What is design


Elements of design


Positive and negative space

2-dimensional space is the area provided for a particular purpose. It may have two dimensions (length and width), such as a floor, or it may have three dimensions (length, width, and height). Space in a two-dimensional drawing or painting refers to the arrangement of objects on the picture plane.  Space includes the background, foreground and middle ground. Space refers to the distances or areas around, between or within components of a piece. There are two type of space: positive and negative space. Positive space refers to the space of a shape representing the subject matter. Negative space refers to the space around and between the subject matter.

3-dimensional space is the three-dimensionality of a sculpture.  With a sculpture or architecture you can walk around them, look above them, and enter them, this refers to the space of the sculpture or architecture.  A three-dimensional object will have height, width, and depth.


Vocabulary for describing Space

  • Positive space-Like in positive shape it is the actual sculpture or building.
  • Negative space-Also like negative shape it is the space around the sculpture or building.
  • Picture Plane is the flat surface of your drawing paper or canvas.
  • Composition is the organization and placement of the elements on your picture plane.
  • Focal Point is the object or area you want the viewer to look at first.
An important way to create depth in a 2-d piece of work it to use perspective. 

Types of Perspective

  • Nonlinear Perspective is the method of showing depth that incorporates the following techniques.
  • Position-Placing an object higher on the page makes it appear farther back then objects placed lower on the page.
  • Overlapping-When an object overlaps another object it appears closer to the viewer, and the object behind the object appears farther away.
  • Size Variation-Smaller objects look farther away in the distance.  Larger objects look closer.
  • Color-Bright colors look like they are closer to you and neutral colors look like they are farther away.
  • Value-Lighter values look like they are farther back and darker value look like they are closer.  For example in a landscape the mountains often look bluish and lighter then the trees or houses that are closer to you.
  • Linear Perspective is the method of using lines to show the illusion of depth in a picture.  The following are types of linear perspective.
  • One-point perspective-When lines created by the sides of tables or building look like that are pointing to the distance and they all meet at one point on the horizon this is one-point perspective. To see an example stand in the middle of the hallway and look at the horizontal lines in the brick or the corner where the ceiling meets the wall.  See how they move to one point on the horizon.
  • Two-point perspective-Here the lines look like they are meeting at two points on the horizon line.
Negative space is not empty
Negative space
Space can be inside a form as well


Lines come in many forms

Line is the basic element that refers to the continuous movement of a point along a surface, such as by a pencil or brush. The edges of shapes and forms also create lines. It is the basic component of a shape drawn on paper. Lines and curves are the basic building blocks of two dimensional shapes like a house’s plan. Every line has length, thickness, and direction. There are curve, horizontal, vertical, diagonal, zigzag, wavy, parallel, dash, and dotted lines.

Vocabulary for describing Line:

  • Width- thick, thin, tapering, uneven
  • Length - long, short, continuous, broken
  • Direction- horizontal, vertical, diagonal, curving, perpendicular, oblique, parallel, radial, zigzag
  • Focus- sharp, blurry, fuzzy, choppy
  • Feeling- sharp, jagged, graceful, smooth

Types of Line:

  • Outlines- Lines made by the edge of an object or its silhouette.
  • Contour Lines- Lines that describe the shape of an object and the interior detail.
  • Gesture Lines- Line that are energetic and catches the movement and gestures of an active figure.
  • Sketch Lines- Lines that captures the appearance of an object or impression of a place.
  • Calligraphic Lines- Greek word meaning “beautiful writing.”  Precise, elegant handwriting or lettering done by hand. Also artwork that has flowing lines like an elegant handwriting.
  • Implied Line- Lines that are not actually drawn but created by a group of objects seen from a distance.  The direction an object is pointing to, or the direction a person is looking at.
lines can form patterns
Lines can be formed from many units
Lines can also define space


The color wheel

Color is seen either by the way light reflects off a surface, or in colored light sources. Color and particularly contrasting color is also used to draw the attention to a particular part of the image.

A color wheel is a tool used to organize color.  We use it to see relationships between colors.

Types of Colors:

  • Primary Colors - Red, Yellow, Blue these color cannot be mixed, they must be bought in some form.
  • Secondary Color - Orange, Violet, Green, these colors are created by mixing two primaries.
  • Intermediate Colors - Red Orange, Yellow Green, Blue Violet, etc.; mixing a primary with a secondary creates these colors.
  • Warm colors are on one side of the color wheel and they give the felling of warmth for example red, orange and yellow are the color of fire and feel warm.
  • Cool colors are on the other side of the color wheel and they give the feeling of coolness for example blue, violet, are the color of water, and green are the color of cool grass.
Relationships between colors:
  • Complementary Colors - Are colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel.  When placed next to each other they look bright and when mixed together they neutralize each other.
  • Color Harmonies - Color Harmonies is when an artist uses certain combinations of colors that create different looks or feelings.
  • Analogous Colors - Are colors that are next to each other on the color wheel for example red, red orange, and orange are analogous colors.
  • Triadic Harmony - Is where three equally spaced colors on the color wheel are used for example, yellow, Red, Blue is a triadic harmony color scheme.
  • Monochromatic -  Is where one color is used but in different values and intensity.



An arrangement of similar shapes

A shape is defined as an 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, color, or texture. Shapes can also show perspective by overlapping. Shape is two-dimensional it has heights and width but no depth. They can be geometric or organic. Shapes in house decor and interior design can be used to add interest, style, theme to a design like a door. Shape in interior design depends on the function of the object like a kitchen cabinet door. Natural shapes forming patterns on wood or stone may help increase visual appeal in interior design. In a landscape, natural shapes, such as trees contrast with geometric such as houses.

Categories of Shapes:

  • Geometric Shapes - Circles, Squares, rectangles and triangles.  We see them in architecture and manufactured items.
  • Organic Shapes - Leaf, seashells, flowers.  We see them in nature and with characteristics that are free flowing, informal and irregular.
  • Positive Shapes - In a drawing or painting positive shapes are the solid forms in a design such as a bowl of fruit.  In a sculpture it is the solid form of the sculpture.
  • Negative Shapes - In a drawing it is the space around the positive shape or the shape around the bowl of fruit.  In sculpture it is the empty shape around and between the sculptures.
  • Static Shape - Shapes that appears stable and resting.
  • Dynamic Shapes - Shapes that appears moving and active.
Shapes can be defined in many ways
Shapes can be grouped into families
Shapes can be organic or geometric


Texture can be real or implied

Texture is perceived surface quality. In art, there are two types of texture: tactile and implied. Tactile texture (real texture) is the way the surface of an object actually feels. Examples of this include sandpaper, cotton balls, tree bark, puppy fur, etc. Implied texture is the way the surface on an object looks like it feels. The texture may look rough, fizzy, gritty, but cannot actually be felt. This type of texture is used by artist when drawing or painting.

Attributes of Texture:

  • Tactile (real)
  • Implied
  • Soft
  • Rough
  • Smooth
  • etc
Texture can be natural or synthetic
Texture can be natural or synthetic
They can also be only images
Old paper texture


Organic form

Form is 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. 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.

Attributes of Form:

  • Height
  • Width
  • Depth
  • Organic
  • Geometric
Geometric form
Another geometric form
Another organic form


Light to dark

Value is the range of lightness and darkness within a picture.  Value is created by a light source that shines on an object creating highlights and shadows.  It also illuminates the local or actual color of the subject.  Value creates depth within a picture making an object look three dimensional with highlights and cast shadows, or in a landscape where it gets lighter in value as it recedes to the background giving the illusion of depth.

Attributes of Value:

  • Tint is adding white to color paint to create lighter values such as light blue or pink.
  • Shade is adding black to paint to create dark values such as dark blue or dark red.
  • High-Key is where the picture is all light values.
  • Low-Key is where the picture is all dark values.
  • Value Contrast is where light values are placed next to dark values to create contrast or strong differences.
  • Value Scale is a scale that shows the gradual change in value from its lightest value, white to its darkest value black.

Principles of design

There are many basic concepts that underly the field of design. They are often categorized differently depending on philosophy or teaching methodology. The first thing we need to do is organize them, so that we have a framework for this discussion.

We can group all of the basic tenets of design into two categories: principles and elements. For this article, the principles of design are the overarching truths of the profession. They represent the basic assumptions of the world that guide the design practice, and affect the arrangement of objects within a composition. By comparison, the elements of design are the components of design themselves, the objects to be arranged.

Let’s begin by focusing on the principles of design, the axioms of our profession.

Specifically, we will be looking at the following principles:

  • Unity
  • Contrast
  • Variety
  • Emphasis
  • Balance
  • Dominance
  • Proportion
  • Rhythm


Unity refers to a sense that everything in a piece of work belongs there, and makes a whole piece. It is achieved by the use of balance, repetition and/or design harmony. The concept of unity describes the relationship between the individual parts and the whole of a composition. It investigates the aspects of a given design that are necessary to tie the composition together, to give it a sense of wholeness, or to break it apart and give it a sense of variety. Unity in design is a concept that stems from some of the Gestalt theories of visual perception and psychology, specifically those dealing with how the human brain organizes visual information into categories, or groups. Here are some useful aspects of Gestalt theory:

Closure: Closure is the idea that the brain tends to fill in missing information when it perceives an object is missing some of its pieces. Objects can be deconstructed into groups of smaller parts, and when some of these parts are missing the brain tends to add information about an object to achieve closure. In the below examples, we compulsively fill in the missing information to create shape.

Continuance: Continuance is the idea that once you begin looking in one direction, you will continue to do so until something more significant catches your attention. Perspective, or the use of dominant directional lines, tends to successfully direct the viewers eye in a given direction. In addition, the eye direction of any subjects in the design itself can cause a similar effect. In the below example, the eye immediately goes down the direction of the road ending up in the upper right corner of the frame of reference. There is no other dominant object to catch and redirect the attention.

Similarity, Proximity and Alignment
Items of similar size, shape and color tend to be grouped together by the brain, and a semantic relationship between the items is formed. In addition, items in close proximity to or aligned with one another tend to be grouped in a similar way. In the below example, notice how much easier it is to group and define the shape of the objects in the upper left than the lower right.


Contrast is the occurrence of differing elements, such as color, value, size, etc. It creates interest and pulls the attention toward the focal point.


The use of dissimilar elements, which creates interest and uniqueness. Variety like a painting or some reflective wood panels added on a plain wall may be used to reduce monotony. Helps infuse color to a house decor to attempt to increase design beauty.


Emphasis refers to areas of interest that guides the eye into and out of the image through the use of sequence of various levels of focal points, primary focal point, secondary, tertiary, etc. Emphasis hierarchy may give direction and organization to a design, and avoid subconscious confusion to sometimes improve the design’s visual appeal and style. Emphasis hierarchy or focus is not giving each object in a project equal dominance within a piece of work. Emphasis or dominance of an object can be increased by making the object larger, more sophisticated, more ornate, by placing it in the foreground, or standout visually more than other objects in a project. The primary focus point or area receives the largest emphasis in a room.


Balance can be either symmetrical, asymmetrical or radial. Balance also refers to a sense that dominant focal points don’t give a feeling of being pulled too much to any specific part of the artwork. Balance can be achieved by the location of objects, volume or sizes of objects, and by color. It can also be achieved by balancing lighter colors with darker colors, or bold colors with light neutral colors.

Symmetrical: Symmetrical balance occurs when the weight of a composition is evenly distributed around a central vertical or horizontal axis. Under normal circumstances it assumes identical forms on both sides of the axis. When symmetry occurs with similar, but not identical, forms it is called approximate symmetry. In addition, it is possible to build a composition equally around a central point resulting in radial symmetry. Symmetrical balance is also known as formal balance.
Asymmetrical: Asymmetrical balance occurs when the weight of a composition is not evenly distributed around a central axis. It involves the arranging of objects of differing size in a composition such that they balance one another with their respective visual weights. Often there is one dominant form that is offset by many smaller forms. In general, asymmetrical compositions tend to have a greater sense of visual tension. Asymmetrical balance is also known as informal balance.


Dominance relates to varying degrees of emphasis in design. It determines the visual weight of a composition, establishes space and perspective, and often resolves where the eye goes first when looking at a design. There are three stages of dominance, each relating to the weight of a particular object within a composition.

Dominant: The object given the most visual weight, the element of primary emphasis that advances to the foreground in the composition.

Sub-dominant: The element of secondary emphasis, the elements in the middle ground of the composition.
Subordinate: The object given the least visual weight, the element of tertiary emphasis that recedes to the background of the composition.


Proportion is the comparison of dimensions or distribution of forms. It is the relationship in scale between one element and another, or between a whole object and one of its parts. Differing proportions within a composition can relate to different kinds of balance or symmetry, and can help establish visual weight and depth.


Rhythm is the repetition or alternation of elements, often with defined intervals between them. Rhythm can create a sense of movement, and can establish pattern and texture. There are many different kinds of rhythm, often defined by the feeling it evokes when looking at it.

Regular: A regular rhythm occurs when the intervals between the elements, and often the elements themselves, are similar in size or length.

Flowing: A flowing rhythm gives a sense of movement, and is often more organic in nature.

Progressive: A progressive rhythm shows a sequence of forms through a progression of steps.