The goal of this article is to introduce you to the most basic elements of design. Whether you’re styling your blog, selecting a graphic illustration for an article, working on an advertisement, or simply just expressing your artistic side, these building blocks provide a foundation on which you can build an amazing understanding of the vast world of design.

Allow me to introduce you to the line, shape, space, volume, value, color, and texture. These are the building blocks with which you can create emotions, convey stories, and deliver powerful messages.

The Basic Elements of Design
#1: Line

We have to begin with the line because just as I’ve mentioned that these elements are the foundation of all visual design, the line is the foundation for the rest of these elements. Lines are the foundation for a reason: they’re powerful and the way they’re used can transform the entire landscape and emotional appeal of a graphic.

Lines can be soft, curvy and relaxing or rigid, sharp and mechanical. They can express strength with their thickness, can define shapes, and can produce textures.

  • Implied Lines: As we discuss lines, it’s important that I also introduce you to both visual and implied lines. Visual lines are lines you see. Implied lines are lines that your eye creates from the pattern of elements found in a design. To aid in understanding this concept, let me share an example. If you look down the left hand side of the text on this page, you’ll see that all of the words line up neatly from the top of the page to the bottom. This forms an implied line that the edge of each row of text aligns with.
  • Direction: One of the most fascinating uses of lines is the creation of direction into your artwork. Direction is the feeling of movement and combined with other elements, it can guide where our eyes land and where they move throughout the design. They can also be used to further build certain emotion. For example, rigid, vertical lines can create a feeling of stability.
Introducing the Basic Elements of Design

The Basic Elements of Design
#2: Shape

When you first view an object from a distance, you don’t see the lines, their thickness, or their qualities, you simply see shapes. And from those shapes your mind constructs what the object is. A pear can be identified with nothing more than a pencil sketch outline without any coloring or texture. When that pear is reduced to its simplest possible form to which if you were to take away anything further you would no longer be able to identify it, you still have a shape. Shapes can come in the following forms:

  • Realistic: Realism includes photos and artwork that represent the natural world in a way that we’re used to perceiving it.
  • Distorted: Distortion includes realistic images that have been twisted and manipulated but are still recognizable. Often political cartoons use this style to exaggerate noses, ears and other features.
  • Stylized: Stylization is an art that lacks realism but also only has a slight abstraction to it. The simplified approach requires less interpretation and is often used to make a specific message more obvious.
  • Abstract: Abstraction is the art of reducing shapes to their simplest forms much like in our example of the pear.
  • Nonobjective: Nonobjective design is includes art that has no recognizable form.

The Basic Elements of Design
#3: Space

There are two types of space: positive and negative. Positive space describes the object of focus in a design while negative space is the empty area surrounding the shape. With our first four types of shapes, it’s often quite easy to recognize the difference between positive and negative space. With nonobjective design, however, it’s often difficult to differentiate and often they can be considered as either.

The Basic Elements of Design
#4: Volume

Volume is the aspect of design that identifies the aspects of a three dimensional object. True three dimensional art needs to be viewed in an actual environment, but often we perceive things as three dimensional by the way the artist delivers the visual information about a shape’s length, width, and depth.

The Basic Elements of Design
#5: Value

Value is the aspect of design that describes light and dark and the contrast between the two. It’s this contrast that allows us make up shapes and form. The more extreme this contrast, the more clarity and depth of design. Less contrast reveals subtlety.

  • High Key: High key is the term used to refer to values that are extremely light. These often suggest more positive, happier emotions.
  • Low Key: Low key is the term used to refer to values that are extremely dark. These often suggest a more serious mood.

The Basic Elements of Design
#6: Color

Color is an incredibly powerful and fun element of design. Essentially, it’s nothing more than an element of light.

  • Subtractive: Physical objects absorb and reflect light. A red apple absorbs all of the colors except red which it reflects to our eyes. The primary colors in the subtractive set of light are Blue, Yellow and Red. You probably experimented with the various colors that can be made from mixing them together when you were a child perhaps with finger paints or with crayons. Combine all these colors together and you’ll find yourself with a dark, muddy gray.
  • Additive: Additive colors are the colors produced by combining emitted light like on a TV or a computer monitor.  The primary colors in the additive set of lights are Red, Green, and Blue. Combine all these colors together and you’ll find yourself with pure white.

The Basic Elements of Design
#7: Texture

The element of design that describes the quality of an object’s surface is known as texture. Implied texture is that which we cannot see or feel. It’s actually an illusion of texture. Tactile texture is texture that we can see and feel.

Conclusion

Now that you’ve been introduced to the basic elements of design, I want to challenge you to look around at the world of design that we’re surrounded by. Look at posters at the mall, logos for your favorite companies, and even at your own blog or website. What elements do you see now? How are they used? And what stands out to you?

Nicholas Cardot

About Nicholas Cardot

It's my personal quest to enable every person that I can to unlock that dormant potential concerning their online influence. Also, I'm a geek.

11 Comments

  • Thanks for getting the focus on beautiful design.

    There are enough ugly templates and samey sites around. Not the web has been proven as a marketing tool hopefully people will invest in making their sites look good too:)

    Space is the most important aspect you mention here with color and texture being the most fun:)

  • Dan Cristo says:

    Awesome info for design beginners like myself. would be helpful if there were some more visuals to aid each aspect.

  • Radu Tyrsina says:

    You did an awesome job “decorating” this website, a real example of modern science mixed with artistic sense

  • Aanchal says:

    Really interesting article, If you’ve clear undestanding about design and use the best combination of colors only then you can make impact with your designs.

  • tushar says:

    i am damn serious. for a moment, i thought i am sitting in my art class. It was so familiar this post. good work nicolas

  • Melanie says:

    I am an aspiring graphic artist and I really appreciate your post. I really agree with most of your points and I must say, Thank you for sharing!
    P.s. I love the site design of sitesketch101 by the way. 🙂

  • Nicholas,

    This is a great overview. I am in the process of “designing” a giveaway on my blog. Being “all thumbs” when it comes to this topic, the checklist will help.

    That being said, even with help it will likely look like a rank amateur did it – well, at least it would be authentic then, wouldn’t it!

  • Nicholas,

    Tech question, when at this site it seems to refresh from time to time, and when it does it kicks me back to the top. Is this a site issue or a browser issue?

  • Mel Melhado says:

    Making the blog look good is very important. Often I’ve been drawn to explore more about a blog which have awesome designs and color combinations. Your blog is one perfect example.

  • ALex Green says:

    Great info for a beginner designer like me!! I am loving your design.

  • zac says:

    never thought of website design could be so interesting! Nice info. It will certainly help me to better assess the design of a site rather than simply putting it as “nice” or “no nice”

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