plane, and use changing values.

The shape of this stretching cat's body creates a sense of movement through line and shape within this image.

Rhythm - A continuance, a flow, or a feeling of movement achieved by the repetition of regulated visual information. Rhythm relies on variety.

Pattern - The use of the same or a similar element repeated again and again can give a work a sense of movement or structure. Where an element is similar enough and repeated often enough, it can create a pattern. Pattern relies on consistency.

Rhythm can be a bold progressive development like the above image of angular lines emerging from a black diamond.

Rhythm can also be a variety of repeated shapes of different sizes and shapes, like these organ pipes.

Rhythm can also flow  in and out of focus like these uniform storage boxes.

Pattern is something that repeats persistently and consistently, such as this metal grid.

Patterns can also take a more freeform flow, like this paisley design.

From Back to Basics II:  Principles of Design and principles of Art and Design

Unity - the feeling of harmony between all parts of the work of art, which creates a sense of completeness.

Harmony - The combination of similar elements creates an anesthetically pleasing overall effect--it is how elements and principles work together for the overall cohesiveness of the work.

  • Harmony can also be described as sameness, the belonging of one thing with another.
  • The repetition of design elements like colour, texture, shape, and form is one of the easiest ways to achieve harmony to create a composition.

The colors, values, lines, texture, contrast, emphasis, and movement of this photograph create a harmonious and unified work.

When a work has Unity, it looks right and everything works together. The result is a pleasing feeling, that everything is right with the work.

This photo stages a variety of objects that use shape, line, color, texture, and emphasis to create a harmonious and united image.

From Back to Basics II:  Principles of design and Harmony & Unity