19 Graphic Design Principles We All Should Obey

Posted on May 18, 2020 | Updated on December 17, 2020

No matter when your training or education was, it’s easy to forget basic graphic design principles over time. However, there are some rules we should all obey. They make for better-finished products and higher usability. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are 290,100 graphic designers in America. The average median pay is around $25.05 per hour. While you must develop new skills, you also must maintain a few standards along the way. Doing so keeps you highly competitive in the field. 

After looking at all the basic skills needed, we chose 19 graphic design principles to keep in mind. Go over these basics before starting a new gig, and review your work keeping core elements in mind.

1. Keep Your Logo Simple

Almost 67% of business owners say they would pay $500 or more for a good logo design. Your logo needs to be simple and to the point. Stay away from difficult-to-read typefaces or shapes that make zero sense for the brand.

2. Uses Lines to Create Motion

The lines in your design are the simplest part of the whole. However, they can create motion, drawing the user’s eye to different parts of your page. Use lines to separate sections, connect elements or move the viewer toward a goal. 

3. Add Interest With Texture Adds

Basic graphic design principles, such as combining shadows and patterns to create texture, work for almost every project. Texture adds a subtle effect to web design when you put it in the background. It can also draw attention to typography or a particular image on the page.

4. Convey Emotion With Color

There is an entire psychology behind the use of color to consider when coming up with a new palette. For example, red conveys excitement, while dark blue shows stability. The shades you use can send as strong of a message as the words themselves. 

5. Remember Contrast

The values you use in your colors make a big difference in the aesthetics of your design, whether light or dark. Make sure the text contrasts with the background and is readable even to those with slight visual impairments. Can a colorblind person see the words, or will the letters fade away and become a gray mess?

6. Choose a Size Hierarchy

The size of the different elements indicates their importance. Size hierarchy is one of many vital graphic design principles. Before you begin the design, think through the things you want the user to focus on. Make them more significant than the other features. 

7. Include White Space

The juxtaposition between positive and negative space is what draws the person’s eye across your design. If you have too little white space, you’ll have a cluttered look. Too much white space can be distracting and pull attention from where you want. Aim for an aesthetically pleasing balance of both.

8. Repeat Elements for Emphasis

Graphic design principles often achieve a specific purpose. Repeating an element helps you emphasize what’s important. For example, if you want to get across the idea of strength, repeat the word “strong.” You can do this with images, layouts, colors, text or patterns.

11. Connect Matching Items

If you want items to go together, you should either place them close in proximity or connect them. For example, you can draw an arrow between an image and text on a webpage. You could use lines to link two sections of an ad. Alternatively, you can simply place those elements side-by-side. 

12. Align Every Element

One mistake beginners make is filling in blank spots without thinking through the reasons for doing so. Professors teach graphic design principles, such as alignment, to help you avoid these mistakes. Even if you’ve been designing for a while, you might fall back into old habits. Think about where different items go and why. Consider things such as proximity and white space as you align different elements. 

13. Find Your Happy Place

Design is very much a creative process. Set up an area you enjoy so you can focus on your tasks in a positive environment. Freelancers can work from anywhere. Choose a small shaded table on your back patio, find a favorite coffee shop or rent out some office space. Fill the environment with your favorite music and even some inspirational sayings. 

14. Get Feedback

One of the first graphic design principles you learn in college is to get feedback from others. You will almost always make mistakes and find problems in your work. Your mind tends to see things the way you imagine them. A second set of eyes is a vital part of a successful design career.

15. Find Your Balance

Remember learning about the Rule of Thirds in school? You divide the image up into a grid and keep the main element in certain boxes. The balance varies, depending on what you’re photographing or designing. However, if your design feels off-kilter, going back to this rule helps. 

16. Keep Interactive Elements Large

When looking at human movements, Fitt’s Law states that a large object is easier to move and interact with. Size becomes particularly important with interactive features on a page. Since many people access the internet via their mobile devices, they work with smaller screens than ever before. You must make clickable elements large enough for humans to touch and use.

17. Create Balance Through Tension

Although you can create a symmetrical balance with a grid layout or by centering everything, sometimes you need tension. It puts the viewer on edge and grabs attention. It sends a strong message about a problem the consumer faces, for example. 

Create tension by not aligning things too tightly. Place some elements to the left and others in the bottom right corner. Any type of uncommon alignment creates some stress. You must be careful in using this technique, though. Too much differentiation becomes a mess and the user bounces away.

18. Tell a Story

Graphic design principles dictate that every creation tells a unique story. Think about the message you’re conveying through the overall look. Sometimes it is as simple as informing the consumer of a new product. At other times, you’re sharing the mission of a company, personality behind the brand or more. No matter how basic, make sure the dots all connect and a story forms. 

19. Keep Navigation Easy

When designing for the internet, develop a navigation hierarchy guiding the user to the right location. Some websites have a lot of pages and need main categories breaking into smaller subcategories. Look for ways of simplifying the overall structure, such as mega menus or dropdowns

Take a Step Back

Once you lay out your design, take a step back from the screen and give everything a fresh look. What draws your eye first? Do the most important elements stand out? If you still aren’t sure, enlist feedback from a trusted mentor or colleague. Make adjustments as necessary.

The graphic design principles above should help you stay on point no matter where you are on the designer spectrum. The only way to excel in your field is to understand the basics. Only then will you know when to break the rules and when to follow them. 

About The Author

Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her exploring the outdoors with her husband and dog in their RV, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or curled up with a good book with her cats Gem and Cali.

You can find more of Eleanor's work at www.eleanorhecks.com.


  1. Bob Ashker on May 27, 2020 at 11:15 am

    #1 is overstated. For every Apple or Nike logo there are 100 logos that are complex and don’t necessarily scale well or don’t translate to black and white well or that use complex elements like gradients (Think Firefox, Starbucks, Captain Morgans, etc.)
    Good/effective logos are where you find them.

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