The components of design
A survey of the design elements and principles and the development of design components
By James Robert Watson, PhD; Fall 1981, revised 2003
List of Design Components
In a beginning design class, the student should be exposed to several facets of design: graphic, product, fashion, interior, and architecture. The elements and principles of design, discussed in almost every beginning design course, include the basic terminology for understanding the concepts of design. Design elements are tools that designers use to create solutions to design problems. They are the components that are put together to form original solutions - the systems of organizing the elements into a particular composition. Often they are very consciously thought out by the designer, in order to express a certain idea. More often, the designer, while consciously making a certain amount of decisions regarding these principles, will employ them on a subconscious level. It is through the awareness of, and conscious use of these principles that one gains a deeper understanding of them, eventually reaching a point where they become instinctual, simply part of the way one addresses a problem. These principles are really methods of involving the viewer, of inviting an understanding of the composition or design. The principles themselves are universal ways that we respond to visual input. They are ways and methods we use to relate to the visual world around us. These principles are the same ones employed in any creative medium: music, architecture, film, theatre, and writing; they also seem to have a base deep in humanity, running across cultures and ethnicities.
Successful design often has gestalt, or a wholeness that cannot be determined by examining each individual part. More simply put, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts or its individual components.
According to the classic art textbook, Art Today, by Faulkner et al (1941), the following terms are listed as design elements: form, line, space, texture, and color. The principles: balance, continuity, and emphasis.
That seems simple enough until one looks at the elements and principles listed in another book, Design Basics, by David Lauer (1979). Lauer lists these as the elements and principles although he doesn't put them into either category: unity, emphasis/focal point, balance, scale/proportion, space, motion, rhythm, line, shape/form, texture, and color.
There is yet a different list in The Principles of Design by Batchelder (1904), again in no particular category: line, rhythm, balance, shape, value, and harmony.
How can design educators teach students in a clear consistent manner if there are different terms listed as design elements and principles?
Survey of terms
In 1981, I conducted a survey of 16 art and design textbooks to determine exactly what the elements and principles of design are. The results of that survey are listed by author:
• Faulkner (1941)
Elements: form, line, space, texture, color
Principles: balance, continuity, emphasis
• Lauer (1979)
unity, emphasis/focal point, balance, scale/proportion, space, motion, rhythm, line, shape/form, texture, color
• Batchelder (1904)
line, rhythm, balance, shape, value, harmony
• Evans (1973)
Elements: line, form, space, time, movement, light, color, texture
Principles: proportion, balance, rhythm, emphasis, unity
• Preble (1973)
light/value, color, mass, space, time, motion, shape, texture, line
• Bevlin (1977)
line, space, shape/mass, color, texture/pattern, unity/variety, balance, emphasis, rhythm, proportion/scale
• Scott (1951)
contrast, texture, form, composition, variety/unity, movement, balance, proportion, rhythm, color, depth, space
• Hull (1976)
Elements: line, space, color, texture, value
Principles: balance, emphasis, proportion, rhythm, movement
• Mancusa (1965)
color, line, mass & space, value, texture
• Downer (1947)
symmetry, balance, line, rhythm
• Bradley (1946)
proportion, balance, rhythm, emphasis, color, texture
• Compton (1945)
line, form, value, texture, color
• Cannon (1948)
Principles: unity, proportion, relation, harmony, discord, contrast, domination, subordination, symmetry, asymmetry, duality, balance, rhythm, line & form
• Nelson (1970)
Elements: line, tone, color, texture, shape, size, direction
Principles: balance, proportion, sequence, unity, emphasis
• Thiel (1981)
Elements: pattern, number, position, size, shape, direction, texture, color, duration, brightness, motion
Principles: similarity, proximity, continuance, closure, rhythm, movement, contrast, ambiguity
• Fitzgerald (1974)
Elements: line, shape, form, color, texture, space, value, content
Principles: balance, harmony, emphasis, contrast, continuity, movement, proportion, symmetry, repetition, domination, subordination, variety, rhythm, unity, opposition, transition, appropriateness to content
No two lists agree on which items are called elements and which items are called principles.
No two lists agree on the specific elements and principles. David Lauer says "It seems that no two designers will ever agree on the same list of design elements and principles - nor on which are which."
The number of terms in the lists ranges from as few as 5 to as many as 23.
The average number of terms listed is 10.4.
The total number of times each term is listed:
12 Value/light/light & dark/contrast
10 Emphasis/focal point/domination
Discussion of findings
The above findings may be due to several reasons:
Art/design is a visual medium - perception, seeing, and expression. Much art needs no verbalizing for creation or understanding.
Art is a personal medium. The artist works at expressing him/herself in an individual way. Harwood says, "Education in general, and art education in particular, seems continually harassed by terms with ambiguous meanings and expressions offering varied connotations to different individuals."
The concepts of art and design are so complex that it may be difficult to classify concepts with a simple term. "In other subject areas, attention is paid to the exact meanings of words. This has not always been the case in art education, partly because the vocabulary of art has tended to be nebulous, and partly because teachers have not always attempted to build for themselves a precise vocabulary of art terms." (Gaitskell)
It seems art educators and authors have accepted the disagreements and confusion of terms as listed.
The disagreements of design elements and principles does cause a few problems.
• Design instructors are not consistent among themselves concerning the teaching of design basics. There are indications of attempts to rectify the confusion, but the logistics against an easy solution are overwhelming.
• The variety of terms may present some confusion for the design student. Students may be exposed to one set of terms in high school, a new set for each instructor in college art and design classes, and even others from personal readings of design books. This ambiguity of terms puts the burden of clarification on the student. The student must determine the terms that make the most sense. This disagreement, however, may encourage a discussion of the basic tools of design.
• Communication effectiveness among designers and between designers and the public may be diluted.
The need for design terms
The other fine arts rely on words, sounds, or combinations of these for creation and execution. Theater has the spoken word and a script, music uses descriptive notes and sounds, dance needs musical accompaniment, and literature is read, written, and recited. Most of visual art does not require words or sounds. There is still a need for art and design students to understand basic terminology. "The acquisition of an art vocabulary is intended to lead to the formation of more adequate concepts about the visual arts. Concepts sharpen and direct perception. Words about art can add meaning to art." (Fitzgerald)
Art is individual expression, but design is more scientific and, therefore, has a greater need for consistency among its practitioners. Design is problem solving and problem solving requires verbalizing.
Language is symbols for communication. The meanings of terms are the shared use of these symbols. The terms usually have agreed upon meanings. "The meaning of a term is in its use in the language. Words neither possess an inherent reality nor are they the property of experts." (Fitzgerald)
Proposed new design terms
There is a need for design students to understand the terms of design; design terms are a vital part of most beginning design courses; there are numerous lists of terms - no two alike; the variety is confusing to the student; and communication may be hampered. Design educators need a set of terms that will help solve these problems. One of the main reasons for having terms of design elements is to analyze, communicate, and understand a design piece. When one looks at design there are certain qualities attributable to that piece. Those qualities can be classified into a concept group with a descriptive term heading. Through a process of analysis, the concept groups can be clarified.
Naming the design terms
Referring to these terms as elements or principles may be unclear. Some elements are principles and some principles are elements. It seems advantageous to avoid splitting the group of terms into two groups. When one analyzes a piece of design, one doesn't think in terms of elements or principles, one just thinks in terms of each concept. The same is true when communicating with another person - the elements and principles are not mentioned, just the concepts. A simple, descriptive, and common word should be selected that easily represents each concept group and effectively communicates its essence.
Saying 'design terms' might be too general, too broad, and too confusing. A word is needed that includes the concept groups only and is descriptive of such. Referring to the dictionary, 'component' comes from the Latin word meaning "to compose; to put together" and refers to one of the parts of the whole. That fits well with needs to be communicated. Design terms are part of the whole of the design piece. They are put together to make a composition. The given definition even states that a component is any of the elements onto which something may be resolved on analysis.
A common word should easily represent each concept group listed below and clearly communicate the essence of each one simply and effectively.
Components of design
The groups of design concepts listed alphabetically below adequately cover all aspects of critique, analysis, and discussion of a design piece. Each is unique - it does not share similar specific ingredients with other groups. Each of the current terms of design elements listed from the survey can fit into one of the following concept groups.
List of components
Taste & Smell
Explanations of components
Alignment provides clarity by creating a sense of order. Using an invisible grid system to align elements aids in comprehension by providing unity, a sense of order, and familiarity. Each element on a page should create a visual connection with something else on the page.
Order, grid, lined up = alignment
The composition of the parts or shapes in the piece will usually create some type of balance - symmetrical, radial, or asymmetrical. Balance also provides some stability which makes most people more comfortable (as does order). balance may vary depending on the piece and its function. Symmetry can be very effective at times, but most often it leads to static rather than dynamic compositions. Asymmetrical compositions achieve balance through elements of differing weights. A very small element of great visual weight can balance a much larger element of lower visual weight. Visual weight is like magnetism for the eye: a visually heavy object demands attention. Visual weight depends on several factors, any of which can be combined. These include, most obviously, size and position. Larger generally carries more visual weight. Farther from the center usually carries more visual weight. Additionally, color, value, and texture or detail, play parts in visual weight. Darker values are seen as heavier visually. Brighter hues or colors are seen as heavier visually. More detailed, either in texture or in shape, is seen as having more visual weight. Balance should be considered both horizontally and vertically. We automatically relate a scene to a landscape, putting in a horizon. You can use this as a simple way to divide a composition. Elements placed above the horizontal middle will seem to float in the space, while those placed below will seem grounded. Converge to create a equal distribution of visual weight within the particular composition. The design or arrangement of elements that appear to be a whole with equilibrium. The simplistic type of balance is called symmetrical balance which has a basic appeal to the viewer. Asymmetrical balance is achieved by unlike object that have "equal eye attraction".
Symmetry, radial, order, visual weight = balance
Effective design is enhanced by using only those elements which contribute to the idea of the composition, and the elimination of anything extraneous. Decoration is discarded in favor of clarity. If you don't need it, don't use it. Economy is the essence of abstract art - an attempt to convey the essence of the subject. Given a minimal set of stimuli, the viewer is invited to complete the message. Closure directly involves the viewer.
Economy, communication, effectiveness = clarity
Most design pieces use color to create an emotional response within the viewer. If designing strictly on function, the color might be totally irrelevant, unless the color was dictated by the materials used (steel in a building, wood in furniture, etc.) Most often, color is used because of what it means to the viewer. A simulated walnut finish on a plastic countertop represents more elegance and durability than the neutral cream colored plastic might. Even though some people might not classify them as colors, black and white can also evoke strong emotional responses. White is a color since it is a combination of all wavelengths of light just as yellow is a combination of certain wavelengths. We rarely see black - the absence of light - in a design piece. Some light is reaching our eyes from that 'black' area of the design piece. Therefore, it would have to be considered a color since color is wavelengths of light reaching our eyes. (Technically, one can never see true black since one can't see the absence of something - we do see variations of dark colors and grey that we perceive to be 'black'.) Our perceptions of colors are affected by the variations of tint, tone, and shade. The value, or lightness and darkness, of colors and color relationships such as contrast, complementing, and color averaging are also included in this component.
Neutral, black, white, intensity, tint, tone value, contrast, lightness = color
Design work relates to its surrounding. This environment completes the effectiveness of the piece. Meaning of work can be confusing and incomplete when design is taken out of context - removed from its surrounding environment.
Environment, relationship, surroundings = context
Contrast adds power and emphasis by providing a clear difference between elements, a dynamic tension. This difference aids focus, motion, and space. If two items (type, color, line thickness, shape, etc.) are not exactly the same, then make them obviously different. If they're not clearly different, they create conflict which can be uncomfortable to the reader/viewer. Contrast on a page draws the viewer's eyes - our mind likes the excitement that contrast provides. The basic purpose of contrast is to create interest on the page and aid in the organization of information.
Difference, attraction, clarity, distinct line = contrast
Viewers seem to yearn for some focus or emphasis in a design piece. Focus provides a starting point for the eye to scan a piece. We do not want to have to decide where to look first or what to look at next. One strong dominant target is usually preferable to two or more of equal emphasis that compete for our eye's attention. Sometimes, as in an advertisement or graphic design, if there is not an obvious choice of where to look first or if two parts of the piece are competing, our eye/mind may not want to struggle with it and it will go on and look at another piece or another page. Dominance or emphasis can be created by difference in size, color, shape, texture, etc. There should be a fairly obvious direction of eye movement within a piece - the visual hierarchy. This is the extension of the focus or emphasis. A focal point or main point of interest creates the guideline for the rest of the composition, giving the viewer a starting point. There are various ways to achieve emphasis. Placement. The most obvious, but often least effective, placement is at the center of a composition. Moving the main point of interest off the center will tend to activate the rest of the composition, even when there is little or no actual content. Isolation. A small element can gain much visual weight by isolating it from surrounding elements. Contrast. Contrast can be generated by various means, including mass, shape, value, hue, and texture, or combinations of these. For the graphic designer, emphasis is very important, as it reflects the organization of the content. In a very direct way, form should follow function. When looking at a text-based layout, the inherent structure of the language needs to be rectified in the visual structure of the layout. A heading should be seen first, then subhead, body text, and tagline or closer. Emphasis in graphic design most often involves creating a visual hierarchy of information, reflecting the hierarchy of the content.
Accent, focal point, emphasis, dominance, attention, target = focus
Our eye, which is constantly scanning and darting about an object, will follow the path of the most obvious direction. This flow of direction may be created by an established rhythm, repetition, a sequence of elements, or an apparent direction of advancement. The eye and brain seem to prefer activity and variety to passiveness. As a result, our flow of vision easily moves about a place. This inherent movement we see in a piece helps us to analyze and understand the design of the piece. Timed movement through space - the repetition or alternation of elements, often with defined or regular intervals between them. Rhythm can be created through repetition - a duplicated use of the same image, word, line, or other element; as a means of creating rhythm. Rhythm is produced by repetition. Its most obvious is staccato, or even, equal pulses. Much as in music, rhythm can vary from very staccato, abrupt, to very flowing and smooth. Working in conjunction with other principles, one can produce very complex visual rhythms, or may use very simple, straightforward ones. A recurrence or repetition of one or more elements within a visual composition with the goal of creating harmony, i.e. a rhythmic feeling. In visual arts it is the flow and movement of graphic elements. It is a principle based on repetition. It a distinct reputation of elements that are the same or slightly changed. Rhythmic reputation do not only occur in regards to shape and their arrangement by also in colors or textures. Alternating rhythm consists of successive patterns in which the element(s) continue to appear in a regular distinct order. Progressive rhythm is repetition of a shape the changes in a very regular manner. Repetition can unify and add visual interest - the reader can feel more comfortable with the familiarity that repetition provides.
Scanning, path, direction, movement, rhythm, flow, repetition = motion
Proximity refers to grouping bits of information or elements close enough to form an association. This grouping provides some comfort through familiarity. We humans like change but only if we can experience it from a foundation of something comfortable. Grouping like elements also aids clarity of understanding of information by creating a hierarchy of information.
Grouping, likeness, clarity = proximity
Upon approaching any design object - a building, a logo, a product, or a living room - we see that it exists. It is. It is real. Therefore, it must have some form, some shape to its being. This can be either a three-dimensional mass or a two-dimensional shape. To create or define this shape or mass, lines are formed - either lines within the piece or lines created by adjacent surfaces. The line could be an outline, as in a logo or graphic piece, or it could define smaller parts within the piece. A line in design is useless until it defines a shape - a curve, a rule, etc. A mass has no clarity until it is in a specific shape. Shapes can be either geometric - formed by mechanical straight-edges or organic - natural biomorphic forms. Shape in a 3-D environment creates volume and mass, either real or perceived.
Exists, form, volume, mass, line, surface, outline = shape
Another thing one can notice about the piece is its size. Size is strictly relative. That is, an elephant is large only when compared to people or a mouse. An elephant is small compared to the Sears Tower in Chicago, but we think of it as large because within its species of mammals, it is larger than the other members. A design piece by itself could have no relative size. It just is the size it is. One can better determine its size by putting it into a specific scale - a benchmark to judge it against. Proportion is important in design. A design piece must fit in with its environment. A flower pot may not look pleasing if it is so much larger than the plant that it overpowers it. The piece should be large enough to perform its function. A design piece can be monumental or miniature depending on the criteria used for measurement. Size cannot be determined without another object to relate the piece to (the two pieces do not have to be related in any other way.) Scale and proportion are concerned with the relative size - the relation of one object to another and the mathematical ratio. The golden rectangle or golden mean is a ratio in which the width is to the length as length is to length plus width (w:l as l:l+w).
Large, small, scale, proportion, fit, monumental, miniature = size
Another sense that is sometimes employed in analyzing a piece is the sense of hearing. Many pieces must convey a certain image. The sound of the object can either be created by the object itself (like a typewriter or the whirring of a fan) or by the piece being struck or striking another object (like a ball or dice in a game). The sound or silence created must convey the intent of the designer just as the shape or texture must convey the designer's intent. A successful industrial designer designed a fan that was absolutely quiet - no disrupting motor noise. Placed on the market, the company discovered the fans were being returned because the consumer felt the fans were not cooling very well. They were, but the consumer could not hear them working (as conditioned to with other fans) and assumed they could not be as effective. The sound of the fan proved to be an integral part of the design piece. Another designer created a new game board. Usually made of wood or felt covered, the new board was made of plastic. The sound of the dice striking and rolling on the game board gave a connotation of inferior quality. The sound of the pieces in the game were an important factor in conveying a certain image of the design piece.
Hearing, striking, quiet, loud = sound
The piece exists within a space. This space can sometimes be an integral part of the piece. The piece fills a space in a way that no other object can (except a duplicate of the piece). In two-dimensional pieces the space is created visually. The illusion of depth or space can be created through the use of perspective, overlapping, difference in size, difference in color, placement on the page, or a difference in detail. The illusion of space or the reality of space in a three-dimensional piece puts the piece in a dimension that goes beyond its basic shape or form.
Depth, perspective, overlapping, illusion = space
Taste & Smell
Taste and smell sometimes have to be considered as integral elements of design. If a product is designed to be used in the mouth (toothbrush, musical instrument, etc.) the material would have to be judged on its taste. If there was an offensive taste or one that did not help convey the appropriate image of the product, the user might use the product less or none at all. The smell (of materials, adhesives, inks, etc.) might hold true for the same reasons. Although rarely mentioned while talking about design, designers should avoid taking for granted any aspect of a design.
Aroma, sensation, salty, pleasant, sweet, = taste & smell
Another aspect unique to each design piece is the texture the piece conveys - its surface quality. The texture can be either tactile: literal and felt by the sense of touch or it can be visual: an image formed in the viewer's mind by mental association with previously felt textures. Certain patterns might evoke specific textural responses. Many times we place emotional feelings with the texture. We know that something smooth feels slick, sensuous, and usually more elegant than something that is rough, bristly, or coarse.
Literal feel, visual feel, touch, slick, rough, smooth = texture
A design piece needs to last for an amount of time that will allow the piece to perform its function. This duration can and should be influenced by the designer through the materials in the piece, the methods of construction or production, and the manner in which the piece is to be used or can be used (whether intended or not). This element of time seems obvious and yet it is worthy of mention as a factor for consideration while designing and during analysis.
Duration, existence, lifespan = time
The manner in which different forms in a design piece relate to each other is important - the harmony created by proximity, repetition, and balance. The parts of a piece may work well together and provide unity or they may clash with opposition or they might provide variety. Unity helps to create order. Design helps create order out of chaos. Even opposition or variety can unify a piece. Unity can be achieved with textures, colors, or other parts of the piece. Repetition of elements provides unity and comfort. Continuity of elements allows the viewer to quickly gain familiarity with the structure of a design. Multiple pages can share the same layout, or variations on the same basic structure. Web page navigational elements, menus, and content can be consciously arranged to appear in the same place on each page.
Relate, clash, variety, opposition = unity
Some activities to teach the Design Components
Conduct a discussion of the need for design components in analyzing, understanding, and communicating responses to design pieces. Students should be warned that they may find many variations of design elements and principles. Let students see the rationale for using these terms and show them other lists. Discuss additional terms and where they might fit into the list of components.
Discuss each component individually. Give examples for each as found in the classroom, or show images of examples, or have this discussion in a gallery or museum. Show how one can analyze a design piece by going through the components and discussing each aspect of the piece.
Have students find examples of each component in pictures from any published source: magazines, posters, websites, etc. Each image should show one component more strongly than the others. It should be obvious to someone looking at the image which component is being illustrated.
Have students draw symbols representing each component. The symbols may not help in verbalizing or communicating, but they might help the student to understand the basic concept. Some guidelines should be given: size, format, and whether the symbol can contain any text or letterforms.
Assign the students to create picture words to show the relationship between the written word and the concept it symbolizes. Relating the two might help the student make the mental connection between word and concept. Examples: