The 8 Principles of Design

from The Artist Within, A Guide to Becoming Creatively Fit

By Whitney Freya | Posted 3/15/11 | Updated 4/16/23

The principles of design are not the result of a panel of art academics who felt the need to create more rules. The principles of design are the language of our mind's eye, how we visually analyze everything we see. They have been used by artists for centuries to create paintings that successfully communicate their heart's desire, the natural beauty of a landscape, the spirit of a portrait, or the innate element of objects in a still life.

Now you are going to learn how to use them. The principles of design are interwoven throughout our lives because we process so much of our world and our life visually. As our eye catches the view out the window, the line of cars ahead of us on the road, the expression on a face, the patterns in the fabric, the panels of colors on a stocked book shelf, or the landscape of papers on our desk our mind is already processing those images according to these principles of design.

emphasis · balance · unity · contrast · rhythm · proportion · repetition · harmony

For example, whenever you look at anything, your mind goes to the point of greatest contrast. It goes to what stands out the most. Then your eye travels around attempting to find unity within the composition. This is pleasing to our mind's eye. It wants to feel that everything belongs together, that nothing is out of place or missing. If there is something missing we start trying to figure out what it is.

The way we see things and way we think about things are intertwined. When we learn this visual language, the interrelationship between what we see and what we do, we unleash the artist's potential inside of our brain. We can look at our life, our canvas, and identify where we need more or less contrast, pinpoint elements that are in or out or proportion, highlight parts of our week that create harmony or daily patterns that battle that harmony. Our ability to look at our life in this light resides in our right brain. Our creative voice, our artist within, our muse, our intuition all live there. If you don't learn to tap your artistic potential you are simply not living to your fullest.

The following definitions of the Principles of Design will help you to recognize the language spoken by your artist within:

1. Emphasis

What is the painting trying to communicate? If that answer is clear, there is good emphasis. An artist may use detail to draw our attention to the subject of their painting. From the attention to detail, the viewer can tell what is important. Imagine a group of faces. If most of the faces lacked detail, but one was painted realistically with eyes that sparkled and rosy cheeks, you would understand that this figure was the most important figure to the artist. What is most important to you? What are you trying to communicate? Do the people in your life know what is important to you? Do you make those things a priority or are you likely to put things off? Do you have a hard time saying no to the things that take you away from your emphasis? Perhaps being conscious of where you are placing your emphasis will help you to reveal where you need more or less.

2. Balance

Balance does not always mean symmetry. A painting can illustrate balance when an area of great detail is balanced by an area that is more open and simple, or an area containing lots of colors is balanced by an area with only one main color. It is the ying that balances the yang. It is the answer to the question. It does not leave you hanging or wondering if something is missing. In life, good balance means well-rounded. A workaholic would not be balanced. If you have a tendency to obsess over an area in your life, therefore neglecting other areas, balance may serve you well. You may need to take a break and try something new. Get outdoors, take a class, or cook a dinner for friends instead of dining alone.

3. Proportion

Elements can be in or out of proportion. Think of Picasso. He painted subjects out of proportion to emphasize or deemphasize an element. An object may be painted larger than life or smaller to help the viewer to take notice. Objects may be represented in perfect proportion to create a pleasing composition. Think of the Mona Lisa or The Last Supper. Proportion has made these works legendary. Do you have elements in your life that are in or out of proportion? Maybe there is a part of your life that needs a greater proportion of your time or energy. If you have a big dream, but spend little to no time on it, maybe increasing the proportion will help you to realize your dream sooner. We may have a habit that is out of proportion. Open yourself to a new awareness and keep proportion in mind.

4. Unity

When a painting contains unity, it has common elements throughout. These elements work together to create a piece that is cohesive. There may be colors that are repeated throughout, or a particular shape. If a painting does not have the element of unity if may appear disjointed or like pieces from different puzzles got mixed in together. It does not flow. In life, a lack of unity can distract us, make us feel like we are stretched too thin. We can try to find the common thread in our life, what is vital to us. This will help us to refocus our energies and gain a greater sense of purpose. In a team, finding the common ground, the goal of the organization, will help the team to move forward together.

5. Harmony

Harmony is like when you get the call that the big client is now yours, that you have received the promotion, that the publisher wants your book, that your child got the lead, or that you won the day at the spa. It is when crocuses emerge from the dirt in the spring. It is when you feel like you could run forever at the end of your five mile jog. It is the "aaaaaahhhhhh" moment. Think of Monet's water lilies. I have walked the twenty-plus foot length of Monet's lilies in the MOMA in NYC. I was in awe. It was harmony embodied. You can feel disharmony in the core of your chest. When you feel anxious or unsettled you are craving harmony. What does that mean for you? Your inner artist knows….

6. Contrast

What makes a painting dynamic? What gives it depth? What creates drama in just two dimensions? Often it is the element of contrast. There is light and dark. There are contrasting colors. Size can create contrast. Our eye will always go to the point of greatest contrast first. Contrast attracts our attention. It can be used to draw the viewer's eye to the subject of a painting. In our lives, a lack of contrast can lead to apathy or boredom. When we add contrast to our lives it is exciting. It breaks the routine. We learn something new. It gives us something to talk about, to share with our colleagues, friends and family. It inspires and energizes.

7. Rhythm

You have heard of people, maybe even children, painting to music. Have you ever heard music looking at a painting? Pattern can also be used in our lives to create rhythm. I have had to structure my weekly schedule to provide me with more rhythm. Each week certain meetings are scheduled and at certain times each month advertising campaigns go out and artists are contacted. By scheduling these tasks I don't have to spend any other time making calls or wondering when to fit them in.

8. Repetition

Repetition can be used to draw our attention to part of a painting. It often works alongside contrast and emphasis to communicate what is really important. It makes me think of something my Grandfather told me once. He said that knowledge breeds confidence. I tend to be a broad brushstroke type of person.

For me, repetition is spending time to gain more knowledge. It is repeating a task or skill over and over until we feel completely confident. Athletes utilize repetition to train their minds and bodies to perform a task without blemish. Scientists use repetition as an element in their research. When we repeat a skill or discipline we are sharpening the blade, creating the edge that will set us apart and ensure our success.

You will soon develop a new awareness of the art that is your life and through the creative exercises in this book you will develop the right brain skills you need to bring your ideas, step by step, out of your mind and into your world. You will strengthen your right brain muscle; you will become creatively fit. You will become better equipped to succeed in this changing world. You will feel energized and be able to look at things with a new perspective.

When your thoughts are only passing through your left brain you have a limited perspective. When those same thoughts are sent through your right brain, accessed through new ways of looking at things and through these creative exercises, your perspective is changed, there is a paradigm shift and you will have a brainstorm of new ideas and solutions. With each exercise, your right brain becomes stronger. Now, YOUR personal renaissance begins!

Copyright ©2011 Whitney Freya. All rights reserved.