Principles of Good Design: An Introduction

an introduction to the principles of good design.An introduction to the principles of good design. Learning more about what it takes to create a good composition.

What exactly are the principles of good design?

Simply put, the principles of good design are the tools every artist uses to create an effective composition. These tools are: balance, contrast, emphasis, movement, proportion, repetition, simplicity, space and unity. How well an artist understands and uses these tools will determine if the composition is a weak or strong one. The desired outcome should be a work of art that is both unified and aesthetically pleasing to look at. In a series of discussions we’ll take a look at each one of these principles.

Anyone who studies design will soon discover there is no longer a clear-cut line between fine art and applied art anymore. All art, whether it is web or graphic design, architectural or industrial design, commercial or fine art, is subject to the same principles that make up all good design. Just as a fine artist arranges various elements within a painting to create a pleasing composition, so it is with the graphic artist. For example, the fine artist may use objects such as a vase of flowers, bowl of fruit, or a figurine to design a lovely still life composition in a painting, while the graphic artist will use headlines, bodies of text, photos, illustrations and clip-art images to compose a page for print or a webpage for the Internet. It’s not the objects in and of themselves that determine if the design is a good composition or not, it is their arrangement as governed by the principles.

Defining the principles

  • Balance – a feeling of equality of weight, attention, or attraction of the various elements within the composition as a means of accomplishing unity.
  • Contrast – the difference between elements or the opposition to various elements.
  • Emphasis – the stress placed on a single area of a work or unifying visual theme.
  • Movement – the suggestion of action or direction, the path our eyes follow when we look at a work of art.
  • Proportion – the relation of two things in size, number, amount, or degree.
  • Repetition and rhythm – the act of repeating an element either regularly or irregularly resulting in a rhythm of the repeating elements.
  • Simplicity (a.k.a. visual economy) – the elimination of all non-essential elements or details to reveal the essence of a form.
  • Space – the interval or measurable distance between objects or forms (two dimensional or three dimensional).
  • Unity – the relationship between the individual parts and the whole of a composition. This is the desired result in all great art.

Good art always starts with an idea.

Before beginning any work of art every artist needs to keep in mind that every composition starts with an idea. To use the design principles effectively it is necessary that the artist have an idea to express or an objective in mind. This is vital to the success of any art work. Without a clear objective, even the most conscientious attention to the principles of good design, will result in uninteresting work. However, with an idea clearly in mind a beautiful composition can emerge. Every artist’s goal should be to create a composition in their work that is both unified and interesting to look at.


  1. In its simplest term, what are the principles of good design?
  2. What is the end result when the good design principles are effectively applied?

Your Next Art Lesson

If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out another one in this series.

Good Design Principles: An Introduction

Good Design Principles: Balance

Good Design Principles: Contrast

Good Design Principles: Emphasis

Good Design Principles: Movement

Good Design Principles: Proportion

Good Design Principles: Space

Good Design Principles: Visual Economy

Good Design Principles: Unity

The Basic Elements of Art

Learning about the basic art elements and how they work in conjunction with the principles of good design.

The basic elements of art are the “building blocks” used to create any visual art piece. The elements are color, form, line, shape, space, texture and value. Without them, it would be impossible for an artist to create art. Every artist, whether they realize it or not, uses at least two or more of these elements in their art-making. For example, in sculpture an artist uses both space and form, and a painter will utilize line and shape when creating a painting.

Defining The Elements

  • Color — A pigment used in artwork, along with their various values and intensities, such as the primary colors – red, yellow and blue.
  • Form — The mass of the shapes created by the forming of two or more shapes or as three-dimensional shapes when showing height, width and depth.
  • Line — A mark (actual or implied) that spans the distance between two points used to define shape in two-dimensional work. Implied line is the path that the viewer’s eye takes as it moves along a path from form, color, or shape within a work of art. Click for more information about lines in art.
  • Shape — Any area defined by edges within the piece bound by line, value, or color. It can be geometric (for example: square, circle, hexagon, etc.) or organic (such as the shape of a puddle, blob, splatter, etc.).
  • Space — Refers to the empty or occupied areas around, between or within components of an art piece. It is either negative (empty space) or positive (occupied space).
  • Texture — The way a surface feels or is perceived to feel. The actual or implied structure and minute molding of a surface (rough, smooth, etc.) which can either be seen or felt with the sense of touch.
  • Value  Shading used to emphasize form. The degree of lightness or darkness of any given color within a piece of art. Adding white to lighten the color is called “tint” while addition of black is called “shade”.

An artist will skillfully use these elements, mixing them in with the principles of design to compose a sensational piece of art. Not all of the elements have to be utilized, however, there will always have to be at least two present.


Why are the elements of art so important?

Your Next Art Lesson

If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out another one in this series.

The Basic Elements of Art

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 1

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 2

Basic Art Element — Form

Basic Art Element — Line

Basic Art Element — Shape

Basic Art Element — Space

Basic Art Element — Texture

Basic Art Element — Value

Principles of Good Design: Balance

design principle balanceThe first basic principle of good design is balance. It is a significant design element because without it a composition will look off. In two dimensional art, balance is all about the visual weightiness of a composition and not the physical weight.

Defining Balance

Balance in art can be defined as a sense of equilibrium and is achieved when the visual weight of objects are distributed equally within a composition. When no single part of the design can overpower or appear heavier than another part in the same design, a sense of visual balance is created.

Some elements within a painting that effect the degree of visual balance are:

  • Lights and darks — light colors will appear lighter in weight than dark colors
  • Brightness — brilliant colors appear to weigh more than neutral colors
  • Warmth and coolness — warm colors, such as yellow tend to enlarge or expand an area in size, while cool colors like blue tend to contract or shrink an area
  • Transparency — Transparent areas seem to visually weigh less than opaque areas

Horizontal, Vertical and Radial Balance

Balancing the components within a painting is best illustrated by visualizing weighing scales or a playground see-saw. As you can see, balance is not achieved through an actual physical weighing process, but through visual judgment on the part of the observer. In this respect, to balance a 2D composition requires a skillful distribution of its components in such a way that the viewer is satisfied the piece is not about to topple over.

horizontal balance

When components are balanced left and right of a central axis they are balanced horizontally. When they are balanced above and below they are said to be balanced vertically. And when components are distributed around the center point, or spring out from a central line, this is referred to as radial balance.

vertical balanceradial balance

Types of Balance

There are two types of balance — symmetrical or asymmetrical. Symmetrical balance is also referred to as symmetry or formal balance. And asymmetrical balance is also called asymmetry or informal balance. Of these two types, symmetrical balance is the most stable visually.

Symmetrical Balance

symmetrical balanceSymmetrical balance is when the weight is equally distributed on both sides of the central axis. Symmetry is the simplest and most obvious type of balance. It creates a secure, safe feeling and a sense of solidity. Symmetrical balance can be achieved in two ways. One way is by “pure symmetry,” and the other way is by “approximate symmetry.”

In pure symmetry identical parts are equally distributed on either side of the central axis in mirror-like repetition. A good example of pure symmetry is the human face. It is the same on both the right side and the left side of the nose. Pure symmetry has its place in certain art works, however, because of its identical repetition, pure symmetry for a composition can easily become too monotonous and uninteresting to look at.

Approximate symmetry on the other hand has greater appeal and interest for the viewer. The two sides of a composition are varied and are more interesting to view. Even though they are varied somewhat, they are still similar enough to make their repetitious relationship symmetrically balanced.

Asymmetrical Balance

asymmetrical balanceAsymmetrical balance is when both sides of the central axis are not identical, yet appear to have balance. The way to use asymmetry is by balancing two or more unequal components on either side of the fulcrum by varying their size, value or distance from the center. If the artist can skillfully feel, judge or estimate the various elements and visual weight, this should allow him/her to balance them as a whole, and as a result, achieve a more interesting composition.

The artist will quickly discover the use of asymmetry allows for more freedom of creativity because there are unlimited arrangements that may be devised by using asymmetrical balance.

Some Examples of the Effective Use of Balance

Radial Balance

example of radial balanceradial balance sample

Horizontal Balance

horizontal balance, sample ofexample of horizontal balance

Vertical Balance

example of vertical balancevertical balance, sample of

Do you see the vertical balance suggested in the painting on the left? Look at where the foreground ends and you will quickly see how balance is implied by the visual weightiness of the building in the background.

The painting on the right is a little more obvious in it’s vertical balance. Notice how the three objects in the top part of the painting balance the apparent heaviness of the one object (the plate of pancakes) in the lower part of the painting.


  1. Why is balance so important in a good composition?
  2. In what way is asymmetry beneficial to the artist?

Your Next Art Lesson

If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out another one in this series.

Good Design Principle: An Introduction

Good Design Principle: Balance

Good Design Principle: Contrast

Good Design Principle: Emphasis

Good Design Principle: Movement

Good Design Principle: Proportion

Good Design Principle: Space

Good Design Principle: Visual Economy

Good Design Principle: Unity