Approaches to design are a subject of much debate, with both overlaps and differences between different disciplines like graphic design, fine art and photography.

Rule-based approaches

Conventionally design is seen as the application of rules of composition, based partly on cultural tradition – with very different conventions for example between Western and Eastern art. More recently use of graphic design in advertising has led to a lot of psychological research on viewer reactions to elements like line, shape, colour and texture. And the degree to which these reactions may be hard-wired in the human brain, and how far they are learned and hence culturally variable and changeable over time.

Breaking the rules

Design as exploration and experiment

de Sausmarez, principles of art and design

Design should be:

A an attitude of mind, not a method

B primarily a form of enquiry, not a new art form

C not only an enquiry about the marks and structures which appear out of the materials used, but also enquiry about the sources and terms of personal expression and reaction to the world around us

D concerned with form in a fundamental sense in every field, it is not exclusively abstract or non-figurative; there is as much a need for intensive rethinking and reshaping of our attitude to ‘realism’ and figural studies

E emphatically not an end in itself but a means of making the individual more acutely aware of the expressive resources at his [sic] command; a fostering of inquisitiveness about phenomena, great and small, on the paper or canvas, in the external world or the internal world of visions, personal reactions and preferences.

de Sausamrez Basic Design: the Dynamics of Visual Form 1964 p15

Elements of Design

Combining these insights gives a very exciting set of visual elements to experiment with and explore in search of one’s own approach and style.

  • Point: a simple dot – but think about positioning on the page, size, shape and relationship, colour etc
  • Line: the visual path that enables the eye to move within the piece
  • Shape: areas defined by edges within the piece, whether geometric or organic
  • Form: 3-D length, width, or depth
  • Colour: hues with their various values (brightness) and intensities (saturation)
  • Tone: shading used to emphasize form
  • Texture: surface qualities which translate into tactile illusions
  • Space: the space taken up by (positive) or in between (negative) objects
  • Depth: perceived distance from the observer, separated in foreground, background, and optionally middle ground

Principles of design

These elements may be explored in their own right, but are generally considered in terms of relationships between one or more element.

  • Unity/Harmony:  When all elements are in agreement, a design is considered unified. No individual part is viewed as more important than the whole design.  Breaking the rules can create tension or unease, yet it can add interest to the picture if used carefully
  • Hierarchy: A good design contains elements that lead the reader through each element in order of its significance. The type and images should be expressed starting from most important to the least important.
  • Scale/proportion: Using the relative size of elements against each other can attract attention to a focal point. When elements are designed larger than life, scale is being used to show drama.
  • Dominance/emphasis: Dominance is created by contrasting size, positioning, colour, style, or shape. The focal point should dominate the design with scale and contrast without sacrificing the unity of the whole.
  • Similarity and contrast: Planning a consistent and similar design is an important aspect of a designer’s work to make their focal point visible. Too much similarity is boring but without similarity important elements will not exist and an image without contrast is uneventful so the key is to find the balance between similarity and contrast.
  • Repetition, Rhythm and Pattern: 
  • Viewpoint (leading the eye) and perspective:
  • Creating movement: focal point and eye movement
  • Simplification:

Colour (forthcoming)

Abstraction (forthcoming)


(to be updated with Harvard referencing)

** de Sausamrez Basic Design: the Dynamics of Visual Form 1964

Arthur Wesley Dow Composition 

Henry Rankin Piore Pictorial Composition: an Introduction

Michael Freeman ‘The Photographer’s Eye’

Alan Pipes ‘Foundations of art and design’

Lidwell, William; Kritina Holden; Jill Butler (2010). Universal Principles of Design (2nd ed.). Beverly, Massachusetts: Rockport Publishers. ISBN 978-1-59253-587-3.

Lovett, John. “Design and Color”. Retrieved 3 April 2012.

White, Alex (2011). The Elements of Graphic Design. New York, NY: Allworth Press. pp. 81–105. ISBN 978-1-58115-762-8.

Cindy Kovalik, Ph.D. and Peggy King, M.Ed. “Visual Literacy”. Retrieved 2010-03-27.

Saw, James. “Design Notes”. Palomar College. Retrieved 3 April 2012.

Kilmer, R., & Kilmer, W. O. (1992). Designing Interiors. Orland, FL: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. ISBN 978-0-03-032233-4.

Nielson, K. J., & Taylor, D. A. (2002). Interiors: An Introduction. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. ISBN 978-0-07-296520-9

Pile, J.F. (1995; fourth edition, 2007). Interior Design. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 978-0-13-232103-7

Anthony Sully (2012) Interior Design: Theory and Process. London: (Bloomsbury). ISBN 978-1-4081-5202-7

Dunstan, Bernard. (1979). Composing Your Paintings. London, Studio Vista.

Arnheim, Rudolf (1974). Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-02613-1.

Downer, Marion (1947). Discovering Design. Lothrop Lee & Shepard. ISBN 0-688-41266-1.

Graham, Peter (2004). An Introduction to Painting Still Life. Chartwell Books Inc. ISBN 0-7858-1750-6.

Grill, Tom; Scanlon, Mark (1990). Photographic Composition. Watson-Guptill Publications. ISBN 0-8174-5427-6.

Peterson, Bryan (1988). Learning to See Creatively. Watson-Guptill Publications. ISBN 0-8174-4177-8.

Langford, Michael (1982). The Master Guide to Photography. New York: Dorling Kindersley Limited. ISBN 0-394-50873-4.

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