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Understanding the Elements of Graphic Design

written by: Laura Jean Karr•edited by: Tricia Goss•updated: 5/8/2011

Colors, lines and shapes are just a few items that are used to make a design come to life. Learn more about what these elements are and how they are used when developing a creative project.

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    Principles or Elements?

    In graphic design there are two main areas of development which are, elements of design and the principles of design. The principles include ideas on balance and white space, where the

    elements include a focus on color, shapes, lines and type/texture.

    Here we take a closer look at just the main elements used in graphic design with examples of how each one can be developed for various projects.

    For more in our Understanding Graphic Design series, check out The Use of White Space in Graphic Design: Don't Overlook this Important Element and What is Graphic Design?

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    Element of Color

    Color Color is used in graphic design to captivate the eye and bring attention to certain areas of a design. Using color can change the impact of every other graphic design element that is formed. Colors can support an idea, evoke an emotion and give an overall design a sense of completion.

    Each color has a value when used in design. A value is the overall darkness or lightness of an object. Color can shift the value of a design object by being used in shades or by being combined to create shadow like features around an object. Color can also create contrast within a design and allow for the illusion of movement when looking at a finished project.

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    Element of Shape

    Shape The shape element is made up of all types of shapes that are used to focus and give meaning to the creation itself. Shapes are broken down into three main categories: basic, natural and abstract.

    Basic shapes include triangles, squares, circles, cones, octagons and hexagons.

    Natural shapes are forms naturally occurring in nature, for example something like the shape a butter splat makes on the kitchen floor is as naturally occurring as the shape of a leaf or snowflake.

    Abstract shapes can be either a stylized or a simplified version of basic and natural shapes.

    Shapes can be used in design to create patterns, be the focal point of a piece or can frame the layout of a design by the way shapes are aligned.

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    Element of Line

    Line The use of lines is what can give a design project structure. Lines are used to create forms and divide space within a graphic layout. They are a reliable graphic design tool becasue they can be manipulated in any manner of form, shape or pattern. Lines can be dotted, curved, straight, swirled, narrowed and more.

    One of the best benefits of using lines is in the grid system that is used to give a design layout form before all elements and principles are utilized. The grid system is a set of lines in various widths and lengths that form a square-to-square pattern to set the design scope.

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    Element of Type

    Type Using the element of type within graphic design can enhance the overall look by conveying a specific message that the other elements alone would not be able convey.

    Options for type are based on font choice, placement, size, alignment and color. Type can even be used in place of certain elements because it can be used to form shapes and images to complement a design without having to use separate shapes or images.

    There are millions of typefaces that are available, with typography designers creating more every day. This gives the type element an added benefit when used in graphic design.

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    References

    Poppy Evans, Mark A. Thompson, Exploring the Elements of Design, Delmar Cengage Learning, 2003.

    *images created by author for this article

Understanding Graphic Design

Find out more about graphic design through these series of articles. From learning more about what graphic design is, the elements that make up graphic design and what tools are used in the creative process.
  1. Understanding Graphic Design - What is Graphics Design?
  2. Understanding the Elements of Graphic Design
  3. Understanding Graphic Design - Top Programs
  4. Understanding Graphic Design - Top Free Utilities & Tools