The Vital Principles of Design All Designers Should Obey

Posted on July 16, 2019 | Updated on December 8, 2020

Designers are creative people at heart, so it’s easy to get caught up in the latest trends or new ideas and lose sight of the basics of good design. Yet, there is a reason some principles of design apply to nearly any project you take on. That’s why you should make sure you check off the basics for every project you complete.

The aesthetics of your design matter. Around 59 percent of people indicate they prefer a beautiful design over simplicity. At the same time, however, 41 percent say they are okay with something simple. So, the best choice is a mix of beauty and simplicity, but the overall look is only one aspect of design that you must pay attention to.

If you feel a little confused about which aspects of design are the most important, you aren’t alone. It can be difficult to hit all the basic design principles and still stay true to what users want. However, it is possible. Here are vital principles of design you should adhere to that will help users connect with your work.

1. Create Balance

Make sure your design has a balance of larger and smaller items and that the placement of those items is pleasing to the eye. You likely learned about this concept in early design classes, but it’s easy to lose sight of it as you push the rules to create your own style. Go back to the basics of balancing the elements on your page, and make sure the design isn’t too busy or too simple.

2. Allow Ample White Space

Part of the process of creating a balanced design is integrating positive and negative space in your design. The human eye needs a break from time to time, so make sure there is enough white space to allow for that rest. White space can also offset important elements in your design so they stand apart from other objects.

The art of using negative space was probably one of the early principles of design you learned. Revisit this concept every time you create a new design.

3. Work Where You’re Happy

As a designer, you have the choice of applying for work nearly anywhere. Freelancers can even work from home and travel to meet with clients. While there are some top cities for finding design work, you should choose a location that brings you happiness and, in turn, inspiration. Perhaps you prefer to stay close to the area where you grew up and where your extended family still resides, or maybe you want to move far away to experience a new beach or a big city.

Regardless of what you choose, if you’re miserable with your living situation, it will show in your work. Weigh the benefits of each possibility and choose the best option for you.

4. Repeat and Repeat Some More

One of the basic principles of design is the concept of repetition. Repeating an element in your design strengthens the impact of that particular object. If you want to grab a user’s attention, try repeating patterns. You can use this concept for background or foreground designs. Try different techniques until you find the one which speaks to you and your users.

5. Adhere to the Rule of Thirds

If your design seems unbalanced or something seems off, go back to the Rule of Thirds. This rule is one of the principles of design used more frequently in photography, but it applies to many different design concepts. Basically, you break the design template into thirds and then you align images within the boxes for a balanced look. The lines your workspace is broken into provide you with markers for where objects should go and which areas should be negative space.

6. Follow Fitt’s Law

When you have an interactive element on a web page, such as a clickable button, keep Fitt’s Law in mind. Fitt’s Law states that the larger an object is, the easier it is to move to it and take action. So, make your call to action (CTA) button just a bit larger than the other elements on your web page.

7. Hone in with Occam’s Razor

Designers today have numerous tools at their disposal, creating a unique ability for designers to show off their creativity and uniqueness. This can also create problems, though. The excess of tools available makes it easier to accidentally throw too much into a design.

Occam’s Razor is a principle of design which dictates that the simpler solution is the best solution. So, if you can’t decide if you should add in that extra thing or lose it, go with the simpler solution for now. You can always add things back in later on.

8. Limit Choices to Seven

When designing a website’s navigation, try to limit the categories and choices available to the user down to seven or less. Miller’s Law states that humans can hold seven objects, plus potentially two more, in their minds at a time. If you go over seven, you risk losing the user’s focus. Try to scale designs back to seven or less. This isn’t always possible, but if it comes down to that, you can also try utilizing tools like mega menu to better organize a website design.

9. Keep Type Readable

When creating print or digital designs, it’s important to keep the size of the font readable. If you go too large without having text that optimizes to screen size, you risk losing your mobile viewers. On the other hand, if you go too small, then you risk losing those who struggle to read the type on the screen.

A good rule of thumb to aim for is around 12-point font, but this varies depending on the font you choose. Instead, you can look at the design from different angles. Step back from the computer and take a long, hard look. Get feedback from others as well before deciding if the size is right for your design.

10. Consider the Medium

At the same time, you must also consider the design medium. Even though a 12-point font works well for a magazine ad, it obviously doesn’t work for a billboard. Think about the ways people will view the finished design.

For example, if you’re designing a banner for a trade show booth, what distances will people view the banner from? Will the banner hang high or low? What other banners are likely to be around the booth, and how can you make your design pop among them while still keeping everything readable?

11. Add Contrast

For a sharper design, contrast always wins. A deep blue on a white background pops, but there is a myriad of color choices, and every color combination has a different impact. For example, if you’re designing a website, you want to ensure plenty of contrast between the text and the background so that the text is readable. Consider how contrast can play a role in the finished design for every project you work on.

12. Stay Inside the Norm

When designing a website, it’s important not to get so inventive that you make your site too radically different from other sites in your niche. Jakob’s Law states it is difficult for users to change their habits. If other websites place the navigation near the top of the page, you should consider doing so as well. If you place it across the center of the page or at the bottom, you risk losing people who can’t or won’t change their browsing habits. Save your creativity for areas such as the logo design or photos you use, while meeting user expectations for aspects like the navigation and layout.

13. Keep Headlines Short

Smartphones are becoming the most popular means by which people access the Internet, and as a result, people have even more of a tendency to skim text than ever before. Make sure your text is skimmable by keeping headlines short and to the point. Think about the width of the headline on a screen and how far across the page the user has to read to absorb the information.

14. Know Your Own Design Weaknesses

Every designer has their weaknesses. Be aware of what yours are and which design principles will best help you to overcome those weaknesses. Tape a sticky note to the corner of your computer screen reminding you to watch for the problem area and fix it before sending your finished designs out into the world.

Break All the Rules

The basic principles of design help designers meet user expectations, but don’t be afraid to break the rules from time to time. Follow your instincts. If you feel a design works better if you break one rule, then go for it. Understand that not everyone may relate to your vision, and you may find it doesn’t work in the long run. However, it is better to experiment and try new things than to not innovate at all.

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

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