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Blog – Principles of Design

Welcome back.

Further insights into the realm of artistic creativity.

A billboard in the Oakland area of Pittsburgh displaying an old coca cola sing on the side of a building.
Coca Cola Blues

In this blog post we will look into developing artistic design using various visual principles that have evolved over the centuries.

Principles of Design

These Principles are classic approaches used in developing a composition with visual design elements. How these are implemented determines the expressiveness of the content. The message an artist develops is also dependent on the way the principles are approached.

The basic principles are:

• Balance
• Proportion
• Rhythm
• Emphasis
• Unity


Balance is the idea of visual stability and combines with our innate sense of physical balance in life. This ability to develop a harmony of equal energies with our creations establishes perceptual calmness. To achieve this we use either symmetrical or asymmetrical balance:


Three dimensionally, you understand balance as not having objects fall over. Two dimensionally, our visual awareness has the tendency to “sense” this visual balance. Understanding balance in a two dimensional composition requires us to use our imaginations to project the three dimensionality onto a flat surface.

Symmetrical balance can be understood as having equal “weighted elements”. It is often referred to as formal balance. If you draw a line vertically or horizontally through the center of the composition there would appear to have the same “weight” on both sides of the design. It is also possible to build sense of balance by placing elements equally around a central point, resulting in radial symmetry.

The whole purpose of developing a formal balance in a composition is to allow the visual imagery an appearance of “order”, such that all parts looks in their place. To our perceptions this provides a natural sense of “reality” .


Asymmetrical “informal” balance may appear more offhand and less planned and is usually more difficult to develop in a composition because planning this type of layout requires much more care to ensure it appears “balanced”.

Unbalanced compositions develop perceptions of tension as if they are overweight in areas or ready to slide off the side or tip over.

However balance is implemented, either simply or using more complicated use of elements, the patterns of balance are readily apparent in most successful compositions.

Steel City Reflections


Proportion refers to the comparable size and scale of the various elements in a design. This is the relationship between objects, or parts, of the whole. Our minds most often examine proportion in a composition by relating to our “typical standard” that we use to resolve proportions. This near universal standard of measurement is the human body and our experiences of living in one all of our lives. We sense an acceptance of the size of objects by that measure.

There is also something to be said about the scale (or size) of an entire piece of art. When speaking of scale in this sense, we naturally use our body as the reference point. Our perception is shaped by how large or small something is compared to ourselves.

Proportion and scale are principles of art that describe the size, location, or amount of one element in relation to another. They have a great deal to do with the overall harmony of an individual piece and our perception of the art.

As a fundamental element in artistic work, proportion and scale are quite complex. There are also many different ways that they’re used by artists.

Scale is used in art to describe the size of one object in relation to another, each object is often referred to as a whole.

Proportion has a very similar definition but tends to refer to the relative size of parts within a whole. In this case, the whole can be a single object like a person’s face or the entire artwork as in a landscape.

Scale affects our perception of perspective as well. A painting feels three-dimensional if objects are correctly scaled against one another in relation to the viewpoint such as objects diminishing in size as they recede into the distance.


Rhythm can be suggested using visual movement and applying the visual elements in repeated patterns. This gives a sense of movement through space; an easy connected path along which the eye follows this regular arrangement. Developing a visual rhythm creates predictability and order in a composition.

Rhythm depends largely upon the elements of pattern and movement to achieve its effects. The parallels between rhythm in sound & music are very exact to the idea of rhythm in a visual composition. The difference is that the timed “beat” is sensed by the eyes rather than the ears.

Rhythm is a principle of art that can be difficult to describe in words. We can easily recognize rhythm in music because it is the underlying beat that we hear. In art, we can try and translate that into something that we see in order to understand an artwork’s visual beat.

Finding the Rhythm in Art:

A pattern has rhythm, but not all rhythm is patterned. For example, the colors of a piece can convey rhythm, by making your eyes travel from one component to another.

Lines can produce a rhythm by implying movement. Forms, too, can cause rhythm by the ways in which they’re placed one next to the other.

Really, it’s easier to “see” rhythm in just about anything other than the visual arts. This is particularly true for those of us who tend to take things literally. Yet, if we study art we can find a rhythm in the style, technique, brush strokes, colors, and patterns that artists use. One use is in “linear rhythm” that is not as dependent on pattern, but is more dependent on developing a timed movement of the viewer’s eye.

With rhythm it is the patterns and repetition within the frame that is understood best. They are both interconnected and quite similar but each have their own recognizable characteristics.

Pattern depicts a recurring visual element in the composition. This could be a concept that is repetitive within the composition or a noticeable pattern like many wallpapers or other symmetrical structures that repeat themselves.

Repetition alludes to a visual element that repeats. This can be forms, shapes, lines, hues, or even your main subject that is represented in the composition over and over. These may or may not represent a pattern.

Rhythm is a little of both pattern and repetition, yet the rhythm can vary. The differences in a pattern create a rhythm and the repetition of elements of art create rhythm. Repetition may be quite clear, or it may be a more subtle that can be seen in the elemental structure of the composition.

There is rhythm in most art but it is generally up to the viewer to discern what that is.


Emphasis is concerned with the point of focus, or disruption. It is the location(s) in a composition which are most visually appealing and draw the viewer’s eye. Typically there is a primary subject of emphasis, and possibly secondary emphases within the composition. Emphasis is usually where the viewer’s eye is drawn towards by the use of pattern or movement in the composition. This can also be a break in the composition’s rhythm.

Creative artists use emphasis for highlighting a particular area of their compositions or to add some point of interest that will hold the viewer’s attention and invite further curiosity. There are many ways to add emphasis to a composition.


Emphasis is often created with using repetition within the composition. This brings the viewers’ attention to repetitive elements. Often using color that is duplicated within a composition there will be areas where the color is created that will attract attention.


The use of contrast provides emphasis by isolating this segment from the rest of the image. Using backgrounds of little interest tends to confine the viewers’ attention to the area of emphasis.

Others elements such as luminance, shapes, textures, size, scale and color provide attention getting emphasis.

Val in the mists of surreal fog

Over time, artists, researchers and mathematicians have devised principles of placement within a frame where the viewer’s visual stimulus is more attracted. This placement provides a dominant area where our visual system is more attracted to during viewing. Such placements as the “Rule of Thirds” and the “Golden Mean” plus a number of other “rules” have been formulated over time and various research projects to be areas that are more emphatic to our perceptions. An artist’s placing their main subject in these areas makes it more likely a viewer will maintain their interest and intend to draw their eye to this area first, the focal point of a composition.

There may be multiple areas that are emphasized in a composition yet one invariably is the primary focal point and the rest are subordinate to this one. Having more than one point with equal dominance typically leads to a confusion on the part of the viewer and their interpretation of the artwork.


Subordination is the term used to express secondary or lesser “weight” elements. The opposite of emphasis, artist may use elements to deemphasize areas of a composition so the main focal points contrast with them and stand out more. A bright color against bland tones will cause the viewer’s eye to be drawn to the bright color.

Other methods employed to provide emphasis is by the control of contrast within the frame, particular colors, bright areas, areas of texture, variance in scale of objects in an area and their placement in the frame to indicate foreground or a background element creates a visual tension that draws the eye towards this placement.


Unity is the cohesive elemental principle that encapsulates all of the principles and elements of design. It refers to the coherence of the whole, the sense that all of the parts are working together to achieve a common result; a harmony of all the parts.

Unity can be achieved through the effective and consistent use of any of the elements, but a pattern in the underlying structure, is the most fundamental element for a strong sense of unity.

Consistency of form and color are also powerful tools that can pull a composition together.

However, unity also exists in variety. It is not necessary for all of the elements to be identical in form providing they have a common quality of meaning or style.

Unity can also be a matter of concept. The elements and principles can be selected to support the intended function of the designed object; the purpose of the object unifies the design.

Unity is another of those hard-to-describe art terms but, when it’s present, your eye and brain are pleased to see it.

Simpler Times

Take some time to review each of these principles of design and do research to find additional insights on various web sites, blogs and even YouTube videos that also describe these principles in alternative ways to give you the best sense of the values of each principle.

Then try to find particular compositions for study that are representative of these so you can visually get the sense of each as well.

Through such a repetitive learning process you will develop these principles in your own creations.

Next blog we will look into creativity and design.

Until Then,