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Basics of Design

Have you ever looked at a painting, advertisement or work of art and felt that it was perfectly complete? It’s as though all the elements of the piece are working together to create the ideal visual experience.

How does such a cohesive piece come to fruition? Despite the reputation for rebellious rule breaking associated with the creative process, there are some basic elements of design that when used well create that sense of completeness.



Dividing and delineating a hierarchy of important elements, the lowly line plays a vital role in moving the eyes of the viewer through a design toward the specific information or focal point where the designer wants focus directed. Lines can be used to separate, connect and organize information.

There are a couple of ways to make a line:

  • The first, of course, is to simply draw a line. Most of us do this when taking notes to help separate ideas or reorder details for future reference. You may not be a designer, but you are still using lines to organize information in a way that makes the most sense to you. When lines are created in this way, they are called “actual” lines.
  • The second way to make a line is when a shape meets another shape. For example, when you lay a piece of yellow paper on top of a piece of purple paper, the line where the yellow paper ends and the purple paper begins is an “implied” line. You did not draw the line, and yet it still exists because two objects created it by touching.

Lines can be vertical, horizontal or diagonal. They can be straight or curved, squiggly or zigzag.



Most of us started learning about circles, squares and triangles at a very young age. But what you may not have learned is that not all shapes have such specific names. Many artists and designers use organic shapes to illustrate movement and interest. The one rule that makes something a shape is that it is contained, it does not have a beginning or an end. Shapes are formed when an enclosed area is created by a two-dimensional line.

Form is like shape but is used to describe objects in design that appear three dimensional. While they are still two dimensional, proper use of light and shading will create the appearance of an additional dimension.



When looking at an advertisement, have you ever paid attention to how your eye moves across it? Since we read from left to right and top to bottom, our brains have been trained to view most things in that order. Effective designs are created to take advantage of that natural flow to convey important information to you in its most digestible sequence.



Size is the area of space of one shape in relation to another in the same layout. Size is often utilized to make important information stand out.

Scale, on the other hand, is used as a frame of reference alongside size — and combined, they become powerful tools that can create movement and depth as well as elicit strong emotions when cleverly used.



When pattern is added to visual elements, it creates the appearance of texture. While texture in design is not always tactile, it can create a visual sense of what the object might feel like to be touched.

There are two main types of texture in design:

  • Actual texture is real, perceptible texture that can be felt on a printed piece, such as raised ink or use of letterpress embossing.
  • Visual texture uses imagery of familiar textures to imply what an object might feel like to be touched.



This often-underused element of design is one of my personal favorites. Space can be positive or negative. Anytime you create a shape, the area surrounding that shape and before another shape begins becomes negative space. Putting a lot of space between objects and lines can create a sense of lightness or airiness, while leaving very little space can make a design feel dense or heavy.



The final, and perhaps most obvious, of the basic elements of design is color. Color theory is a vast and sometimes confusing subject. Every design starts with a color palette based on a principle of color theory. A few common schemes are as follows:

  • Primary colors are red, blue and yellow. In various combinations, these colors make up all other colors.
  • Complementary colors are the colors directly across from one another on the color wheel. The most basic complementary colors are blue and orange, red and green, and yellow and purple.
  • Analogous colors are adjacent to each other on the color wheel, such as red, orange and yellow.
  • Monochromatic color is the use of one color in a variety of tints, tones and shades.

These basic design elements are just a small portion of the creative process the graphic designers at M3 Group undertake when using their knowledge and expertise to bring client concepts to life and create award-winning visuals that explain, convey and intrigue. For more information, visit