Back to Basics: The elements of design

Kaitlyn Ellison

Inspiration for great design can be found anywhere. And graphic design’s siblings — other genres of art — are great resources for inspiration. Graphic design has inherited its main principles and is rooted in earlier art forms such as printmaking, painting and photography.

In a three-part series, we will utilize different forms of visual art to explain the fundamental rules of design. First, we will discuss the elements of design using classic prints to illustrate each one, followed by:

Printmaking and the basic elements of design
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Printmaking is the process of creating an art piece by using a carved screen to transfer ink onto another surface. The genre has a rich history, and the materials used to create prints has been as diverse as the art styles throughout history.

Anything from traditional Japanese woodblock prints to screen printing T-shirts counts as printmaking — there’s no shortage of inspiration to take away from this genre.

The basic elements of design are:

  1. Line
  2. Shape
  3. Form
  4. Space
  5. Color
  6. Texture

1. Line
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“Forest Cemetery,” color wood cut by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner in 1933

Line is the most basic element for artistic creation. It can be created as a mark that connects two dots and comes in all shapes, sizes, and is infinitely manipulable.

In Kirchner’s “Forest Cemetery,” bold black lines define shape in what could otherwise be a muddled green abstract. The lines are varied in their length, thickness and curvature which creates variety and contrast in the work.

2. Shape
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“La Raison Probante,” woodcut by Félix Vallotton in 1898

Shape is the form that a combination of lines take, resulting in the subject of the image. In this woodcut, Vallotton creates the image of two lovers in a room by the use of just black and white shapes.

3. Form
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The 49th plate from “Kunstformen der Natur,” by Ernst Haeckel in 1904

Form is the 3-D version of a shape and can be measured by height, width and depth.

In Haeckel’s “Kunstformen der Natur,” each shape utilizes color to create highlights and shadows, giving the impression of depth in the work.

4. Space
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“Disparate 22. Lluvia de toros o Disparate de toritos.” aquatint print by Francisco Goya, done between 1815 – 1823

Space determines the way that objects relate to each other within the artwork, it’s the location on which the elements are placed. Goya’s bulls are centered in the piece, giving the illusion of a deep black space around them and drawing attention to the dramatic forms themselves.

5. Color
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Color is created by the way our eye interprets light and has a huge impact on the way a piece is interpreted by the audience.

Toulouse-Lautrec keeps his colors simple and bold, utilizing the three primary colors with black and white in large strokes. The colors are rich, emphasizing the dramatic interpretation of the character in the print.

6. Texture
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degas
‘Three Ballet Dancers (Trois danseuses),’ c. 1878-80. by Edgar Degas

Texture is how a piece of art feels, or is perceived to feel when touched.

In Degas’ Three Ballet Dancers, you can sense the softness of the ballerina’s skirts. The texture is accentuated with soft directional lines and sweeping brush strokes.

What is your favorite element to experiment with? Let us know in the comments.

The author

Kaitlyn Ellison
Kaitlyn Ellison

Kaitlyn is part of the Community Team at 99designs.com. She grew up in Boulder, CO and went to school at Northwestern University in Chicago. When she's not blogging, she spends her time having adventures and being generally creative. She's all about having new experiences as often as possible!

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