The principles of design (and the elements of art) are arguably the cornerstone of our work as artists and designers. They're what we use to communicate effectively with our audience. They're how we take a concept and turn it into something memorable, engaging, and even beautiful.
You might see different textbooks and authorities explain, use, and define them in ways that vary a little, but, ultimately, these design principles are our core tool.
Now, what if we could take those tools and apply them to other things —like our professional lives, as designers?
Feeling overwhelmed? Career uncertainty looming and putting a damper on your creative flow? Feeling the dreaded "art block" and can't seem to shake it?
Let's try applying design principles to your professional life.
Hierarchy in Design
A strong design has a well-established hierarchy. The elements of the composition are arranged in a way that guides our eyes through the composition. In the above, simplified example, notice how our eyes start with the title —it's bold, it's large, and it most strongly contrasts with the background color.
Our eyes move downward, to the subheading, and finally, we settle on the body copy. At the very bottom, the page number finishes the page. Imagine, for example, if the page number were as large and commanding as the header. They would fight for our attention. It could prove to be visually conflicting.
Hierarchy requires a knowledge of what's most important —what should be seen first, and how can we promote that visually? What should be supplemental?
Hierarchy for Designers
Artists and designers often have to wear a lot of hats at once. It's more than just creating great work. Many of us also have to market ourselves. This often means we have to have a solid portfolio. We have to network. There are business components, meetings, organization, continued education, and more, when it comes to managing your career, especially if you want to fly solo. It can be very overwhelming to manage all of that at the same time.
Imagine all of these tasks as one, jumbled mess of "things I want or need to do". Where do you start? Where do you stop? How do you gauge your progress? What if you get so wrapped up in one task that you begin to neglect the others?
We wouldn't design like that.
Instead, consider approaching these tasks as you would a two-page spread or a poster design. What's the title of today's to-do list? What are the supplemental tasks that back up your overarching creative and professional goals?
For example, I might have work for a client to wrap up today. That's where I'd like my emphasis to be. However, I still want time for my marketing efforts, and I still want to dedicate time to keeping my work space clean, clear, and welcoming. I also like to start my day with some warm-up sketches. All of these tasks are important, but I want there to be a hierarchy of importance, in regards to how I allot my time.
Rhythm and Repetition in Design
We can use repeating elements to achieve several different things in our design work; we could, for example, imply movement, or we might use it as a supplement to help promote the focal point in our composition. I might employ a subtle pattern in the background of my website. It might give the overall aesthetic a little texture and personality, but the repetitive nature helps keep this aspect supplemental.
Notice, in the example above, that none of the dots particularly stand out. They repeat. It helps make them supplemental. The type, on the other hand, acts as a focal point, because this is where things visually vary.
As another example, we might use repeated colors or shapes in a multi-page spread to create a sense of harmony across pages. Or we might have a steady, repeated visual rhythm, like a unified pattern.
Rhythm and Repetition for Designers
"Repetitive" is not normally a word I like to associate with my professional life or my design work. However, there's something to be said for repetition, especially from the perspective of skill building, advancement, and our habits.
For example, let's say you'd like to push your drawing skills further. There's no better way to improve than to sit down and draw. However, one practice session isn't going to compare to several months of regular dedication to progress. The same goes for learning software, a new programming language, and our design skills too.
In design, supplemental elements often act as the "backup singers" in our composition. The supplemental parts of your day aren't all that different.
My "break timer", for example, is a supplemental part of my work day. It reminds me to stretch my hands, get up, and take a short break. Before, I would spend hours at my desk, uninterrupted. This concerned me, when I started to experience stiffness and soreness.
Think about the supplements in your day and your work habits. Are they supporting your overarching goals and promoting positive progress? Or do they get in the way?
Variety in Design
Variety is one of the many ways that we, as designers, can create interest. When, for example, visual elements share traits in common, they can "blend in" together. Contrasting this, when a visual element varies from the rest of the content, it's going to stand out and command our attention. Notice that the purple shapes, above, really stand out. It's because they're different from the surrounding, more supplemental elements.
Personally, I often view variety as the partner of repetition and/or rhythm. They generally seem like opposites, but they work wonders when employed together.
If, for example, a composition has too much variety, it runs the risk of being visually chaotic. If, on the other hand, the visuals are too repetitive, it could prove to be boring or lack focus. Using them together is a great way to help promote both hierarchy and movement.
Variety for Designers
So, if we don't have any variety in a composition, interest is potentially lost. It might look boring or "samey". There is nothing to catch the eye or command the viewer's attention. We could observe the same on a larger scale too. Imagine if every piece in your portfolio looked identical. I mean, you might have consistency going for you... but which would stand out? What would be memorable?
Imagine the same for your professional life: mundane tasks, stagnation, and boredom. There's nothing wrong with repetition; in fact, it can be both useful and important, both in design work and in our professional lives. However, there's something to be said for not letting yourself become bored, or worse yet, boring.
Personally, I love to be challenged. I love to experiment, I love to learn, and I love to create. These are the reasons I went into art and design. There's a certain rush that comes from creating something visually interesting and new. If that feeling is missing from my creative life, I notice I just don't feel as invested or passionate anymore.
Variety doesn't always have to come from a client or a design brief. Take a class. Start an art or design challenge on your own. Invest some time in a personal project that you feel passionate about. Pick up some new software. Keep a sketchbook and fill it with ideas.
Consider investing time in keeping your creative side stimulated, engaged, and interested.
Contrast in Design
One of the most straightforward ways to explain contrast is often "light vs. dark" or "black vs. white", because these two examples are such a stark contrast—they're opposites. So, for example, black text on a white background would have more contrast than light gray text on a white background. Notice how the two light gray dots, above, have less contrast than the type.
Contrast, as a design principle, isn't necessarily limited to value or color. We could, for example, have a contrast in size, texture, or shape. As designers, we can use contrast to create interest, incorporate variety, and/or reinforce emphasis in our compositions. We can also alter the contrast of visuals to affect the readability and overall tone.
Contrast for Designers
I think we can all agree on how important it is to set realistic goals, focus, and work hard. There's plenty to learn, and plenty to create, in this creative life. It can be easy to get wrapped up in everything you want to do, creatively and professionally.
It's also important to step away and put on that on pause.
Yes, that's a pretty stark contrast. It's a tough one for me, personally; when I'm in the zone, it's easy for me to overwork. I'd be lying if I said I didn't have memories of working exceptionally long days. I've also taken on projects that cut into the time I said I was going to take off.
However, much like my canvas, I only have so much to work with; I have 24 hours. You're probably not going to create your best work if you're over-extended or exhausted.
Experimenting with visual contrast helps create (or diminish) focus. I'd argue the same for our professional lives. Having time away from your work, investing time in rest, will keep your mind and body strong and alert. I don't know about you, but sometimes, coming back to a project with "fresh eyes" makes a world of a difference.
Balance in Design
Every visual component in a composition has weight of some kind. Aspects like an element's size, value, and contrast can all factor into this. Then, when positioning said element with other parts of your composition, we can establish and manipulate how things are balanced. In the above example, the balance is asymmetrical; notice how "heavy" it is to the right-hand side.
Generally speaking, balance tends to be symmetrical (where the balance appears evenly distributed) or asymmetrical (where the balance appears to favor one side or the other). Perhaps less common, radial balance would generally rely on a central focal point, where the elements "radiate" outwards.
Like most design principles, there is no "right or wrong" answer when it comes to balance. However, the balance we create via proximity and visual relationships can change things up, like the way the viewer's eyes navigate through the composition.
Balance for Designers
Balance feels like a no-brainer in our professional lives, right? It's a little easier said than done, though, isn't it?
Personally, I try to schedule and pace my work, not only for organization's sake, but for the sake of my health, wellbeing, and overall progress, as well.
When I was younger, I could "binge work"; I'd sit at my desk in Photoshop for hours, and I wouldn't think much of it. Now, my hands are more prone to strain and Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI), and I really notice the stiffness if I stay at my desk all day. Likewise, if I don't maintain some balance, I might lose myself in one task. If I spend an extra hour on this one project, when I had something else to do today, the first thing to get cut seems to be the time intended for rest. That's no good.
If you sometimes struggle in a similar way, consider budgeting your time—find a balance that's right for you. If there's too much going on in one day to maintain a schedule that makes you happy, perhaps it's time to reschedule or rethink some of these tasks.
Proportion and Scale in Design
Proportion and scale often refer to size relationships within a composition. For example, a simple approach to this principle might be making the header larger than the rest of the composition. Notice how the word "Proportion" really stands out, in the above example.
However, this design principle can apply to much more than size alone. The visual relationship between design elements and their ratio can play a large role in whether or not a design proves to be visually unified. This is often referenced in Design Studies as proximity and/or ratio. For example, the words "Proportion" and "& Scale" are visually close to each other. They look related. If there was a large space between them, they would probably look fragmented instead.
Think about the relationship that the elements in your design share.
Proportion and Scale for Designers
I've had the fortune of doing a lot of different art and design work in my life. At the start of my career, I was really hungry for work experience—so hungry that I ended up working on some projects that really burned me.
Rates and payment can be a touchy subject for some people. At the end of the day, we all want to provide for ourselves and our family, and yes, sometimes, we might feel like we can't afford to be picky.
However, it's important to look at what you're doing in relationship to what you're earning. You deserve to make a living, fair wage—and any client who disagrees with that might not be a client you want to work with.
Yes, most of us have to start small, but that doesn't mean your work doesn't have value.
Proportion, scale, and ratio all apply here. Look at your credentials and experience. Are they proportionate to how you're being paid? If you're a beginner in your field, are you contributing to something that helps you or something that takes advantage of you? Even with volunteer or academic work, you can choose to work in a way that promotes your progress in a positive way.
Emphasis in Design
Emphasis, sometimes referred to as dominance, describes a part of the composition that commands attention. This could be a focal point or another point of significant interest in the composition. We can use a number of different design principles to achieve this.
For example, we might use scale to make a visually dominant element larger than all the others. It would, then, command more attention over the other parts of the design.
Or we might employ color. Let's say we have a set of items that are all yellow, but one of them is green, as above. The green one, as it varies in color (and/or potentially value), would stand out because it varies from the rest.
Emphasis for Designers
So, what is your emphasis?
I like to look at my professional life in a similar way. If I don't define what I want, how do I make it happen? How do I make sure that the work I'm doing, and the portfolio that I'm building, support my goals—if I never defined them? Even if you're "happy where you're at", there are things we can do to nurture our situation, rather than growing stagnant.
So, once you know what you want, what's next? Just like in a strong design, we want to make sure that the supplemental elements in our composition are helping to establish and support the emphasis: our goals. For example, let's say your goal is to start up your own independent design studio. What are you doing to support that goal? Do your current efforts support or conflict with this? If you don't like where your focus is, maybe it's time to make some adjustments.
On a side note, there’s nothing inherently wrong with “riding the waves” or just seeing where life happens to take you—if that's what you'd like your emphasis to be. Trying new things and giving yourself time to find yourself, as an artist or otherwise, is a wonderful thing. Having a collection of abstract, loosely defined milestones, however, doesn't necessarily make for smooth sailing towards a specific goal.
Movement in Design
Movement refers to how the viewer's eyes move through the composition. We can influence this navigation in many different ways, including how we employ the principles of design and sensitivity to our audience. The above example is a simple one; notice how our eyes travel with the dashes, to the type.
That is, of course, one piece of a bigger puzzle. We could command attention in a particular "starting point" (or create emphasis) using scale or contrast, for example. We could visually guide the eye from one part to the next with proximity, repetition, or even line.
Movement for Designers
So, where is your professional life taking you? As we discussed with emphasis, it's great to have your sights on a specific focal point or goal. However, that's not to say the journey isn't equally as important as knowing where you want to go.
Imagine taking a trip without a map. You know you want to end up in this particular place, but you're not sure how you're going to get there. While there might be some romanticism to wandering and seeing where life takes you, there's also something to be said for setting a path for yourself.
Most of us don't have the luxury of picking and choosing every single professional project we take on. However, deliberately choosing projects and time investments that support your larger career goals, over ones that do not, can help you get to that finish line even faster. That's not to say a detour can't lead to some wonderful surprises—but it's a good idea to be strategic with your travels, too.
Let's say, for example, that you're new to design, but you'd like it to be your full-time focus someday. That's your emphasis. Your day job is in another field, so the transition is going to be easier said than done. Is there anything you can do, in your current position, that relates to this goal? Maybe your workplace needs some signage created or some design work done (this is actually how I got one of my first design gigs!). If not, maybe you can set some time aside to start moving in that direction.
Unity in Design
In terms of difficulty, unity might be the most difficult principle of design to employ. It is often described as "wholeness" or a "sense of completion". When a design is unified, the parts are all working together to complement and support both the form and function of the piece. The design not only looks great, it works great too.
For example, a composition can "look good" but still be unsuccessful. Imagine a poster design with important information that goes unnoticed. Or picture a design that meets its objective—it communicates what the client wants it to say—but it's visually boring and forgettable. Finding that place where all the elements work together in a way that feels harmonious is a challenge! Thankfully, we have the principles of design to help us get to this finish line.
Unity for Designers
Don't we all want "wholeness" in our lives? Wouldn't it be wonderful to sit back, take a deep breath, and just think... wow, everything is perfect. Everything is working together to make life feel whole, complete, and downright awesome.
Well, unity is a little easier to achieve in design, as opposed to in our lives. Things are never going to be perfect—not in our designs or in our lives—but they can be good. Really, really good, actually. I know that might sound overly optimistic, but hey, I like to think that's a dream worth fighting for.
If something feels off in a design, we change it. We might get feedback from a client or we might catch it ourselves. Either way, it's not something we, as designers, would normally let slide. We hold our work to a standard where completion is the goal—objectives are met, and they're met in a visually engaging and memorable way.
So, if something feels off in your professional life (or hey, even your personal life!), why not take the same approach? Maybe it's time to make some revisions. Maybe something needs to be adjusted.
And That's a Wrap!
Thank you for joining me through this exploration of the principles of design as applied to our professional lives! I hope it gave you some ideas for your own professional practices. Design can be pretty subjective—and the same can be said for your career and your goals, too. It's got to be the right fit for you. Best wishes to all of us, in our continued pursuit of unity.
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