Approaches to Design

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 – think about edges, quality of line, direction and relation to the frame
  • 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) See post on Colour
  • Tone: shading used to emphasize form (See Chiaroscuro )
  • Texture: surface qualities which translate into tactile illusions
  • Space: the space taken up by (positive) or in between (negative) objects (See Notan)
  • Depth: perceived distance from the observer, separated in foreground, background, and optionally middle ground

Principles of relationship between elements

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

  • Unity/Harmony 
  • Hierarchy
  • Scale/proportion
  • Dominance/emphasis
  • Similarity and contrast
  • Repetition, Rhythm and Pattern: 
  • Viewpoint (leading the eye) and perspective
  • Creating movement
  • Simplification

See also:


  • de Sausmarez, M. (1964). Basic Design: The Dynamics of Visual Form. London, A&C Black.
  • Dow, A. W. (1997). Composition: A series of exercises in art structure for the use of students and teachers. California, USa, University of California Press.
  • Freeman, M. (2007). The Photographer’s Eye: composition and design for better digital photos. Lewes, East Sussex, ILEX.
  • Freeman, M. (2007). The Photographer’s Eye: composition and design for better digital photos. Lewes, East Sussex, ILEX.
  • Freeman, M. (2008). Mastering Digital Photography. Lewes, East Sussex, ILEX.
  • Freeman, M. (2008). Mastering Digital Photography. Lewes, East Sussex, ILEX.
  • Freeman, M. (2010). The Photographer’s Mind: Creative thinking for better digital photos. Lewes, East Sussex, ILEX.
  • Kandinsky, W. (1979). Point and Line to Plane. New York, Dover Publications.
  • Kandinsky, W. (1977). Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York, Dover Publications.
  • Pipes, A. (2008). Foundations of Art and Design. London, UK, Laurence King Publishing.
  • Poore, H. R. (1967). Pictorial Composition, An Introduction. New York, Dover Publications Inc.
  • Roberts, I. (2007). Mastering composition: techniques and principles to dramatically improve your painting. Cincinnati, Ohio, Northlight Books.

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