Principles of Design

The elements are used to create the Principles of Design. Principles are the results of using the Elements.  When you are working in a particular format (size and shape of the work surface) the principles are used to create interest, harmony and unity to the elements that you are using.  You can use the Principles of design to check your composition to see if it has good structure.

Principles of Design

There are at least two very different but correct ways of thinking about principles.  On one hand, a principle can be used to describe an operational cause and effect such as “bright things come forward and dull things recede”.  On the other hand, a principle can describe a high quality standard to strive for such as “unity is better than chaos” or “variation beats boredom” in a painting.  So, the same word, “principle” can be used for very different purposes.

The first way to think about a principle is that a principle is something that can be repeatedly and dependably done with elements to produce some sort of visual effect in a composition.  I am not confident that any list of these principles is comprehensive, but there are some that are more commonly.

Another way to think about a principle is that it is a way to express a value judgment about a composition.  I am not confident that any list of these effects is comprehensive, but there are some that are more commonly used.

Center of Interest

Center of interest is an area that first attracts attention in a composition. This area is more important when compared to the other objects or elements in a composition.  This can be by contrast of values, more colors, and placement in the format.


Balance is a feeling of visual equality in shape, form, value, color, etc.  Balance can be symmetrical or evenly balanced or asymmetrical and un-evenly balanced.  Objects, values, colors, textures, shapes, forms, etc., can be used in creating a balance in a composition. It is a state of equalized tension and equilibrium, which may not always be calm.


Asymmetrical produces an informal balance that is attention attracting and dynamic. Radial balance is arranged around a central element. The elements placed in a radial balance seem to ‘radiate’ out from a central point in a circular fashion.


Harmony brings together a composition with similar units.  If your composition was using wavy lines and organic shapes you would stay with those types of lines and not put in just one geometric shape. (Notice how similar Harmony is to Unity – some sources list both terms)


Contrast offers some change in value creating a visual discord in a composition. Contrast shows the difference between shapes and can be used as a background to bring objects out and forward in a design. It can also be used to create an area of emphasis.

Directional Movement

Directional Movement is a visual flow through the composition. It can be the suggestion of motion in a design as you move from object to object by way of placement and position.  Directional movement can be created with a value pattern. It is with the placement of dark and light areas that you can move your attention through the format.


Rhythm – is a movement in which some elements recurs regularly. Like a dance it will have a flow of objects that will seem to be like the beat of music.


Emphasis is created by contrasting size, positioning, color, style, or shape. The focal point should dominate the design with scale and contrast without sacrificing the unity of the whole.



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