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Design | February 21, 2024 | By Monika Halsan

Design fundamentals: Understanding creative thinking

If you are in the process of getting some design work done for you, you might be wondering how you can best evaluate the work that is being done for you. Without a design background, this could – naturally – be a difficult task.

In this article, we’ll explore some principles of design that might be beneficial for you to know when giving feedback on your project.

A monitor with graphic design tools.

TL;DR

  1. Familiarise yourself with design principles such as hierarchy, negative space, colour, alignment, contrast, repetition and gestalt principles
  2. Design principles lay the groundwork for designs that are pleasing and functional
  3. Good designs creatively implement a range of design principles
  4. At Healthy Pixels, you can rest assured your designs will follow these guidelines

What are design principles?

Very often, people assume that the right tools will help anyone become a good designer. While it is true that good design software takes you a long way, it isn’t quite that simple. Most professional designers, including myself (with a BA in Graphic Design and years of professional experience), have relevant education that imparts these fundamental design principles. While there is plenty of room for creativity, these principles lay some groundwork as to how we perceive things due to their placements, colours, sizes, shapes, etc.

I don’t want to overwhelm you with the complexity and amount of principles; the intention of this article isn’t for you to become a designer but to better understand how we think. So while there are many principles in theory, across the many areas of design, let’s have a look at 7 of them:

01. Hierarchy

The point of hierarchy is to differentiate content in line with their importance. Setting all text to the same size and making everything bold is confusing to the reader. As we generally tend to skim rather than read, you just don’t know how to skim the content if nothing stands out. By considering hierarchy, we aid the viewer when processing content.

02. Negative / white space

Just as we highlight specific information with hierarchy, we can also further aid users by utilising negative, or white space. Considered by many as a waste of space, white space allows your content and your users to breathe. When adding white space to content, we highlight essential information, and help guide the viewer from A through to Z. White space allows us to break content up into digestible chunks (considering Cognitive Load; the mental effort required by our brain to process information.).

03. Colour

Colours communicate to us on an emotional and subconscious level. Just think of traffic lights, for example: we have learnt to associate red with full stop, warning and caution, and green with acceptance and validation. Similarly, blue is often perceived as a calming colour, while orange is a warm colour that energises. Understanding the basics of colour theory can be a truly helpful tool if you wish to better wrap your head around certain design choices.

04. Alignment and balance

Alignment is an essential aspect of design. If the alignment is completely random and not at all thought through, the design will feel unbalanced (which, depending on the project can also be the intention). Generally, an unbalanced design will feel more edgy and is not suitable for traditional brands or serious documents. Very often, when something feels “off” in a design, poor alignment can be the reason. That’s why most designers will work with some sort of a grid and margin system.

05. Contrast and emphasis

Contrast comes in many forms, such as dark vs light, large vs small and thick vs thin. The point is that opposing elements can create emphasis. If you really want a heading to stand out compared to your body copy, we can make the heading large and the body copy small. When considering contrast, we guide people’s attention to certain elements by making them pop.

06. Repetition

Consistency in design is important to tie the design and overall look and feel together. By repeating colours, fonts, patterns, layouts and visual style, we create a sense of unity as well as brand awareness. Repetition can create rhythm, which helps users move through the design. If we consistently use red for any errors or warning messages on your website forms, people subconsciously learn to associate that colour with an action that requires their attention. Repetition is an art of balance though, as too much of it will make the design feel boring and static.

07. Gestalt principles

You might have heard of Gestalt principles in school or elsewhere; a set of principles describing how human perception groups elements, recognise patterns and simplify complex images when we look at design (and the world in general). By considering these principles in design, we organise content and help users perceive our designs the way we want them. Gestalt principles include Closure, Proximity, Similarity, Perception, Organisation, Symmetry and Continuity.

Why design principles are important

Good design is about a lot more than just making something look pretty. By following certain guidelines, we can create designs that actually provide good user experiences. These principles extend beyond personal preferences, and align with our cognitive processes and perception. It is worth noting, however, that cultural differences can significantly influence how we perceive elements like colour.

If the professional designer(s) you work with follow the principles explained above, you have a much stronger foundation to get a final product people will truly enjoy.

How do I determine whether a design is good or bad?

Without a design background, it can be hard to evaluate a design if you are asked to provide feedback. If you consider the principles above, though, you will be able to get an idea of whether or not the design works.

As a general rule, a good design will feel harmonic and balanced (unless your brief was to experiment with truly bold expressions), and it will be pleasing to look like. Consider aspects such as legibility: is it easy to read the content, if you pretend not to know what the content is? Blue text on a red background, for example, is often a poor design choice as there isn’t sufficient contrast. A strong design will also feel consistent throughout (repetition), yet not so repetitive it gets boring.

On the other hand, a poor design will be the opposite. It might come across as cluttered, making it challenging to quickly scan the content and consistently follow the layout.

Conclusion

If you are working with the right professional(s), they will consider all of the principles above and integrate them in your best interest. But to help you better understand what to look for, it might be useful to get yourself familiarised with the principles.

At Healthy Pixels, I promise I always take all these principles – and more – into consideration to create designs that communicate well and that are pleasing to look at. Ready to get started on your project?

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