Intimidated by design? You’re not alone. But fear not !

You don’t need an art degree or thousands of hours logged in the Adobe suite to build engaging designs. With the right resources and a clear plan, anyone can put together compelling art for a blog post, Tweet, website, app, or other project. That means instead of asking your designer or hiring a freelancer to develop basic images, you can make them yourself.

Delightful design starts with the essentials. This guide covers the basic design elements—including line, shape, color, texture, and type—then explores more advanced principles like balance, contrast, rhythm, and white space. We’ll teach you how they can easily fit together to create great graphics to go along with your content.

We’ll also cover tools and resources you can use to spur creativity and build beautiful graphics faster.

Ready to send your design skills into overdrive? Let’s get started.

The Basics

The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) describes graphic design as “the art and practice of planning and projecting ideas and experiences with visual and textual content.”

In simpler terms, taking various ideas or content and translating them visually is graphic design. It is a craft where artists involve themselves in interpreting various pieces of content visually.

Artists or designers apply page layout techniques and visual hierarchy to represent or communicate an idea in the most effective way possible.

According to designer Alexandros Clufetos, “Graphic design takes graphical and textual elements and implements them into multiple types of media. It helps the producer connect with the consumer. It conveys the message of the project, event, campaign, or product.” (Excerpts from an article published on Rasmussen University’s official website)

Graphic design is used in advertising, infographics, websites, banners, billboards, and marketing, among a host of other things, to convey various information.

While graphic design is used for commercial purposes like creating logos and ads, it is also used for artistic purposes.

Graphic design is an inseparable part of our lives. From social media to TV to magazines, graphic design is everywhere. Humans have always found new and more effective ways of communicating themselves. The ancients discovered that the visual mode of communication is more effective than any other. As thousands of years passed, humans perfected the visual mode of communication and created the world of graphic design.

Let us take a quick look at how the art form came out of caves and into our computer or mobile phone screens.

Cave painting

Cave paintings found across various locations in the world, which date back to prehistoric times, only point towards man’s inherent nature of communicating. Cave paintings found in Argentina, Africa, and Spain are proof that man’s romance with arts began even before they could speak. While there is a debate among experts about what these paintings meant, there are no disagreements on the fact that humans understood the effectiveness of visual communications thousands of years ago.

Evolution of the ancient Sumerian language

Historians believe that the Sumerians were the first to develop a fully evolved language. Various historical evidence points towards the fact that the language was developed to record trader inventories so that nothing went missing.

The Sumerian language, along with others that developed during this period, was logographic—symbols that represent words or expressions rather than phonetic sounds.

Early Chinese printing

China holds an important place in history due to its inventions and discoveries in the field of printing. From inventing the first movable type printing to discovering papyrus paper making, China’s gifts to the world of printing are unparalleled.

Interesting fact: In 1040, Bi Sheng invented the first type printing press (movable).

The renaissance

The industrial and renaissance era saw Europe light the world with various inventions; chief among them was the emergence of the printing press. With the printing press entering the scene, the world got a chance to create and recreate designs, arts, and texts on a gigantic scale. Businesses around the world began realizing how visuals could affect people’s buying behavior and increase revenue; thus, modern graphic design was born.

Gutenberg press

In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg introduced the concept of movable types in Europe. The concept quickly gathered speed and became the cornerstone of modern western civilization.

The Gutenberg press allowed the reproduction of lengthy scholarly books in a shorter time plus, they were affordable for the common people. The press also paved the path to creating creative designs for commercial usage. With the Gutenberg press coming into existence, modern graphic design quickly became known.

Logos of the past

While the use of logos predates modern history, its commercial use may be traced to the 1400s when the printing industry first displayed its emblems. The use of logos by the printing industry was limited to their own documents to display their printing finesse.

The modern era of graphic design began sometime during the late 1800s and lasted until World War II. The period saw huge transformations and the evolution of varied techniques that contributed to graphic design.

Today, advertising and marketing have taken on a new avatar. Our forefathers couldn’t even have imagined the world we live in today. However, our advancements are a result of all the experiments done in the past by our ancestors.

Graphic design is a combination of various elements and principles coming together in perfect harmony. Understanding and studying the various elements and components involved in graphic design will help you become a great designer.

The various elements in graphic design are generally used to create visually impactful and attractive designs. The following are some design elements:

  • Color: The combination of colors you use in your designs can make a huge difference in how your brand or product is perceived. According to various studies, colors have the power to affect the mind in different ways.
  • Line: Designers generally use lines to create forms and magnify comprehension of the design.
  • Form: The better a designer uses different forms, the more effective she will be in communicating key messages to customers and potential buyers.
  • Shape: Just like colors, shapes can have a profound effect on their audience. You can easily alter shapes in combination with colors to enhance the mood of the creative work.
  • Size: Size, along with shape and form, play a vital role in making a design organized and attractive.
  • Space: While all the above elements are crucial to creating an attractive design, it is space that binds all the elements together. You can either connect or separate the various design elements through space.
  • Texture: Generally used to create visual tone, texture influences how a design appears.

Apart from the various elements discussed above, graphic designers are required to adhere to different design principles to create an effective composition.

The following are essential graphic design principles:

  • Contrast: Contrast helps in highlighting and guiding the eyes towards the most important parts of a design.
  • Balance: This design principle is extremely crucial since it balances the various elements involved in a creative piece.
  • Rhythm: Rhythm highlights how the different elements harmonize with each other in a design.
  • Proportion: Apart from balancing the various design elements, proportion helps in achieving an effective final design.
  • Emphasis: Just like contrast, emphasis guides the eyes of the audience towards the most important element of the design. While contrast highlights various important aspects of a design, emphasis is focused on the most important element.
  • Movement: The audience’s interaction with and interpretation of a piece of design is referred to as movement.

Now that we have explored the history and the basics of graphic design, it is time to look at the various types of graphic design.

While graphic design is all about communicating an idea through the help of color, imagery, and typography, there is no one specific way of doing it. The various types of graphic design have their sets of benefits.

Visual identity

Everything you need to know about graphic design

A company or organization communicates its personality through its brand identity. An effective brand identity results in establishing a healthy relationship between a business and its audience. The brand identity encompasses a brand’s personality, essence, emotions, tone, and experiences. Visual brand identity expresses all these elements through the following.

Logo: A logo is the face of the brand and helps attract customers.

Colors: They evoke varied emotions and represent the brand’s personality.

Typography: The fonts you use also represent your brand.

Photography: Images and photos talk about the values and vision of your brand.

Visual identity graphic design is the most popular and common category of design. That said, a visual graphic designer must know the basics of all types of graphic design, along with a thorough understanding of how various markets, industries, and brands work.

User Interface design

Everything you need to know about graphic design

User interface or simply UI is how a user experiences an application or a device. UI design aims at making the interface as easy as possible so that the user experiences the app or the device without difficulties.

UI is a broad term, which includes everything from screens and keyboards to menus and buttons. However, a graphic designer focuses on the visual aspects of the user’s experience. When a graphic designer concerns herself with UI, she would be working on the visual aspects of the following:

  • Website design
  • App designs
  • Theme design
  • Game interfaces
  • And many more

Apart from UI/UX knowledge, a graphic designer must be skilled with a programming language such as JavaScript, HTML, and CSS to become an effective user interface designer.

Ad and marketing design

Everything you need to know about graphic design

Advertising and marketing graphic design are most popular with people. Whenever you think of graphic design, you think of some ad and marketing design; that is how popular this type of graphic design is.

Brands create various marketing strategies to influence the decision-making process of the customers. Visual content is chief among marketing strategies because they are more engaging and have the power to influence a large group of customers.

Ad and marketing designers work with business owners and managers to create assets, which would support various marketing strategies.

The following are examples of marketing graphic design:

  • Billboards and banners
  • Flyers
  • Postcards
  • Brochures
  • Print and TV ads
  • Email marketing templates
  • Social media ads
  • Vehicle wraps
  • Infographics

Packaging design

Everything you need to know about graphic design

Product packaging is an essential part of any business. Packaging helps brands protect their product along with storing and selling. Brands also use packaging design to communicate directly with the audience.

From bottles to bags to containers, packaging designers create mockups and print-ready files for products. Apart from design skills, a designer must have in-depth knowledge of the printing process if she wishes to be a part of the packaging design industry.

Publication graphic designs

Books, magazines, newspapers, and anything to do with print publishing, fall under the category of publication graphic design. Publication designs fall under the traditional type of graphic design. However, the rise of digital or social media networks has given birth to digital publishing.In addition to graphic design skills, a publication designer must be an expert in printing and creating layouts.

Art and illustration design

Everything you need to know about graphic design

While the average Joe tends to see graphic design and graphic art/illustration as one and the same thing, they are very different—designers communicate to solve problems, and graphic artists create original artwork.

The following are some examples of graphic art and illustration:

  • T-shirt design
  • Stock images
  • Websites
  • Album arts
  • Book covers
  • Picture books
  • Concept art
  • Technical illustrations

Environmental graphic design

Everything you need to know about graphic design

Environmental graphic design focuses on connecting people with places. The intention behind this type of design is to make the experience of the people memorable. These designs also make navigating easy.

The following are some examples of environmental graphic design:

  • Retail store interiors
  • Conference spaces
  • Signage
  • Museums
  • Wayfinding

Motion graphics

Everything you need to know about graphic design

Any graphic which is in motion is known as motion graphics. From animated videos to films to online media, motion graphics is a skill that is highly in demand. Businesses, both big and small, tend to use motion graphics in their videos to influence a larger number of audiences.

The following are some examples of motion graphics:

  • Advertisements
  • Promotional videos
  • Tutorial videos
  • Video games
  • GIFs
  • Cine motion graphics
  • Trailers
  • Animated logos

I am sure you are wondering what the title really suggests. Well, it means GRAPHIC DESIGN IS EMOTIONAL DESIGN! While we use interactive software to create designs in the digital era, it is still based on the age-old concept of emotions.

Designers use various colors, shapes, formats, and spacing to create positive emotions that would easily connect customers and potential buyers with the brand.

Having a good understanding of the following will enable you to make an emotional connection with the customers:

  • The golden ratio
  • The rule of thirds
  • Audience culture
  • Typography
  • Color schemes
  • Symmetry and balance
  • Pattern
  • Flow
  • Repetition

Technology is changing as we speak, which is why you must familiarize yourself with the necessary tools that will help you get the job done.

Sketchbook is a raster-based software for beginners, which is inexpensive and enables you to create designs and rough drafts.

Whether for print or digital, design software is something that you require. While there are many design software available in the market, such as CorelDRAW and Apple Motion, Adobe products are the mainstay. Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign by Adobe are some of the best graphic design softwares available today.

If you are a small business or a start-up in its early days, you can try GIMP—a free, open-source graphic design platform that enables you to create basic designs.

GRAPHIC DESIGN TERMS

Getting thrown into the world of graphic design can sometimes feel like learning a new language. Let’s take a look at common used design words, shall we?

Kerning, tracking, warm colors, cool colors, CMYK, RGB, OMG. There are a lot of technical terms thrown around and it can get confusing at the best of times. But, if you’re finding yourself confused, never fear—we’re here to help.

So, whether you’re a new designer yourself, are just a little curious, or are simply trying to decipher your designer’s emails, sit back and relax as we break down some common terms for you.

The measure of how easy it is to distinguish one letter from the next. Legibility has a lot to do with your choice of typeface and how you use it, i.e. simpler serif or sans serif typefaces are generally better for smaller body copy.

popular design terms

The lining up of elements to achieve balance, order, and a more logical layout. There are also four common types of typographical alignment – center, left, right, and justified, each with their own time and place for application.

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A short quote or excerpt pulled from the main text and used as a visual element to help highlight important ideas and draw interest to the piece. Pull quotes are very common in magazine design.

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The selection of colors that you choose to use for your design.

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RGB or ‘Red, Green, Blue’ is a color model that is used for on-screen purposes. RGB is an additive color, meaning that when mixing colors, we start with black and end up with white as more color is added.

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CMYK or ‘Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key’, is a color model that is used for print purposes. CMYK is a subtractive color, this means that we begin with white and end up with black. So, as we add more color, the result turns darker.

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A color scheme built out of three colors equally spaced around the color wheel.

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A color scheme built out of two colors that sit opposite each other on the color wheel.

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A color scheme built out of three colors that are next to each other on the color wheel.

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A color scheme built out of only one color, including lighter and darker tones of that color.

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The ‘Pantone Matching System’ is a standardized system of colors for printing. Every Pantone shade is numbered, making it much easier for people to reference and identify exact shades of color.

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Colors that make you think of heat and warmth, like reds, yellows, oranges, etc. These colors tend to feel cozier, friendlier, and more cheerful. You are able to add more warm tones to an image or photograph by increasing the orange tones in your image.

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Colors that make you think of colder temperatures, like blues, greens, violets, etc. These colors tend to create a calm and soothing atmosphere. You are able to add cooler tones to an image or photograph by increasing the blue tones in your image.

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The study of how colors make people feel and respond. Certain colors tend to evoke certain subconscious emotions and feelings in people – for example, we tend to associate blue with trust and dependability, hence why so many corporate businesses have blue logos and branding.

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A gradual change in color from one tone into another. Two common types of gradients are the linear gradient where each color sits on opposite sides of the frame, and a radial gradient where one color sits in the middle, and another at the edge.

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The degree of transparency an element has. The lower the opacity, the more transparent an element is.

popular design terms

The main part of text in your design or publication – the written website content, the book contents, even this type you’re reading right now, it’s all body copy.

popular design terms

The artistic arrangement of type in a readable and visually appealing way. Typography usually concerns the design and use of various typefaces in a way that helps to better visually communicate ideas.

popular design terms

The visual arrangement of design elements in a way that signifies importance. For example, you might make a title big and bold to ensure it attracts more attention than a small, lightly colored image caption.

popular design terms

The adjustment of space between two characters in your type. Kerning is s common design term and usually aims to achieve a more proportional and pleasing balance of space between each character.

popular design terms

Pronounced ‘ledding’, leading refers to the space between lines of type. Overly tight leading can cause tension and overlap, making the content unreadable, and too-loose leading can equally make the type appear disjointed, so we usually try to find a nice balance between the two.

popular design terms

Type that is designed with the objective of attracting attention. Think of movie titles on posters, article titles in magazines, newspaper headlines, etc.

popular design terms

Tracking concerns the space between letters. When we track bodies of text, we are adjusting space between every letter in a word in order to change the density or appearance of a large block of type (i.e. body copy). Tracking shouldn’t be confused with kerning, which concerns the adjustment of space between individual pairs of letters.

popular design terms

The average height of lowercase letters. X-height gets its name as this value is usually exemplified by looking at the height of the letter x in any given typeface.

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The part of a lowercase letter that extends above the x-height. Some common examples of this are ‘b’, ‘d’, ‘f’, etc.

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The part of a lowercase letter that extends below the x-height. Some common examples of this are ‘g’, ‘j’, ‘p’, etc.

popular design terms

This design term, refers to the words or short lines that appear by themselves at the top or bottom of a column of type. It’s always a good (and easy) idea to check over your body copy before finishing up, and manually removing these when they appear.

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A typeface with small decorative strokes (called ‘serifs’) found at the end of horizontal and vertical lines. Serif typefaces tend to look professional, authoritative, and traditional in appearance.

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A typeface without the small decorative serif strokes. Sans serifs tend to look more modern, stylish, and cleaner than their serif counterparts.

13-sansserif

A typeface that mimics cursive handwriting. Script typefaces tend to look elegant, personal, and/or more casual, depending on how embellished they are.

popular design terms

A typeface with thicker, blockier serifs, very commonly used in headlines and titles, but rarely in body copy. Slab serifs tend to look sturdier, stronger, and bolder.

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The amount of detail an image has. Generally speaking, the higher your resolution, the better your images appear, and the more detail is rendered. Whereas lower resolution images or graphic tend to appear blurry, pixelated or muddy.

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The degree of difference between two juxtaposed elements. Some other common types of contrast are dark vs. light, thick vs. thin, rough vs. smooth, etc.

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The degree of intensity and vividness of a color. For example, a low-saturation color may appear pale and faded, whereas a more heavily saturated color may appear more vibrant and colorful.

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A professionally shot photograph available online for licensing. Stock photos are usually used in lieu of hiring a photographer, or if a designer cannot access the images they need from their own inventory of photographs.

popular design terms

Rule of Thirds is a theory that if you divide your image with two vertical and two horizontal lines, the areas where your lines intersect will become focal points of your design.

popular design terms

A collection of concepts, ideas, and emotions that encapsulate your company’s values and ethos. A brand is a mix of all the fine conceptual details that make up the company, from the content the brand promotes, the way employees talk, the words used, the values upheld, etc.

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A type of logo where the name of the company designed in a visual way. Think of brands like Google, Ikea, Disney.

popular design terms

A type of logo design where a symbol is used in place of the company name, i.e. the Apple logo. Brandmarks are commonly accompanied by a logotype, but not always.

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No, not the kind of thumbnail on your hand. Thumbnail sketches are rough drawings of potential design concepts or solutions. These sketches are used to visualize and grow various ideas and concepts by hand before moving to the screen.

popular design terms

A framework made up of evenly divided, intersecting columns and rows. Grids help designers to align and arrange elements in a quicker, neater, and more consistent way.

popular design terms

The change of size of an object while keeping its shape and proportions intact. Large scale can create drama, and smaller scale can create fine detail.

popular design terms

When it comes to design, texture can refer to the actual tactile surface of a design, or the visual tactility of your design. By layering textured images and graphics over your design, you can often create a visual appearance of tactility that mirrors actual texture.

popular design terms

Also called ‘negative space’, white space refers to the areas of a design that are not filled with content. White space is an important design element as it helps to let a design ‘breathe’, helps avoid overly complicated designs, and keeps designs looking clean.

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The space around the edge of a page. By increasing or decreasing the size of your page’s margins you can create a more calming or a more tense design respectively. The example below has larger, more open margins.

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The process of cutting areas of your printed design in various shapes to create unique effects. Diecuts are created after printing and are classed as a finishing process.

popular design terms

Also known as ‘dummy copy’, lorem ipsum is a generic filler text used when the real text is not available. It’s used as placeholder text to demonstrate how a design will look once the real body copy has been included.

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