The Principles of Design
Design principles are widely applicable laws, guidelines, biases and design considerations which designers apply with discretion. Professionals from many disciplines — e.g., behavioral science, sociology, physics and ergonomics — provided the foundation for design principles via their accumulated knowledge and experience.
Design principles are fundamental pieces of advice for you to make easy-to-use, pleasurable designs. You apply them when you select, create and organize elements and features in your work. Design principles represent the accumulated wisdom of researchers and practitioners in design and related fields. When you apply them, you can predict how users will likely react to your design. “KISS” (“Keep It Simple Stupid”) is an example of a principle where you design for non-experts and therefore minimize any confusion your users may experience.
In user experience (UX) design, it’s vital to minimize users’ cognitive loads and decision-making time. The authors of the definitive work Universal Principles of Design state design principles should help designers find ways to improve usability, influence perception, increase appeal, teach users and make effective design decisions in projects. To apply design principles effectively, you need a strong grasp of users’ problems and a good eye for how users will accept your solutions.
Design is not a monologue; it’s a conversation.
—Whitney Hess, Empathy coach and UX design consultant
Proportion is one of the easier design principles to understand. Simply put, it’s the size of elements in relation to one another. Proportion signals what’s important in a design and what isn’t. Larger elements are more important, smaller elements less.
Hierarchy is another principle of design that directly relates to how well content can be processed by people using a website. It refers to the importance of elements within a design. The most important elements (or content) should appear to be the most important.
Hierarchy is most easily illustrated through the use of titles and headings in a design. The title of a page should be given the most importance, and therefore should be immediately recognizable as the most important element on a page. Headings and subheadings should be formatted in a way that shows their importance in relation to each other as well as in relation to the title and body copy.
Repetition is a great way to reinforce an idea. It’s also a great way to unify a design that brings together a lot of different elements. Repetition can be done in a number of ways: via repeating the same colors, typefaces, shapes, or other elements of a design.
This article, for example, uses repetition in the format of the headings. Each design principle is formatted the same as the others in this section, signaling to readers that they’re all of equal importance and that they’re all related. Consistent headings unify these elements across the page.
White space — also referred to as “negative space” — is the areas of a design that do not include any design elements. The space is, effectively, empty.
Many beginning designers feel the need to pack every pixel with some type of “design” and overlook the value of white space. But white space serves many important purposes in a design, foremost being giving elements of the design room to breathe. Negative space can also help highlight specific content or specific parts of a design.
Other Principles of Design
Other principles of design are also touched upon in various articles on the subject. These include typography, color, Gestalt Principles, grid and alignment, framing, and shape. Some definitely fit the definition of “principles” while others are more like elements of design.
- Typography refers to the way text is arranged in a design. That includes the fonts used, their spacing, size, and weight, and the way different text elements relate to each other. Good typographic design is heavily influenced by all of the other design principles mentioned earlier in this article.
- The use of color in design is one of the most psychologically important parts of a design and has a huge influence on user experience. Color psychology and theory heavily influences some of the other principles mentioned earlier.
- Gestalt Principles include similarity, continuation, closure, proximity, figure/ground, and symmetry & order (also called prägnanz). Some of those principles are closely related to the principles mentioned above.Grid and alignment are closely related to balance and refer to the way elements are arranged in relation to an invisible grid on the page.
- Grid and alignment are closely related to balance and refer to the way elements are arranged in relation to an invisible grid on the page.
- Shape is also a major part of any design, both in terms of specific shapes used as elements within the design, and the overall shape of the design itself. Different shapes can evoke different feelings, i.e circles are organic and fluid, while squares are more rigid and formal, and triangles give a sense of energy or movement.
These design “principles” or elements are important aspects of good design and should be considered alongside the other basic principles to create the best user experiences.