The Know-How of Basic Design

A design is a collection of conscious decisions made when creating a man-made product — this is the best way I can explain design. Design is also about how something works rather than just how it looks — design is trying to answer a question, solve a problem or reach a goal. A product of design can be anything and is everything. Design is the process of bringing something inanimate into existence, although there’s genetic engineering but I’ll ignore that for now.

Designers need to know  a lot of different fields of study to create good design. Design needs knowledge in psychology, anatomy, engineering, the arts, trends, etc. Knowing a little about as many things as possible helps designs be effective. Bauhaus is a great example of this; they designed using psychology and kinesiology to create universally understood furniture and appliances.

Knowing the right things to research can be very helpful when designing a product because it helps the end result be helpful. A quick example is designing a switch blade: to save someone time on creating multiple prototypes, researching past mechanical designs can help a designer eliminate ideas that have already been done and didn’t work.

But before talking about the end results, it’s best to discuss the beginning. There are three basic things about design that need to be understood before starting a project: The elements of design, the principles of design and the design process. Knowing and understanding these are the first steps to reaching good design.

These topics can be talked about extensively, which I will do in separate blog posts; this post I will simply include the basics.

The elements of design in motion.

The elements of design in motion.

The Elements of Design

There are seven elements of design — space, point, line, shape, form, texture and color. The order I put them in describe, in my opinion, how to bring a mark into existence on a blank piece of paper, it’s how I remember them.

In order to create any intentional mark on a paper you start with the empty space of the paper; next is putting the pen down which starts with a point; then you drag your pen to extend the point into a line; connecting that line’s ends together makes a shape; connecting more ends creates a three-dimensional form; the surface of the form can stay smooth or change, that’s its texture; lastly color can be added to the drawing.

Space

is the empty parts where the background can be seen on a drawing. Empty and negative space are important as positive space when can affect a two-dimensional design.

Point

is the first mark made on a blank canvas and as such, it is the first thing a viewer’s eyes will look at.

Line

on a paper holds the power of visual movement. A viewer’s gaze normally follows the line from one end to the next.

Shape

is when a line closes and creates a two-dimensional figure. The shape can be a uniformed ellipse/polygon or it can be a wacky shape with its sides being different sizes.

Form

is when more closed lines are added to a shape to create the illusion of the shape being three-dimensional. There are other techniques for making a shape three-dimensional but adding lines is the most basic way.

Texture

is when things get slightly more tricky because texture in the real world is only seen when light can cause a surface’s shadow to see the texture. Therefore, the markings used to make texture on paper have to pretend to be shadows from the real world.

Color

the most obvious but arguably the most complex of the elements. Many books and studies and lectures have been made about color and apparently we don’t even see every color that exists. One bit of truth, color is created by light.

The Principles of Design

The principles are: Contrast, balance, movement, rhythm, pattern, emphasis, and unity/variety. If this were a cookbook, the elements of design would be food ingredients (e.g. pasta, meatballs, water, parmesan cheese, etc.) and the principles of design would be the cooking tools (e.g. a stove, a pot, wooden spoons, etc.). The principles tell the elements how to act so that the two-dimensional product can do something. Similarly to the elements, the principles can also have more in-depth conversations, but here’s the basics.

Principles of design portrayed in a teaser poster that I made.

Principles of design portrayed in a teaser poster that I made.

Contrast

is opposing elements that enhance each other’s presence to the viewer. A common idea is putting red and blue next to each other.  

Balance

is when the elements are evenly distributed across the canvas; the visual weight of each element does on over power the other. 

Movement

is when the viewer’s eyes are guided through the design. It’s usually in the form of a line of some kind. 

Rhythm 

is the illusion of movement on the canvas.

Pattern

is the religion of motifs whether it’s something complicated like Victorian wallpaper or something simple like dots. 

Emphasis

determines what’s most important on the page. This is what the viewer should notice first before anything else. 

Unity/Variety

are opposites. Unity is uniforming a design with predictable patterns. Variety is more playful, moving around.  

The Design Process

This process has many variations but this is the one I use. It’s the method of planning out a project from beginning to end. Organizing a project into steps can help a designer manage time and work more efficiently by knowing what is the next step. Designers should plan accordingly following these steps:

  1. Identify the problem: identifying the problem, obstacle or question is important in order to give the design a goal and/or purpose.

  2. Research: looking up how things were done previously, alternate designs and learning how something is made can help make some design decisions.

  3. Create solutions: planning, sketching, measuring etc. - figure out some design solutions and understand why these decisions were made.

  4. Build, test and improve prototypes: create mock trials to see how the product will exist; notice any problems and fix the prototype until it’s exactly how it’s meant to be.

  5. Original, mass production: depending what the final product is, this step is about deciding on only having one product or mass producing it.

 Epilogue

These three design basics are the first steps at understanding what design is all about; not a physical product but the theory and philosophy of design. When people put passion into their work it shows, and design is no exception. Visual communication through great is a testament to putting passion into work and it started with these design basics.