The fundamentals of design are the basis of every visual medium, from fine art… to modern web design… even small details, like the fonts that make up most compositions. What do these examples have in common? Some very basic elements, including line, shape, form, texture, and balance. They might not seem like much on their own, but together… they’re part of almost everything we see and create. The fundamentals can be intimidating, especially if you don’t consider yourself an artist. However, there’s a lot they can teach you about working with different assets and creating simple visuals from scratch.
Let’s start at the beginning with one of the most basic elements of all… the line. A line is a shape that connects two or more points. It can be fat or thin… wavy or jagged. Every possibility gives the line a slightly different feel.
Lines appear frequently in design; for example, in drawings and illustrations… and graphic elements, like textures and patterns. They’re also common in text compositions, where they can add emphasis… divide or organize content… or even guide the viewer’s eye. When working with lines, pay attention to things like weight, color, texture, and style. These subtle qualities can have a big impact on the way your design is perceived.
Look for places where lines are hiding in plain sight; for example, in text. Even here, experimenting with different line qualities can give you very different results. A shape is any 2-dimensional area with a recognizable boundary. This includes circles, squares, triangles, and so on. Shapes fall into two distinct categories: geometric (or regular) and organic (where the shapes are more freeform).
Shapes are a vital part of communicating ideas visually. They give images heft and make them recognizable. We understand street signs, symbols, and even abstract art largely because of shapes. Shapes have a surprising number of uses in everyday design. They can help you organize or separate content… create simple illustrations… or just add interest to your work.
Shapes are important because they’re the foundation of so many things. Learn to look for them in other designs, and soon, you’ll start seeing them everywhere. When a shape becomes 3D, we call it a form. Forms can be 3-dimensional and exist in the real world… or they can be implied, using techniques like light, shadow, and perspective to create the illusion of depth. In 2-dimensional design, form makes realism possible.
Without it, a bouncing rubber ball is just a circle. A 3D building is just a series of rectangles. Even flat designs use subtle techniques to hint at form and depth. In everyday compositions, the purpose of form is the same, but on a smaller scale. For example, a simple shadow can create the illusion of layers… or give an object a sense of place.
Basic forms can bring a touch of realism to your work—a powerful tool when used in moderation. Texture is the physical quality of a surface. Like form, it can be 3-dimensional—something you can see and touch—or it can be implied, suggesting that it would have texture if it existed in real life. In design, texture adds depth and tactility to otherwise flat images. Objects can appear smooth, rough, hard, or soft, depending on the elements at play.
For beginners, textures make great background images and can add a lot of interest to your work. Look closely, and you may find texture in unexpected places, like distressed fonts… and smooth, glossy icons. Just be careful not to go overboard—too much texture in a single design can quickly become overwhelming.
Balance is the equal distribution of visual weight (in other words, how much any one thing attracts the viewer’s eye). Balance can be affected by many things, including color, size, number, and negative space. Mastering balance can be tricky for beginners, because it does take some intuition. Luckily, the design world is full of examples that you can help you understand its different iterations.
Symmetrical designs are the same or similar on both sides of an axis. They feel balanced because each side is effectively the same (if not identical). Asymmetrical designs are different, but the weight is still evenly distributed. The composition is balanced because it calls attention to the right things. Many people use a strategy called the rule of thirds. This imagines your work area divided into a 3×3 grid.
The focal point of the image is placed on or near one of these lines, creating visual balance with the rest of the space. We find this type of composition appealing because, according to studies, the human eye naturally follows this path when scanning a design. The fundamentals of design are all about the bigger picture—in other words, learning to appreciate the many small details that make up every composition.
This insight can be applied to almost any type of project, whether you’re creating your own graphics… or just looking for simple ways to enhance your work. Thanks for joining us for the fundamentals of design. Check out the rest of our design topics, including color, typography, and more.