Principles of design for beginners and non-designers Part I: The theory and philosophy

Understating and applying the fundamental principles of design is crucial for achieving effective visual communication.  If you are an aspiring graphic designer, or a non-designer who needs to learn about visual communication for some reason, you must spend time studying these principles.  Most importantly, if you are serious about learning to design you need to internalize them in such a way as to see them occurring everywhere.  With practice and experience, you will be able to see these principles in action in your immediate environment.

You will not be able to understand these principles all at once.  You can memorize them, but true application comes from understanding how these principles manifest themselves in our surroundings in real life.  You must learn to see these principles in action all around you.  You will need to train your eyes to see them, so to speak.


Seeing for graphic designers:  Differentiating form from content

I always tell my students that learning to “see”, in the sense that a designer is able to perceive the world in visual terms, requires a very difficult action: separating form from content.  What I mean is that all the material things that we perceive around us are initially revealed to us only in terms of what we know about them.  If I point to a chair and ask you to tell me what you see, you will say that you see a chair, with four legs, made of wood, used for seating down, etc.  However, this description has nothing to do with its visual matter.  The visual skeleton of things is, in reality, their form.

The content is the preconception we have of things.  When we say that the sky is blue and the clouds are white, that is the content speaking.  The sky can have different tonalities and, if you really pay attention, clouds are never white, but a structure of different shades, colors, and textures.  Visually speaking, a chair is not a wooden thing with four legs. How would you describe a chair visually? The content and the form are very different.

Graphic designers must develop skills for differentiating content from form, and must learn to really “see” and understand how form works.  Your brain will always try to perceive the world through its content (the definitions, stereotypes, and preconceptions we have about all things) because it is always the easier operation. We are wired to simplify things for survival or evolution.  As humans, we stereotype information.  When we read, we perceive chunks of information, not sound followed by another sound.  We process information in packets.

But for the designer, the “content” loses the details.  It is always a stripped down version of the things it must represent or designate.  To perceive form, you need to pay attention to the details, to the way different visual cues connect, and to how the components of material existence integrate to the environment visually.

You have to learn to see how things are made-up visually.


Elements of design: The raw materials of perception

Before you begin to understand design principles and how they are applied, you must first understand the elements of design.  Simply put, design elements are all those components that make up the way we perceive something visually.  I like to explain the elements of design as the raw materials of perception, of all the things in the world that we perceive visually.

Every object, be it human-made or from the natural world, can be broken down into its main components.  A beautifully designed table is actually, before its final form, a strategic combination of raw materials:  wood, screws, glue, finish, etc.  In its final form, we only appreciate this unity, the table (the resulting “content” of that specific combination of elements).

When we encounter an object visually, we can differentiate all its visual components from the unity, but only if we pay close attention and understand how to “see.” Following the chair example, we would notice that it is composed of lines, shadows, colors, figures, and textures.  All these elements combine in such a way as to produce our perception of the unity “chair”.

These components of things are usually referred to as the elements of design, although we could also call them the elements of visual perception.  In the previous example, the design of the chair becomes the strategic combination of these elements in order to produce the best version of the unity “chair,” according to a specific idea about what a chair should be, how it should look like, and what its function should be.


Design strategy: Enter the principles of design

Our objective as graphic or visual designers is to represent objects, feelings, ideas, or concepts through graphic design.  Once we learn to perceive the elements of design, we are able to arrange those elements in certain ways as to produce effective representations.

You can view the principles of design as a set of guiding rules about what works, and what does not, in terms of arranging visual raw materials.  These “rules” do not necessarily work like laws, and are never literal or static.  In fact, each principle always works in relation to one another.  They never occur in a vacuum.

In addition, design principles are not mere “human-made” constructs, like a law or rule, but a set of time-proven (historical) truisms (self-evident truths) about how the natural world arranges itself visually and how we perceive it.  Design principles, I believe, are the human description (or codification) of how the natural world presents to us visually.  In other words, design principles are a set of proven guidelines that humans have put together through trial and error in their centuries-long journey of understanding how to represent the world.

Design principles, in sum, serve as a map that we use to arrange visual materials in the best way possible, according to specific intentions, strategies, and objectives.



A theory of design is crucial for learning how to create and producing effective visual communication.  Without design principles, we will most likely create work that is uninteresting, unappealing and, worse, unable to communicate effectively.

These are the main points to remember:

  • There is an important difference between what we think an object is, and how it looks like.


  • Designers must learn to “see” the “visual prime material” or perceive the visual features of things for what they are, not for what we “know” about them.


  • The elements of design are the very raw materials of our perception of things. Visual things are made up of visual elements.


  • Design principles are time-proven observations about how the world is visually arranged all around us.


  • Design principles serve as a blueprint for arranging visual elements in strategic, effective ways.