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First Post! 06/20/2011

Author: Mars Zonorosky
Date of publication:  June 20, 2011

The elements of design are the tools.  The principles of design are the rules. While there's no fixed agreement on these terms, the following are some definitions I find most helpful:

The Elements of Design are: Point;  Line;  Shape;  Form;  Space;  Colour; and Texture.

A point (or dot), is the starting position of all design: points combined together create line, shape and form. Groups of dots create patterns, rhythm and movement.
mars zonorosky © 2011

A line is an extension of repeating points and always has both length and direction, but never depth.  Put another way, a line is collection of dots with greater length than width:  the continuous movement of a point along a surface.  Lines separate different parts of the design.  Lines may be dotted, dashed, parallel, wavy, straight, diagonal, curved, zigzag, vertical, horizontal, actual or implied. They create texture and can be thick or thin.  The edges of shapes and forms also create lines. They create perspective and continuance, and when grouped together, lines build value and density.
Every line embodies direction:  they define the position of an element or even a whole image.
Curved, meandering lines slow movement, inviting a viewer to 'experience' the design. Straight, hard edges speed rapidly. Through skillful use of lines, a designer will direct the viewer's attention to a center of interest.
mars zonorosky © 2011

A shape comes into being wherever there exists a closed line. Shapes are flat and can express only length and width. They are self-contained, two-dimensional areas on one plane only with no depth. Differences in texture, colour, or value make a shape separate from the space around it. A positive shape will always generate a negative shape around it.
Three fundamental shapes are the circle, square and triangle.   A shape may be geometric (human-made) or organic (natural/freeform).  For example, in a landscape, natural shapes such as trees contrast with geometric ones such as houses.  Shape is not form, but the silhouette representation of form, being flat without depth or thickness, although shapes  can create depth perspective by overlapping.

Shading and light given to a shape create an illusion of three dimensions, thereby building form. 
mars zonorosky © 2011

A form is a three-dimensional object.  Form can be measured from back to front (depth), side to side (width), and from top to bottom (height). Plane exists in the second dimension as a flat surface area, while form exists in the third dimension, like a box.  Form closely relates to shape:  a shape is defined by a closed contour, whereas form is a shape expanded to three dimensions, or a shape that at least gives the illusion of three dimensions. Some fundamental shapes are the circle, square and triangle, expressing form in turn as sphere, cube and cone.  Balls, boxes and cylinders are forms. 
Volume is the capacity of a form, and mass defines the weight of a form.
Form means any three-dimensional object and therefore it can be viewed from many angles. Combining two or more shapes can create form.   It can be created by colour, dark and light, tone, and texture. It can be illustrated or it can be constructed.  There are both organic (natural) forms and geometric (human-constructed)  forms.
mars zonorosky © 2011

Space refers to the distances or areas around, between or within the components of a design.
Positive and negative space always exist together. Positive space refers to an element; negative space refers to the area around and between elements. Space extends in all directions:  it includes the back, middle and foreground.  It is at the same time the area between and also within objects.  In visual art, space also means the feeling or illusion of depth, indicating three-dimensionality.   Close space can create a feeling of security, transitional space a feeling of flow and open space a feeling of freedom.
mars zonorosky © 2011

There are three main components of colour:  hue, value and saturation.  Hue refers to where the colour is positioned on the colour wheel and what most people think of when they think of colour (red, green, blue).   Value is the darkness or lightness of a colour, how much black or white is mixed with it.   Shades (where black is added to a colour) are higher in value (medium to dark).  Tone refers to any colour that has been 'dulled' by either the addition of its complement or by gray.  Tints (where white is added to a colour) are  low in value (very light).  Saturation  or intensity means the chroma of a colour: how bright and vibrant or dull and neutral it is. Colour and light are always connected:  even when colour is physically printed, without light, it's invisible.
There are primary, secondary and tertiary colours.

The primary tria are red, yellow and blue.

Secondary colours are blended from two of the primary colours beside each other on the colour wheel:  green (yellow + blue), purple (red + blue) and orange (red + yellow).

Complementary colours contrast one another and sit opposite each on the colour wheel (such as purple and yellow). Paired, they are energetic and vibrant.

Analogous colours are side by side on the colour wheel;  together, these create colour harmony. 

Monochromatic colours are shades and tints of one colour.

Warm colours such as reds, oranges and yellows tend to advance towards to viewer while the cooler blues, violets and greens tend to recede into the landscape. Warm colours seem to affect human eyes more quickly than cool colours. When using warm colours,  a smooth and gradual sequence can be a subtle but high-impact tool, ie. red to scarlet to orange-scarlet to orange to bronze to orange-yellow to yellow to pale-yellow to cream to white.

mars zonorosky © 2011

Seen and felt, texture describes the perceived surface quality of objects.  In art, there are two types of texture: physical (tactile) and visual (implied). As a visual feature, perceived texture results from how light absorbs into or reflects off a surface:   soft, velvety, fizzy, rough, gritty, hard, smooth, shiny or glossy.  In web design, texture is visual only - implying a tactile sensation;  a texture may look rough, but of course can't really be felt by the viewer.  Architectural and sculptural materials are tactile because they can be felt.  Applying thick pigment to raise brushstrokes of a paint surface is a technique called impasto. Texture in landscape design depends upon the distance from which the plants are experienced by the viewer:  from a distance, the overall mass of the plant dominates and the fineness or softness of a leaf or branching pattern melts away. (5)
mars zonorosky © 2011

The Principles of Design are:  Emphasis (Focal Point, Center of Interest, Dominance);  Proportion (Scale, Size);  Rhythm (Repetition, Pattern, Movement, Direction, Gradation, Grouping & Connection, Sequence);  Balance; and Harmony (Unity, Variety, Contrast).

Emphasis is the focal point, or center of interest.  Through emphasis, an artist leads a viewer to the greatest position of importance, or visual weight in a design.  This will be the part of the design that first catches the viewer’s attention. More striking compared to other elements in the design, artists create emphasis by contrasting colour, texture, pattern, shape irregularities and placement.  While dominance usually relies on large scale for impact, emphasis can capture a viewer's attention through small size.  Scattered emphasis (too many focal points) can lead to no center of interest at all.   Even lots of information can be arranged with some sort of stopping point for the viewer's eye.
A careful artist places emphasis strategically, so that the message can jump out while harmonizing with the rest of the piece.  A visual hierarchy guides the viewer to a clearly unified statement.  However, not all designs need a singular focal point to communicate their message;  in some cases the artist may purposefully weight the entire composition equally.   A successful placement of elements means to communicate without confusion.
mars zonorosky © 2011

Proportion refers to a comparison of sizes.  Proportion means the subjective sense generated for the viewer when the elements in a design feel like they relate logically with each other.  With the human figure, proportion can refer to the size of the head or legs compared to the rest of the body.    It considers the relationship in size and scale between various items in a design.  Proportion describes symmetry or asymmetry and visual weight, creating or relieving a sense of tension.  It's the opposite of distortion.
Proportion can be the relationship of the width to the length of an area, or also the relationship of parts to a whole.  It describes the ratio between elements within a whole image, or parts of an element.   Examples include colour to colour, shape to shape and line to line - which may or may not be aesthetically pleasing to the eye, depending on the message the designer wishes to communicate. 

Size refers to area: how much space an element occupies, such as a line or a form.   It refers to the dimensions or magnitude of an element, whether it is small, medium or large.  Unlike proportion, size is objectively measurable.
Scale is the association between the size of an element or image to compared to its surroundings.  A standard criterion for designers is the human body, as the viewers whom designers want to communicate with are people.

Common scales in visual art:

Human-centric - sizes we as people are most familiar with;

Intimate - sizes smaller than 'normal';

Monumental - sizes much larger than typical;

Shock - undersized or oversized way beyond human scale.

Artists and designers frequently exaggerate the 'natural' scale to monumental or shock:  in religious works, advertising, film and video and in the institutional architecture of churches, banks, schools, hospitals and government buildings.(1)

mars zonorosky © 2011

As one or more elements repeat throughout a design, giving viewers a feeling of movement, a design takes on rhythm It's the flowing quality of the overall piece.  It is a repetition or alternation of objects, usually with certain defined intervals of surrounding negative space.  Discernible rhythm allows the viewer to understand a pattern and attracts our attention.  Repetition gives motion. Variety makes rhythm engaging and exciting, moving the viewer through and around the work.

Rhythm can be created through:
a)  repetition  - a recurring line, texture, colour or form;  eg. keeping the same colour or typeface throughout a magazine layout
b)  radiation  - refers only to moving from center:  the viewer's gaze starts in the center and the designer pushes it outward using colour, texture and/or lineweight
c)  gradation - the graduated succession of a size or a hue
d)  opposition - creating tension through a meeting point of corners
e)  transition - moving from curve to straight or vice versa, this gives a sense of movement and releases energy.  Radial balance can do this very effectively, whereas corner to corner contains energy  

Three ways rhythm can be employed are:

Static, regular:   the repetition of similar or identical elements;

Progressive:   repeated elements increasing or decreasing in size;

Continuous, flowing:    elements in motion (e.g. a wave washing into shore). (1)

Pattern refers to the repeating of an element throughout the artwork.  Pattern in visual art means a design portrays a certain recognizable, interpretable format. An artist could employ circles all over a design as a pattern, for example, but then they must integrate the circles throughout the design for a unified, strong message.

By repeating identical or similar components throughout the work, a designer builds cohesion. However, it is wise to refrain from using any elements too frequently as this could get monotonous.   Repetition with variation is interesting and lively - repetition without variation can be boring and mechanical. Without repetition, unrelated elements grouped together create chaos, randomness or meaninglessness.  A delicate balance is critical to harmonize a design so that it's functionally and aesthetically attractive.

Grouping and connection occurs where elements such as tones, shapes, and forms come together based on at least one similarity they all share, while maintaining variety through their differences.

The strategic use of sequence can create successful directional flow in the overall pattern. For example, effective sequencing could employ low elements in the foreground, medium elements in the middle ground, and tall elements in the background.

Many feel that artists achieve more appealing works when they employ odd numbers of elements (asymmetrical balance). Groupings of three, five, seven, or nine elements, for example, create a strong feeling of mass and a bold statement.  When grouping, a designer often begins with an element which will establish the scale of the piece.  Around this anchor, the designer groups the other elements to support the focal point, for example, through repetition in colour, shape and texture.

mars zonorosky © 2011

Balance describes the visual weight of elements throughout an artwork.  It can either create a sense of equilibrium and repose, or the opposite - disturbing the viewer.  
There are three recognized styles:   Symmetrical (formal);  asymmetrical (informal); and radial.  An unbalanced design gives the viewer a feeling of tension, or even incompleteness, as if the page, canvas, sculpture or screen might fall.

In radial balance, the elements are arranged around a center and expand outwards.  Striking but rarely jarring, all the directional movement leads a viewer away from or towards the center, making it very easy for an artist to establish a point of emphasis.  This kind of balance is found often in nature, as in the design of a flower.

With formal balance, the elements used on one side of the design mirror those on the other side, a principle often employed in architecture.  The feeling can be authoritative and commanding.

With informal balance, the sides are dissimilar, but feel even. Each section of the piece is similar in visual weight but not mirrored. The result is often charming, engaging, energetic, warm, flowing, dynamic, uninhibited and inviting.  It may at first seem more spontaneous and less complicated, but it's often more difficult to plan and achieve:  the artist must distribute weight with more subtle means.  The 'Rule of Thirds' is highly effective in creating asymmetrical balance.  Large areas of neutral colour may be balanced with small areas of vivid;  large areas of gray may be balanced by small areas of strongly contrasting black and white;  and large open areas may be balanced with small items of sharp detail.
mars zonorosky © 2011

Harmony brings a composition together:  it's the agreement of all the parts of a design. Hard to define, it's a subtle but essential ingredient.  Although harmony can be considered to be the "opposite" of contrast, even contrast between the various elements is needed to build continuity.  A composition may be complex, but all the elements should tie together, including negative spaces, contrasts and variations.  Harmony and unity are the common denominators of any design, coordinating elements such as form and colour so they can visually relate and support one another.  It's the consistency of how and where items are repeated - it's the end product of everything working with everything else:  you can't say, "OK, now I'm going to put in harmony!"
When nothing distracts from the whole, and there are echoes of all elements interrelating, unity comes through.  Some designers also name this proximity. Unity means completeness or wholeness.  "...A painting with an active aggressive subject would work better with a dominant oblique direction, course, rough texture, angular lines etc. whereas a quiet passive subject would benefit from horizontal lines, soft texture and less tonal contrast."(2)  Too much sameness without variety feels boring while too much variation without unity produces clutter and contradictions.  Unity makes the design work as one as opposed to randomness, meaninglessness and chaos, with no understandable statement.   (Unless of course, the artist is purposefully making a statement about meaninglessness, randomness and chaos, but even still the elements must function together in such a way to support that exact message.)   
mars zonorosky © 2011


1. Embracelife.   "An Exploration into the Elements and Principles of Design."  Squidoo.  2011. Web. Date of access: June 2011. <>

2. Lovett, John.  "The Elements of Design." and "The Principles of Design." John Lovett Watercolor and Mixed Media Artist. John Lovett. 1999. Web. Date of access: June 2011. <>

3. Schwab, Ken.   "Elements and Principles of Design These Definitions Bring Success to Ken Schwab."  The Incredible Art Department. Princeton Online. 2011. Web. Date of access: June 2011. <>

4. McClurg-Genevese, Joshua David.   "The Principles And Elements of Design." Digital Web Magazine. Digital Web Magazine. April 17, 2006. Web. Date of access: June 2011.<>

5. Morley, John A.  "Basic Principles and Elements of Landscape Design." Hort-Pro On-line Magazine. M.K. Rittenhouse & Sons Ltd. December 6, 2001. Web. Date of access: June 2011. <>

6. Swanton, Sandy.    Graphic Design. Pacific Design Academy. 1996

7. "Homework Help: Art: Visual Arts: Principles & Elements of Design." Jiskha Homework Help. n.p. June 2011. Web. Date of access: June 2011. <>


    Mars Zonorosky has worked as a graphic artist, photographer, house painter, interior decorator, and set designer since 1985. Mars' work has been featured in a number of publications and journals, most recently VICEVERSAMAG. Mars studied Art and Design at Pacific Design Academy and George Brown College, Pre-medicine at Kwantlen University, and graduated with a BA Honors in Political Science and Economics from the University of Toronto. He shares a rich Doukhobor heritage, which left an indelible impact on his values. Associates find him to be warm, friendly, considerate, reliable, trustworthy, lovable, a great cook and a good neighbor, although a bit noisy at times due to his love of loud music. Mars currently resides in Montreal, Quebec.



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