5 basic principles of graphic design and how to apply them to your work (+ Exercise Bonuses)

One of the most common questions of a young designer or any person who is taking steps in the fantastic world of graphics is: “How can I lay the foundations for becoming a great graphic designer?”

Prepare pen and paper, because we have prepared for you an invaluable article, which will help you to improve your career as a designer right away!

Let's get started!

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Every day we find ourselves running through Instagram’s feed, or we go through Behance and Dribbble’s sieve, looking for inspiration for a new graphic project to be created. 

And here we are, getting lost in a sea of extreme quality works, and what we have left is discouragement, because inside ourselves we don’t say: “I can’t compete with such good designers”. 

But are you really sure you can’t do it? 

Have you ever thought that they too have started somewhere?

Maybe it’s better to take a step back, close Behance and Dribbble, and think about how we can improve our skills, starting from the basics

Yes, because as in any other subject, even in graphics you have to start from the basics.

That’s why, here at Desircle, we thought of sharing our basic principles of graphic design, which are as basic as they are basic to becoming a successful graphic designer.

Grab pen and paper, it's time to start!

The 5 basic principles of graphic design (and how to apply them to your work).

Principle 1 - Typography

Typography is the basis of all visual design. If you want to start studying this wonderful subject, we can only advise you to start from the typography. 

Yes, it is possible to create a graphic project composed only of typography. In addition, you can create designs with only one typeface. In addition, we can also create graphics from a certain font, using some of its features and shapes.

Obviously, the choice of font that you will use for your project should never be the result of chance. Behind every project there is an in-depth study of typography.

To further expand your knowledge of typography, you could start by adding a few new terms to your typography vocabulary. What are tracking, kerning and leading mean?

A further step you can take is to study how typography is applied to the web. For this specific case we suggest you read the book: Web Typography: The Elements of Typographic Style Applied to the Web.

So we talked about how to use typography effectively, but we also have to talk about another very important factor: the combination of fonts.

To get a full view of typography, you need to understand how to combine fonts. One font is never enough for a graphic design project, just think of a website project: there will be a font dedicated to the Title, and a font dedicated to the Body Text instead.

Some resources that can help you to learn how to get an eye on the pairing font, are definitely FontWolf and FontPair. You can also find the Google Fonts website very interesting. Being able to match fonts together will dramatically change the dynamics of your next design project.

Exercise to get in tune with the typography:

This is the first exercise you can do to get your typography studio off to a good start. Start by searching Google for the font you want to download and install on your computer. 

Once you have installed the font (take Helvetica for example), open Adobe Illustrator and create a new sheet. Inside your sheet write a sentence, or a quote, with the new font installed, for example: “One life is too short for doing everything”. 

Now, in your Adobe Illustrator sheet, start working with the printer, move the individual letters, fill in the spaces, change the colors. Play with it. 

You’ll notice that even with a simple font and a color match, you’ve created an eye-catching graphic, which can work without the need for other graphic elements or images.

Have fun trying and trying again on new sheets, selecting other fonts. From serif to sans serif, from monospace to display, each font will be different and will produce different graphic effects. 

In this way you will be able to get to know the typography, and understand what important role it plays in graphic design.

Principle 2 - The grids serve to have a starting point

When a novice designer is faced with a grid of illustrators, he or she feels limited. It probably reflects on the fact that a grid limits his creativity.

Actually, that’s not the case, the grids don’t limit you, but they’re a starting point. Thanks to the grids we have the opportunity to create our own design!

The fact is that the grids are very important for a design design directed also to the effectiveness. And they have become even more so since Graphic Design also includes UI Design, i.e. the graphic design of web platforms, apps, etc..

Using grids helps you to have a clear idea of how to arrange the elements, which hierarchy to follow, which graphics elements to make predominant, and which colors to use in the various sections.

In this regard, the next principles follow, which are precisely the hierarchy and colors.

Exercise to improve your relationship with grids:

We have come to exercise number 3, how to use grids in your design. In this case, I suggest you to open a new file, always on Adobe Illustrator and activate the grid.

Try working with simple basic elements, such as square, circular and rectangular shapes. Match the various shapes, giving a balance to the whole context. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be able to get your hands on it by inserting the various design elements into this graphic “cage” you’ve created, which will serve as a guide for the development of your design.

You can then select in advance where to place the shapes and fonts. Work on various models, take inspiration from others you find on the web. These are some examples.

Principle 3 - White space serves to create a balance in your design

The third principle is that of white space. White space is an essential element in graphic design, it is what allows us to give balance and “air” to our design. 

Obviously we don’t talk about “white space” as a white space, but as an “empty” space. 

You want to give visual harmony to your design, right? So white space is what you need. 

You can scroll through Behance and Dribbble to get an idea of how designers use space in their work, so as to give a proper balance to all the graphic elements. But in any case, our advice is to develop your intuition.

Exercise to improve your eye:

During the first exercise, where you studied how to apply the rules of typography to design, you certainly noticed the importance of spacing according to the typeface you chose. Adjusting the distance of the characters and the direction of the fonts is a great exercise to develop the eye for spacing. 

For this reason, an excellent exercise is to implement this principle of white space in the previous exercise on typography. 

Try reopening your sheets, working on the typeface, but this time balancing your design using blank spaces. You will see how your design takes on a completely different shape and meaning. 

Have fun completely changing the design you had previously thought was the perfect one during your first exercise. The empty space will give you a better harmony, and you will see your design with completely different eyes!

For this step, I also recommend trying KernType, a game in which you compare the kerning solution with that of a printer.

This is the link: https://type.method.ac/

Principle 4 - Visual hierarchies: use the dimensions of the various elements to establish them.

Yes, each graphic element has a precise role and must follow precise visual hierarchies. 

A clear example is the text: 

Yes, each graphic element has a precise role and must follow precise visual hierarchies

A clear example is the text: Depending on the size of the text, its position in the design and the color, a certain text will be read first, and our mind will then continue accordingly to the one below, smaller, etc..

The size of a text or other graphic element is important because it defines which element is most important. 

So you need to be sure to highlight the most important elements of your design.

The truth is that all advertising is based on visual hierarchies. An example is a magazine, where the title that catches your attention is always the largest and highest on the page, followed by a smaller subtitle, and then an even smaller descriptive text, and the same goes for a website.

At this point we go back to the previous point, as the grids help us when we have to define the visual hierarchy of our design.

A tip, which applies to both printed graphics and the web, is to define the hierarchies of your design and apply standard parameters, ie the size that are unique to all elements.

Again, consistency is key.

Exercise to increase your knowledge of the visual hierarchy:

Again, we recommend that you take action right away! You know, trying things out is the best way to learn. So now it’s your turn: try to create a hierarchy of content within your Adobe Illustrator sheet.

Following the grids of the previous file, which elements need to be larger, and which ones smaller? Try, for example, has to write a message. What is the title? and the subtitle? and the descriptive paragraph? Then align them to the grid and see your work take a new shape.

Principle 5 - Colours communicate emotions

To conclude this guide to graphic design for new designers, there was obviously no shortage of colors.

Colours also play a fundamental role, but be careful: don’t let yourself be carried away by the articles on the web where they tell of a “psychology of colour”. There is no color psychology, because colors are interpreted differently from person to person. 

Moreover, the emotions, traditions and meanings of color change from culture to culture. So don’t expect to do “bingo” if you read that the color purple is associated with luxury, somewhere else in the world it’s not like that, and it has completely different meanings.

In any case, to create a color palette, there are points to keep in mind: 

  • Choose the color according to the target. Even if it's not entirely true that a color is emotionally charged, because it's completely subjective, you need to know your audience to understand which colors can be more in line with our target audience. So you need to know the audience of reference for the brand you're dealing with, to understand where they live, what are their cultures, what are their emotions and how to arouse certain types of emotion through color.
  • What goals do you want to achieve? This is a question that is a must in the world of marketing. And even when it comes to choosing the color of the brand or a design project, it's vital. Define the objectives of your project and work on the colors accordingly.
  • Simplicity is the watchword when defining a color palette. A brand to be recognizable must be simple even in colors. We remember a yellow and blue brand even without mentioning its name (Ikea), and the same goes for Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and so on.

Exercise to choose the color palette:

Here we are in the last exercise! Colours. You can start thinking about which colors to use in your design right away, and you can create a moodboard that will help you to better define the final colors. In any case, there are many websites that can help you with this.

Try to work on the colors of your previous projects, select only a few, for example 3 colors: one main, one secondary and one prominent. This way you will have a complete color palette and can then use it as a general palette for a given project.

Our favorite site for color: https://coolors.co/


You have come to the end of this guide, with many useful tips and even with some effective exercises to improve your skills, congratulations!

You can consult this guide whenever you want, and see your progress over time. All you have to do is open your graphics software and unleash your creativity!

All you have to do is send us your work by email or on our Instagram in Direct Message page, so you can get feedback on it from expert designers.

Unleash your creativity!

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