Design elements

Design elements can be explored in their own right as part of markmaking and media experiments. The following are just some dimensions for exploration, taken from a range of sources and experience/thoughts on previous courses in art and photography.

Key Sources:

  • Michael Freeman:The Photographer’s Eye 
  • Alan Pipes: Foundations of Art and Design
  • de Sausmarez
  • Paul Klee

Basic Elements of Design

  • Point: the simplest unit
  • 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


“The simplest unit, a spot, not only indicates location  but is felt to have within itself potential energies of expansion and contraction which activate the surrounding area. When two spots occur there is a statement of measurement and implied direction and the ‘inner’ energies create a specific tension between them which directly affects the intervening space. Freely used spots, in clusters or spread out, create a variety of energies and tensions activating the entire area over which they occur. All sensations are increased if difference in the size of the spots is allowed to enter” de Sausmarez ‘Basic Design’  p25

Positioning one point

Commonly a point can also be a small part of the image which contrasts in some way with its setting. There is no clear cut-off point between points and larger subjects which are in some ways isolated from their backgrounds. But the larger subjects become in the frame, the less point-like their qualities gradually become.

The main consideration is placement – to give it whatever balance or interest is wanted according to the aim of the picture. This could be for example harmony, contradiction, irony etc.

Placement options for one point:

  • Central: this tends to be very static and dull, and needs clear justification.
  • Slightly off-centre eg on the thirds lines is moderately dynamic, without being extreme and can feel balanced. The choice being in what direction. This is affected by the type of movement in relation to the aim of the image.
  • Close to the edge: markedly eccentric and needs justification.

There are two important relations:

  • movement – created by drawing attention towards the point from the sides. The strength of this sense of movement is in proportion to the distance from each side.
  • division – a point implies a division. This is easier to see if you draw horizontal and vertical lines through the point.

Relationship between two or more points

With two points the basic simplicity of the situation is lost. It is the relationship between the two that dominates the composition. The eye is drawn from one to the other and back, so there is always an implied line connecting them. Being a line it has a relationship with horizontals and verticals of the frame, and also has direction. , and also creates a vaguely defined space just around the two points.
Commonly one point attracts more attention than the other because it’s bigger, appears nearer, is close to the centre, or for other reasons. The direction of the implied line tends to be from stronger to weaker, and towards the point which is closest to the edge. In some special cases both points attract attention equally e.g. extreme close-up portaits just including the eyes. When this happens the viewer’s eye does not resolve the composition. This unresolved tension often damages a composition, but it can also be a useful device and activating an image.

With several points relationships and also predictable. A group of objects implies a network of lines, and can also create a shape – again by implication.


“A line can be thought of as a chain of spots joined together. It indicates position and direction and has within itself a certain energy; the energy appears to travel along its length and to be intensified at the other end, speed is implied and the space around it is activated. In a limited way it is capable of expression emotions.”
de Sausmarez ‘Basic Design’  p25


Lines as edges

Literal lines do not exist in nature, but are the optical phenomena created when objects curve away from the viewer. Straight lines add affection and can make it look more detailed and challenging. It is the quality of lines that makes them stand out. This may be because of: the type of line itself eg delicate, ragged, torn etc. and what this says about the object of the image. It may be because of contrast eg the edge of something bright against a dark background or vice versa. Or contrast of colour, textures, between shapes etc.

Lines in relation to the frame

Particularly when the frame of an image is itself constructed of lines, these invite a natural comparison of angle and length. Lines can also direct attention towards the main subject of picture, or contribute to organization by dividing it into compartments. Horizontal, vertical, and angled lines often contribute to creating different moods of a picture. The angle and the relationship to the size of the frame both work to determine the influence the line has on the image. They are also strongly influenced by tone, color, and repetition in relation to the rest of the image.

Horizontal lines are the baseline in composition – explicit or as an implicit reference. This is partly because of associations with the horizon/gravity. Our frame of vision is horizontal and our eyes see more easily from side to side. Horizontal lines tend to give a sense of stability, weight, calm, restfulness and space.

Vertical lines are the second primary component of the frame. A vertical line is naturally seen in terms of alignment with the frame. Without horizontal lines to give a supporting base, a vertical line usually has more of a sense of speed and movement, either up or down. Several vertical lines may have the sense of a barrier. They can express strength, power, height and grandeur. A single vertical line sits more comfortably in a vertical format. A series of verticals may require a horizontal format which allows more to be made of the series.

Perpendicular lines: energies are perpendicular and each one acts as a stop to the other. Can create a primary sense of balance because of the underlying association with standing upright supported by a level surface. If used strongly this can produce a solid, satisfying feeling. Alignment to the reference point of the frame is important.

Diagonals and zigzags  give a sense of motion and tension. Of all lines they introduce the most dynamism into a picture and are highly active, with greater expression of direction and speed than verticals. Represent unresolved tension and lead the eye along most easily. They have associations of depth and distance which can be manipulated to increase depth. By changing the perspective only by some degrees or some centimetres lines in images can change tremendously and a totally different feeling can be transported. Tightly angled convergent lines give a dynamic, lively, and active effect to the image whereas strongly angled, almost diagonal lines generally produce tension in the image.

Tangents force the eye to look at the point of contact.

Curved lines are generally used to create a sense of flow within an image. Compared to straight lines, curves provide a greater dynamic influence in a picture. Curves are inherently attractive to most people, particularly when they undulate. They carry the eye along. Curves make a more substantial contrast with straight lines than do the different types of straight lines amongst themselves. Useful contrasts can be made.
Curves have associations with smoothness, grace and elegance.

Lines by implication : Lines are often by implication, our imagination making connections between points. The brain often unconsciously reads near continuous lines between different elements and subjects at varying distances. Even irregular groupings of things can become resolved into lines when seen at a distance.

Counterpoint: don’t have lines leading out of the frame that are not led back, if all lines are in the same direction a composition can look dull. Futurist movement versus balance.


A shape is defined as a two or more dimensional area that stands out from the space next to or around it due to a defined or implied boundary, or because of differences of value, colour, or texture. A shape is therefore both an outline and an enclosure, although the extent to which it appears as one or the other depends very much on the subject and the lighting. Contrast either of tone or colour, also helps to decide whether shape will be important in that picture. Definable shapes organise part of the picture and provide structure to an image. It helps groups of things to cohere. All objects are composed of shapes and all other ‘Elements of Design’ are shapes in some way.

Regular, mechanical or geometric shapes are the shapes that can be drawn using a ruler or compass. Mechanical shapes, whether simple or complex, produce a feeling of control or order.

Triangles occur more frequently than other any other shape because they are the simplest shape of all. Because they always have at least two diagonals, they tend to create a sensation of activity and dynamism. Even two sides will give the impression of a triangle, provided they penetrate far enough into the picture. The natural tendency of linear perspective is for lines to converge on the vanishing point and form two sides of a triangle. Distinction between:

  • real triangles – actual triangular objects all triangles created by perspective.
  • implied triangles where planes encourage the eye to imagine a line to connect them. Emphasising the triangular structure is principally a matter of removing from view other distracting points, lines and the sidelines.

Irregular or organic shapes are freehand drawn shapes that are complex and normally found in nature. Organic shapes produce a natural feel.

Turbulent shape arrangements.

Repetition with variety: pattern, rhythm

Active, passive mix giving a place for the eye to rest. Notan

Odd number groups – maybe we like to see things in pairs, so we look for completion? Variety in threes.


In design, space is concerned with the area deep within the moment of designated design, the design will take place on. For a two-dimensional design, space concerns creating the illusion of a third dimension on a flat surface:

  • Overlap is the effect where objects appear to be on top of each other. This illusion makes the top element look closer to the observer. There is no way to determine the depth of the space, only the order of closeness.
  • Shading adds gradation marks to make an object of a two-dimensional surface seem three-dimensional.
  • Highlight, Transitional Light, Core of the Shadow, Reflected Light, and Cast Shadow give an object a three-dimensional look.
  • Linear Perspective is the concept relating to how an object seems smaller the farther away it gets.
  • Atmospheric Perspective is based on how air acts as a filter to change the appearance of distance objects.


Form may be described as any three-dimensional object. Form can be measured, from top to bottom (height), side to side (width), and from back to front (depth). Form is also defined by light and dark. It can be defined by the presence of shadows on surfaces or faces of an object. There are two types of form, geometric (man-made) and natural (organic form). Form may be created by the combining of two or more shapes. It may be enhanced by tone, texture and color. It can be illustrated or constructed.


Meaning the way a surface feels or is perceived to feel. Texture can be added to attract or repel interest to an element, depending on the pleasantness of the texture. Types of texture:

  • Tactile texture is the actual three-dimension feel of a surface that can be touched. Painter can use impasto to build peaks and create texture.
  • Visual texture is the illusion of the surfaces peaks and valleys, like the tree pictured. Any texture shown in a photo is a visual texture, meaning the paper is smooth no matter how rough the image perceives it to be.

Most textures have a natural touch but still seem to repeat a motif in some way. Regularly repeating a motif will result in a texture appearing as a pattern.


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