Principles of Good Design: An Introduction

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

What exactly are the principles of good design?

an introduction to the principles of good design.Simply put, they 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 weak or strong. 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. Whether it is web or graphic design, architectural or industrial design, commercial or fine art, all 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, it is also with the graphic artist.

For example, fine artists 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 graphic artists 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 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 – repeating an element either regularly or irregularly, resulting in a rhythm of the repeating elements.
    • Simplicity (a.k.a. visual economy) – eliminating 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. Unity 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, the artist must have an idea to express or an objective in mind. This is vital to the success of any artwork. Without a clear purpose, 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 these principles are effectively applied?

Your Next Art Lesson

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

Principles of Good Design: An IntroductionYou are here.

Principles of Good Design: Balance

Principles of Good Design: Contrast

Principles of Good Design: Emphasis

Principles of Good Design: Movement

Principles of Good Design: Proportion

Principles of Good Design: Space

Principles of Good Design: Visual Economy

Principles of Good Design: Unity

Good Design Principles: Unity

Want More Art Lessons?

After you’ve finished the lessons on the Principles of Good Design, why not move on to the Basic Art Elements? To begin, go to The Basic Elements of Art(An Introduction)

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“I have known about the Good Design Principle lessons by artist Teresa Bernard for several years, and I am continually impressed. Recently I have shared several of them with my graphic design students.” — Dr. Richard D. Sheridan, Assistant Professor Wilberforce University, Ohio.

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UPDATED: 13 March 2023

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