Notepad with doodles

What are the elements of design?

By BBC Maestro

If you want to work as a graphic designer, it’s essential that you have a good understanding of the fundamentals of design. Every piece of work that you produce will contain some, if not all, of the elements of design which form the basis of the design’s structure. 
 
In this article, we take a closer look at the elements of design. What are these, how do they work together, and how does the graphic designer use them in practice? 

Jump to:

What are design elements?

The elements are often described as the ‘building blocks of design. Without these fundamental elements, there would simply be no finished composition, just a blank screen or piece of paper (possibly with a grid marked on it). Every ​​trainee graphic designer needs to become familiar with the main elements of design, of which there are 7.  
 
These include shape, form, line, space, colour, value and texture, and the role of the graphic designer is to draw on these seven elements to create something unique. Used in certain ways, the elements can evoke a mood or enhance a brand. They can capture the attention of the audience, and hold it. The possibilities from these seven elements are endless – and timeless. Graphic designer Paula Scher comments: 
 
“Designers are constantly making discoveries and learning from those discoveries. They make choices and decisions for problems with many, many possible solutions. Using the same elements we’ve had to communicate with one another for years, designers work to create visuals that are new and eye-catching.” 

tracing on paper

What’s the difference between elements and principles of design? 

We also talk about the principles of design – how do these differ from the elements of graphic design? 
 
As we described them a moment ago, the elements are the building blocks of the design (the colour, shape, texture and so on). The principles are how we put those building blocks together during the ​​composition process. The principles of design can be contrast, balance, hierarchy, repetition, symmetry, proportion – any way that these elements are introduced or laid out.  

What are the 7 elements of design? 

Let’s take a closer look at the elements of design and see which role each one plays. 

orange and white book page

1. Shape 

A shape in graphic design is an element that’s defined by its boundary, whether visible or implied. All designs are made up of shapes, which work with other elements such as colour, line and form. Shapes are usually 2D, and can be separated into three basic forms: geometric, organic and abstract. 
 
Geometric shapes are precise and definite, while organic shapes are less clearly defined and often feel more natural. Abstract shapes are representational; you’ll see them on icons, logos and environmental signage. Different shapes can be used to convey meanings, such as a warning triangle. A circle can be used to represent wholeness or something that’s cyclical in nature.  

2. Form

Form and shape are sometimes spoken of as the same thing, although a form typically differs by having a 3D element. You’ll doubtless come across a few definitions of form because it’s probably the trickiest element to pin down; however, at its simplest, form is a shape that’s given 3D qualities to create the illusion of a physical form. 
 
You can give your form a 3D appearance by using techniques such as shadow and light, which create a specific relationship with the background and other elements. Form and space aren’t interchangeable but changing one will affect the other. 

3. Line 

Lines can define a shape or space, and you can choose to make a feature of the lines (like in the image above). Lines can be used to emphasise other elements and support the design’s hierarchy: for example, a heavier line draws the viewer’s eye more than a fine line does. 
 
However, a design is also full of lines that the viewer never consciously sees but that you, the designer, are aware of. Lines are used to create the composition and hierarchy of the design, and the invisible lines between the elements guide the viewer where to look. As a designer, you may have also used a ​​graphic design grid to inform your layout during the design process. 

4. Space 

Space is sometimes described as the ‘negative space’ around the other elements. It’s such an important element of design: imagine a composition that’s made up entirely of shapes and objects, with no blank spaces. It would be an exhausting piece of work to look at. 
 
The more negative space your design has, the lighter and airier it appears. These blank spaces help to highlight the elements by providing a clear background, and it’s much easier to guide your viewer through the design if the overall effect is clean. 

pile of colour pencils

5. Colour

Colour is such an essential element of design. It can be used to give a design work impact, to identify a brand or to create a specific mood. Often, it can do all three at once. Think of the different feelings that pale blue, dark green and faded orange evoke, and you’ll appreciate how vital colour is to design work. A cautionary note: if you’re designing for a global or a broad audience, bear in mind that different colours have different meanings culturally, so do your research. 
 
As a graphic designer, you’ll also need to be aware of the two colour modes, ​​RGB and CMYK. RGB stands for Red, Green, Blue, and because it uses light to create colour, it is used for digital design. CMYK is Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black, and is the colour mode you’d use for printed material. You can switch between formats; however, for the best and most accurate use of colour, design your work in the right mode for the finished format. 

6. Value 

Colour also has value, which describes how light or dark the colour is, and is often referred to as ‘a gradient’. Colour terminology has its own specific meanings in the context of graphic design, and you’ll come across: 

  • Hue: the pure colour 
  • Saturation: how pure and intense the colour is
  • Shade: a darker version made when black is added
  • Tint: a lighter version made when white is added
  • Tone: a more muted version made when grey is added 

You can use colour value to create a specific mood or to help bring dimension, movement, and texture to a shape. 

7. Texture

There are two types of texture in graphic design. ‘Tactile texture’ is the actual, physical introduction of texture to a design, such as adding fabric, layers of wood or beads to printed material.  
 
‘Visual texture’ is when texture is created digitally. Clever use of colour, shape, patterns, and photography gives a 2D design the illusion of texture, adding depth and interest. Sometimes the expression ‘texture’ is used when talking about the multiple layers of elements in a design. 

A bonus number 8: Movement 

As animation becomes a more significant part of digital design, there’s an argument that movement should be classed as a graphic design element. Animation helps with audience engagement and is a valuable tool for websites and apps. If actual animation isn’t possible, form, colour and line can be used to recreate the feeling of movement. 
 
That was a bit of a whistle-stop tour through the seven (or eight) elements of design. There’s so much potential to be found within these fundamental “building blocks”, as you’ll discover on your journey through graphic design. 
 
To find out more about working with the elements and principles of design, explore graphic designer Paula Scher’s BBC Maestro course, Graphic Design. She takes us through her design process, step-by-step, showing us all the elements and principles involved, using real-life examples. 

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