Principles of Good Design: Unity

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unity design principleUnity is the hallmark of every good design. It is the final result when all the design elements work harmoniously together to give the viewer a satisfying sense of belonging and relationship. You know unity has been achieved when all aspects of the design complement one another rather than compete for attention. It serves to reinforce the relationship between the design elements and relates them to the key theme being expressed in a painting.

Unity is the end result when all of the design principles (balance, movement, emphasis, visual economy, contrast, proportion and space) have been correctly applied. Everything selected for use in a composition must complement the key theme and must also serve some functional purpose within the design. Achieving unity in your compositions will only result from practicing, knowing and selecting the right visual elements and using the best principles of design to relate them.

Unity within art accomplishes two things:

  1. It creates a sense of order. When a design possesses unity there will be a consistency of sizes and shapes, as well as a harmony of color and pattern. One way this is accomplished is by repeating the key elements, balancing them throughout the composition, and then adding a little variety so that the design has its own sense of personality. Learning to juggle the elements and principles in such a way as to achieve the right mix is a key to good design.
  2. It also gives elements the appearance of completeness, that they belong together. When a composition has unity the design will be viewed as one piece, as a whole, and not as separate elements with the painting. Using too many shapes and forms may cause a design to be unfocused, cluttered and confusing. A well organized design will be achieved by using a basic shape which is then repeated throughout the composition.

When unity is achieved:

    • The individual elements within a composition do not compete for attention.
    • The key theme will be communicated more clearly.
    • The design will evoke a sense of completeness and organization.

To create unity:

    •  You must have a clear objective in mind, one that you wish to effectively communicate.
    • You must stay focused on achieving the objective and not deviate from it. If there is an element you are considering adding and it does not contribute to the objective then it should not be added to the design.
    • You must be analytical about your work, maintaining objectivity at all times, and accept critiques from peers, friends, and family members. When the purpose and message you intend to portray is consistently understood the same way by several people then unity has been maintained within your painting.

When you feel your composition is complete, take a step back and observe it with an objective eye. The final test of unity is one in which nothing can be added to or taken away without having to rework the entire composition. The relationship of all the elements should be so strong it would actually hurt the design to add or remove any one thing. When nothing can distract from the whole you have unity.

A word of caution regarding unity. Too much unity without variety is boring and too much variation without unity is chaotic.

Some easy ways to achieve unity in your compositions include:

Similarity: Try repeating colors, shapes, values, textures, or lines to create a visual relationship between the elements. Repetition works to unify all parts of a design because it creates a sense of consistency and completeness.

Continuity: Treat different elements in the same manner. Continuity helps to create “family resemblances” between different forms. This helps to tie them together by creating an uninterrupted connection or union.

Alignment: Arranging shapes so that the line or edge of one shape leads into another helps creates unity in your design. When an element is placed in a composition, it creates an implied horizontal and vertical axis at its top, bottom, center and sides. Aligning other elements to these axes creates a visual relationship which unifies them.

Proximity: Group related items together so that these particular items are seen as one cohesive group rather than a bunch of unrelated elements. Elements that are positioned close to one another are perceived as being related while elements that are farther apart are considered less related. How close together or far apart elements are placed in a composition suggests a relationship (or lack of) between otherwise disparate parts. Using a “third element” such as a road to connect near-by elements with distant ones also helps to create a sense of relationship between the forms which are not grouped together.

Examples of the effective use of Unity


The painting on the left creates a sense of unity by the effective use of repetition. See how the artist has repeated similar forms (ducks) and color (brown) throughout the composition?

On the right grouping of similar objects,  proximity was used to create unity within this painting.


The road in this painting is the “third element” that helps to create a relationship between the people in the foreground to the people in the background.

This painting is another good example of how proximity creates relationships between related objects.

IN CONCLUSION: Using The Design Principles

This study on the design principles would not be complete without giving some practical guidelines on the use of the principles of design.

  1. Apply the principles in every assignment.
  2. Don’t apply the principles equally, because one may be more important than another depending on the mood and purpose of the design. One design may be strong in balance, another in proportion, another in movement and so on.
  3. Try to include as many and as much as will work of each principle into each design.
  4. You should always add a bit of your own personality into your art. Without this touch, your work may be well designed, but lack character.
  5. As you become more confident in your ability at achieving unity, then dare to violate one or more of the principles of design to promote growth in your creativity.

Once the designer has an objective in mind, the effective use of the design principles of balance, movement, emphasis, contrast, proportion, and space will aid in the achievement of unity in a work of art. Unity should always be the goal of every artist.


  1. How do you know when unity has been achieved in a work of art?
  2. What is the final test of unity?

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

More Art Lessons

Basic Elements of Art, The

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 1

Basic Art Element — Color, Part 2

Basic Art Element — Line

Basic Art Element — Space

Basic Art Element — Texture

Basic Art Element — Value

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UPDATED: 23 October 2020

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