The Basics of Graphic Design

The Basics of Graphic Design

When it comes to branding, one of the things you’ll want to pay attention to is your look. From your logo to your social media feed, all of the visual elements you put out into the world should be cohesive and tell a story about your brand. If you’re just getting started, it might be tempting to just go with your gut and design things that look good to you – but there is more to a great graphic design than that! Here are some tried-and-true elements and principles of graphic design that will help to ensure your designs not only look good to you but also look professional and appealing to your target audience.

Elements of graphic design

Let’s start at the beginning – what do we mean when we say ‘element of design?’ An element of design is the basic building block that makes up any piece of art or design. These elements include

  • A line is most simplistic of the graphic design elements, defined as a one-dimensional figure that extends in both directions. However, unlike in geometry, a line in graphic design can be straight, wavy, wide, or narrow. Lines can be used for emphasis, to draw someone’s eye through a design, or just for simplicity. 
      • Example: Cisco is a company whose logo uses very simple lines for its logo. The lines vary slightly in height to represent the symmetry of the Golden Gate Bridge. This is a nod to Cisco’s humble origins and the name being a shortened version of San Francisco. Today, the tech giant’s logo is an example of how this basic element of design can still be a powerful one in branding if you use it strategically. 
  • Lines create shapes, another element of design. These two-dimensional areas can be any size or style, from irregular to geometric. Shapes can portray your brand’s product or another element that is important to your company. However, it’s important to be mindful of how shapes can also quickly overwhelm your design. Because of this, you want to use shapes in your design intentionally.  
      • Example: One of the most prominent logos that comes to mind when thinking about shape is Apple. The minimalistic apple shape has become iconic and synonymous with the major tech brand. Apple’s name lends itself to this use of shape, and the style of the design further promotes Apple’s message as being a high-quality product.
  • Color is one of the design elements that can quickly draw someone’s eye. When choosing what colors you want to use, keep in mind that there are powerful psychological meanings behind them — we wrote more about color psychology in branding here. If you decide that red would do best for your audience, however, keep in mind that not all reds are created equal. Every color has a different saturation, hue, and value, and each of these characteristics adds to the messaging. 
      • Example: One well-known company that uses red in its branding is Coca-Cola. The rich red color has been proven to stimulate one’s appetite, making it a smart choice for a beverage company to use, as it subconsciously encourages viewers to take action and engage with the product.
  • Texture is an element of design that appeals to someone’s sense of touch. Using texture wisely in your design can evoke the feeling of running your hand along something, such as a crumpled piece of paper, or swallowing a crisp, refreshing drink on a hot day. Texture can be used as a background in a social media post, to add an extra element to your text, or to give depth to one of your shapes. 
      • Example: Dove Chocolate is no stranger to using texture in its branding. Its packaging often depicts a piece of its product splashing in a thick pool of chocolate. This alludes to the silky and rich texture you can expect to get when eating the chocolate, and Dove has expertly crafted its still designs to represent that experience. 
  • Have you noticed how every brand’s lettering looks different? The typography choice is another intentionally chosen element of design. The art of styling your type is a major way to incorporate your brand’s messaging into your design. Want to convey a knowledgeable and professional tone? Use a clean, serif font. Is your brand more focused on promoting luxury or even whimsy? Try a flowing, script font. 
      • Example: Kleenex tissues may be associated with crying, so its logo uses a lighter, whimsical script font to combat this. The lazy, looping letters suggest comfort or playfulness rather than dwelling on the more melancholy aspects of what its product may be used for.
  • It might be surprising to hear that the lack of an element can actually be an element itself. A blank space is often intentionally placed in a design to emphasize another part of the piece. 
      • Example: Magazines and newspapers expertly use space, often called white space, to design their pages. Space between columns, for example, allows each one to read coherently. Blank space can also be used around the title in order for it to stand out from the body of the article.
  • Size is an element of design that is used for everything. How big or small is your text on your website? How much space does a shape take up in an Instagram post? While everything has a size, this element can be strategically used to show a hierarchy, depicting which information is the most important. 
      • Example: Take a look at this webpage and how some text varies in size. The title is invariably the largest in size, followed by the subheadings and then the body text. This is done purposely to call attention to different parts of the article. Imagine if everything was one size — it would be hard to discern where different sections started and what information was the most important for you to read.

Principles of graphic design

Once you understand the elements of design, it’s not always very obvious how to put them into practice. However, there are some generally agreed upon principles of design which offer guidelines to how these elements can be implemented and arranged. Using these principles and elements wisely can maximize the effect your design has on your audience and allow your true message to come across to them. These principles include:

  • Proximity is the distance between two or more of your elements. Depending on what your goal is, you might want your elements to be closer or farther apart from each other. Being strategic with your elements’ proximity can help your audience absorb the information you want them to. 
      • Example: Think of the Adidas logo. Its iconic three stripes are an example of using proximity in graphic design. Though it’s really just made of three simple lines, spacing them close together creates a mountainous shape, which furthers Adidas’ message by suggesting that those who purchase the brand can overcome any mountains they encounter. 
  • Another principle of design is alignment. Aligning your elements means lining them up in a certain way. Most elements can be aligned to the right, left, or center. Text is best aligned to the left because it makes it easier for people to read. However, other elements, such as pictures, can be aligned differently depending on what message you want to get across.
      • Example: The Domino’s Pizza logo uses three distinct shapes: two squares on the top and a rectangle on the bottom. However, because the shapes are aligned to create one big square, it creates the illusion of a pizza box, appropriate for this popular food brand.
  • Creating patterns with your elements can establish repetition in your design. This element is one that shouldn’t be overdone because it can lead to a sense of stagnancy — or lack of diversity — or clutter in your work. When done right, repetition should feel organized and not overwhelming. 
      • Example: The Audi logo is a series of four rings that interlock with each other. Because the spacing between them are uniform, and all of the rings are aligned with each other, this repetition looks clean and classy. 
  • Balance can also be thought of as the symmetry in a design. Though a design doesn’t have to be identical on each side, there should be a sense of similarity in the elements present to balance itself and create a stable look. 
      • Example: The Chanel logo is a classic example of a balanced design. The two mirrored Cs have their own distinct identities but are equally spaced and aligned with each other. If you cut the image in half, each side would look the same. This perfectly balanced logo promotes Chanel’s own message of perfection and luxury.
  • A final principle of design is contrast. Contrasting can mean using varying sizes, colors or other elements to create emphasis on certain parts of your design. 
      • Example: The FedEx logo has two split colors: “Fed” is purple and “Ex” is traditionally orange. This contrast not only easily alerts viewers to comprehend the two distinct words, but it also alludes to different parts of the company. However, the color of “Ex” can change when referring to a different department. For example, an orange “Ex” is referring to FedEx Express. If the “Ex” is green, the logo is for FedEx Ground, and if it’s red, it stands for FedEx Freight.

Tools for graphic design

Understanding the elements and principles of graphic design can help you better promote your brand’s message and connect more authentically with your audience. Now that you’re thinking of ideas to design, you might be wondering where or how to even get started. For beginners, Canva’s free platform can give you just what you’re looking for. If you’re feeling like you want to explore design a bit more in-depth and step away from simple, pre-made designs, Adobe programs such as InDesign, Illustrator or Photoshop can give you the tools to do that. For those who prefer drawing by hand, the iPad app ProCreate is a great alternative for digital design. If this still sounds complicated, that’s OK — graphic design is a skill that can take years to learn and master. So why not leave it to the professionals? Contact Creative Juice’s talented team and we can design your brand graphics that are sure to make your message shine. 🍑