Sunday, April 1, 2012

Lesson 5: Design Principles (Part 1)

This week and for the next three lessons, we will be discussing design. We have to do that before we can actually make anything of value. Now I admit, I’m the worst possible person when it comes to composition, so I guess this is truly the blind leading the better informed. In my opinion, many of you are far better at teaching these next few lessons than I, but I have researched many of the details, so will share what I have learned here. I want you to know, I have completely revised both Design Principles and Design Elements lessons. I felt like I didn’t do a very good job of getting my message across before, so that is why I have completely rewritten this portion of the course. I am just now putting the finishing touches on this lesson.

As always, if you have a question, feel free to ask in the comments section and I will answer on YOUR blog. My e-mail is not working, and I understand it now returns your messages to you.

Understanding the Principles of Design and Design Elements can be tricky and rather frustrating. I’ve seen instances where they were compared to understanding the ingredients in a good recipe. The Design Elements are the ingredients and the Design Principles are how you mix those ingredients together to make something delicious.

I’ve seen them compared to grammar and language. For example, David A. Lauer and Stephen Pentak in a book called "Design Basics," claim:
“. . . the formal aspects of visual composition are like the grammar of a language. In writing, a story is written with words - subject matter. Like good literature and good poetry is more than words and subject matter, art is more than pictures. The organization, the sentence structure, the style, and so on can make or break a good story. In art, the way the formal elements are arranged can make or break a good picture idea.

The use of design principles applied to the visual elements is like visual grammar. When children learn art, it is like learning to read and write the language of vision. When they develop a style of expressing visual ideas, it helps them become visual poets. Looking for the visual effects of design principles does not have to limit an artist's options. It can focus an artist's experimentation and choice making.”

In addition, Lauer and Pentak acknowledge,
“The Principles are concepts used to organize or arrange the structural elements of design. Again, the way in which these principles are applied affects the expressive content, or the message of the work.”

Now if all this sounds like a bunch of hocus-pocus to you, like it does to me, you are probably not a student or graduate of the visual arts, such as painting, drawing, sculpting, architecture, graphic design, photography, etc. To further complicate the matter, it seems no two books actually agree as to what the Design Principles really are. Every author seems to have a slightly different list of Principles. Some books (and web sites) list the following Principles (remember, principles of design are the laws of designing anything):


while others add (in various degrees):


Could this get any more confusing? Well, YES!! And if I haven’t lost a few of you already, I’m doing a decent job with this lesson. Just to reiterate, Design Principles are the way in which the elements are arranged in a composition.

So what are the elements, you ask. We will review them in four weeks, but here are a few:

Line (or point)

And in six weeks we will review the final element: color! Or as my friends sporting British ancestry would say: colour!

For this lesson, we will begin with the three most often described Principles of Design. We will refer to them as HUB. That way, we will remember them a bit easier.

HUB refers to harmony, unity, and balance. Apparently, most artists and persons like Lauer and Pentak believe these are very important, and I am not one who is in a position to disagree. So for this lesson, we will start with harmony, unity, and balance.

We will also cover Proportion and Emphasis, although there doesn’t seem to be an acronym for these. Maybe we can call it PE! And if we were to combine them all, we could think of them as HUBEP (an acronym I wouldn’t even pawn off on a cat).

Our next lesson will cover Repetition, Rhythm, Pattern, Movement, and Contrast. I’ve tried to break these principles up so there isn’t an overwhelming amount of information for you to digest during this or the next two lessons.

However, lets get back to this lesson and bring a bit of harmony in our lives.


Harmony means all elements should play well together. To me, this should be the LAST thing to look at, but many place it first. As in music, layers or effects can be joined to produce a more attractive whole. If a composition is complex, everything will still appear to fit with everything else. Harmony in painting is the visually satisfying effect of combining similar, related elements.

But most of what we will be making are collages. And, to reiterate, that means all elements of that collage should play well together. Pleasing collage combinations are harmonious. Each part fills a need to create a pleasant whole with interest. Using your AB’s theme with variations often produces harmony. Harmony brings a composition together. (Notice how similar Harmony is to Unity)


Nothing distracts from the whole like the lack of unity. Unity without variation can be uninteresting. Elements should work together as a cohesive whole. Unity means keeping your design in a sort of harmony in which all sections of the pattern make other sections feel complete. Unity helps the design to be seen as one design instead of a randomness that puts the collage all over the place. I call that “hodge podge” collage, and I’m not a fan of it, preferring a structured design. Of course, I never called it unity before, but I knew what I liked and what I preferred in my own collages.

Unity creates a sense of order. When a design possesses unity there will be a consistency of sizes and shapes, as well as a harmony of color and pattern. One way this is accomplished is by repeating the key elements, balancing them throughout the composition, and then adding a little variety so that the design has its own sense of personality. Learning to juggle the elements and principles in such a way as to achieve the right mix is a key to good design.

Unity also gives elements the appearance of completeness and a sense that they belong together. When a composition has unity, the design will be viewed as one piece, as a whole, and not as separate elements or parts. Using too many shapes and forms may cause a design to be unfocused, cluttered and confusing. A well organized design will be achieved by using a basic shape which is then repeated throughout the composition.

Unity in a composition is achieved when all of the design principles have been correctly applied.

Everything selected for use in a composition must complement the key theme and must also serve some functional purpose within the design. When unity is achieved the individual elements within a composition will not be competing for attention and the design will have a sense of completeness and organization. Achieving unity in your compositions will only result from practicing, knowing, and selecting the right visual elements and using the best principles of design to relate them.

To create unity you must have a clear objective in mind that you are wanting to communicate to the viewer. You have to stay focused on achieving the objective and not deviate from it. If there is an element you are considering adding to a composition that does not contribute to the objective then it should not be added to the design.

Although I believe both harmony and unity should be the final pieces in the puzzle, many authors believe they are the most important and mention them first. Several authors note that unity is the final result in a composition when all the design elements work harmoniously together. This gives the viewer a satisfying sense of belonging. Apparently unity has been achieved when all aspects of the design complement one another rather than compete for attention. It serves to reinforce the relationship between the design elements and relates them to the main theme of the composition. So, is the above spread an example of Harmony or Unity or neither?


According to Lauer and Pentak:
“Balance is the visual weight and importance of the piece. It is a way to compare the right and left side of a composition. Balance is achieved by the resolution of weight, stress, and tension. It is a feeling of visual equality in shape, form, value, color, etc. Balance can be symmetrical or evenly balanced, or asymmetrical and unevenly balanced. Objects, values, colors, textures, shapes, forms, etc., can be used in creating balance in a composition.”

From Lauer and Pentak

I admit balance is the one piece of this puzzle I understand. I’m a scientist, so balance relates to equilibrium. Think of a teeter totter on a playground. Put three children on one side of the board and one child on the other side of the board, and you do NOT have equilibrium. However, if you put those same three children close to the center of the teeter totter and the single one at the end, you now have achieved balance. It’s the same with your art. Unfortunately, my Rocking Horse altered book is so small, I am unable to show anything except symmetrical balance.

Keeping your design symmetrical is a good technique for good balance, but not necessarily the best for all types of designs.

At least I can show asymmetrical balance in my Houses AB.

Asymmetrical balance can be more interesting, like the teeter totter example above. Both sides are similar in visual weight but not mirrored. It is more casual, dynamic, and relaxed feeling so it is often called informal balance.

Radial balance is not very common in artists’ compositions. Radial balance is like a daisy or sunflower with everything arranged around a center. Rose windows of cathedrals use this design system. I included it because it is a technique often used in art journals.

The butterfly is essentially symmetrical. Both sides are similar in visual weight and almost mirrored. Because symmetrical balance can look stiff, it is sometimes called formal balance. Determine what type of balance you prefer in your collages and altered art, then try a different type of balance to see how well you do with it.


Proportion in collage is the relationship between two or more elements in a composition with respect to size, color, quantity, degree, or setting, to name a few. In other words, we are talking ratios. Per Lauer and Pentak:
“A relationship is created when two or more elements are put together. This relationship is said to be harmonious when a correct or desirable relationship exists between the elements. This refers to the correct sizing and distribution of an element or object which creates good proportion. Good proportion adds harmony and symmetry or balance among the parts of a design as a whole.”
When the design principle of proportion is applied to a work of art it is usually in the relationship of size. That is, the size of one element of the composition as compared to the size of another related element. In the instance of a relationship of size a comparison is made between the height, width, and depth of one element to that of another, or the size of one area to the size of another area or the size of one element to the size of another element, or even the amount of space between two or more elements.

Proportion is usually not even noticed until something is out of proportion. When the relative size of two elements being compared seems wrong or out of balance it is said to be "out of proportion." For example if a person has a head larger than their entire body, then we would say that they were out of proportion.

According to several books on design principles, there are several ways for achieving good proportion. Returning to "Design Basics," here’s what Lauer and Pentak have to say.
“Place together elements which are similar in character or have some feature in common. Create major and minor areas in the design, as equal parts can quickly become monotonous and boring. However, the differences in size must not be so great as to make the parts appear unrelated and therefore, out of harmony with each other.”
Of course, dividing the composition in halves or quarters can make your art static. A subtle relationship creates a more dynamic design. I’ve always used the rule of thirds as well as the rule of uneven quantities

In an article called Composition Conundrum by Lisa Cook in the book Kaleidoscope:
“Your eye should be carried around the picture by a repetition of design elements. A good rule of thumb is to repeat one item, such as a color, shape or pattern, three times in the collage.”

A surprising aspect of proportion is the way ideal proportions can vary for the human body itself. Styles change in bodies as they do in clothing. Prior to the 16th century, for example, the female body ideally had large hips and belly. Only later was a small waistline and flat stomach the norm. I tried to show this in my Body Language Houses.

As with other periods, the ideal body was much heavier than we would accept today. Of course, in the last 50 or so years the ideal personified by the fashion model has fostered a standard which idealizes exceptionally slender body proportions for women. Today, sports have provided models for ideal male body proportions that were not even considered 50 or so years ago. Beginning with the rise of televised football in the 1960's, and the subsequent fitness boom, an increasingly exaggerated muscular silhouette, corresponding to that of the uniformed and padded football player, was presented as the ultimate male form. Even body builders of the 1940's, 50's, and 60's can’t compare to “average” men who remove their shirts on TV today!

Artists frequently take liberties with the natural proportions of the human body to achieve their expressive goals. A well known classic example is Michelangelo's David, in which distortions of proportion are used by the artist to depict both the youthfulness of the boy David, together with the power of the hero about to conquer the giant Goliath. The surrealist painters Magritte and Dali often used distortions to create striking effects. I have always loved Dali’s “dripping clocks,” as I like to call them. In today’s terms, Teesha Moore’s Zetti images, with their one eyed faces and their black and white striped long socks, take altered people (and animals) to a new, and sometimes disturbing level.

It should be fun to experiment with your own collages and themes to come up with ways to either use or distort proportions. In my opinion, this page shows both balance and proportion.


I still can't figure out why this font is so large. I saved emphasis for last because it is about dominance and influence. It is what I would call the center of interest. Most artists put it a bit off center and balance it with some minor themes to maintain our interest. Some artists avoid emphasis on purpose. They want all parts of the work to be equally interesting. Some collage and mixed media artists follow that same rationale. They choose to ignore a particular area of focus and provide a maze of details of equal importance. I personally find this a bit too willy-nilly for my taste, but equal emphasis may be something you truly enjoy pursuing.

One way of achieving emphasis is by creating center of interest, or a focal point. A focal point is an area where the eye tends to center. It is the focus of the viewer's attention. A focal point is created by making one area of element of the painting dominant, or most important visually with all other areas contributing but subordinate. The focal point may be the largest, brightest, darkest, or most complex part of the whole, or it may get special attention because it stands out for some other reason. No more than one component should vie for primary attention. Where several components get equal billing, emphasis is canceled out.
When a composition has no emphasis nothing stands out. However the effective use of emphasis calls attention to important areas of your piece. By placing emphasis on certain areas of the composition, you create elements of interest which draws your eye to some specific design element. That in turn forces the eye to return to it again and again. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “once I actually saw/spotted it in the piece, my eye kept going to it.” This often happens with optical illusions.

The second way to create emphasis is by contrasting the primary element with its subordinates. Alternately, emphasis can be created by a sudden change in direction, size, shape, texture, color, tone, or line. No matter what element is chosen for emphasis it should never demand all the attention. Emphasis is necessary, but a good composition is one in which all the elements work together for a unifying effect. Don’t forget, we will actually dissect design elements in four weeks.


This lesson focused on five Design Principles: harmony, unity, balance, proportion, and emphasis. Although not all artists agree that these are all design principles, it is better to include them all (including the ones we will cover next time), rather than omit one.

Harmony: how well the elements in your piece play with each other.

Unity: how well the elements in your mixed media work together as a cohesive whole.

Balance: an element’s visual weight with respect to the completed piece.

Emphasis: the prominent or dominant elements or shapes and the importance placed on each as part of the whole.

Proportion: the relationship of one part to another or to the whole with respect to elements such as size or quantity.

Homework for Lesson 5:

Using your book’s theme, create at least one spread each showing your interpretation of Harmony, Unity, Balance, Emphasis, and Proportion. If your book is a techniques book, you should identify and document what each Design Principle is. If you have lots of pages in your book, feel free to create several spreads showing your knowledge of these Design Principles. Combining more than one Principle will be considered an added bonus. You have two weeks to create these five spreads. We will unveil our results on April 15.

Supplies you will need for Lesson 6:

1. Papers from your stash to compliment your theme.
2. Embellishments from your stash to compliment your theme.
3. Paint from your stash to compliment your theme.
4. Magazine images from your stash to compliment your theme.
5. Glue, adhesives, your favorites.
6. Your book.

Now it’s time to show us your interpretation of Lesson 4, where you played with glue, tape, adhesives, and gesso. I know some of you like to work ahead, but please remember to show your homework lesson when I ask for it. You have two weeks to post Lesson 4, but I suspect many of you are ready. And please be sure the link is to the specific post, not to your blog in general.

27 thoughtful remarks:

Dandelion and Daisy said...

Great lesson! It is easy to become discouraged when you read all these "rules". One has to remember that many who have an eye for art making, also, have an innate sense of design. We all just have to keep working and learning to develop those skills so they can serve us better. Many artists break the rules of design but they can break them well because first they learned how the rules apply.

I like your writing style, Elizabeth. You know your "stuff" and how to express it in an interesting way....'cause some of this can become pretty abstract!

BJ said...

Morning Elizabeth, I knew you said you posted the lessons on Sunday but I guess we are too far ahead here in the UK to get them before bedtime.(although I did look out all day - LOL) Couldn't sleep and woke early so here I am doing my lesson reading in the early hours of Monday morning (I started at 5.30am and it is holiday time here too so no need to get up at all really!!) I have got to "emphasis" and am having a break to post my link to lesson 4. I took your advice and posted it to my blog when I'd done it and am just linking now as per instructions. Must admit I seem to add bits to pages afterwards, like glossy accents to some leaves on my Autumn (Fall) pages, but I'm sure you'll get the drift. Thanks again for our lessons - BJ

BJ said...

Hi Elizabeth - now I have read the "homework" section, I was wondering (especially as I have a rather thinner than suggested book) whether you have any idea how many pages we'll need to complete the course? This homework requires 5 pages (single or double?). If double I'll have done Spring save one double page so I'd kinda like to spread out or reign in my page use so I don't run out. I know this is probably asking a bit too much but I can always section my pages to do this homework if that is OK. Where there is a will there is a way... Thanks BJ
PS worked out when the course runs to (end of October) so I guess it will "live" through most of the seasons which I thought was extra special.

BJ said...

Thanks for your reply Elizabeth. The UK (Britain) has just the one time zone, we really are quite small. We are usually one hour behind most of Western Europe (France Spain and the like), So London time is just dandy. Sounds like I woke a the "right" time then - LOL

I guess I took my decorating from other members on the course after seeing their blogs and thinking I was a bit behind - LOL. I am planning 2 Spring spreads one of Saints Days (St David - Wales, St Patrick - Ireland, (both March) St George - England (April) unfortunately St Andrew - Scotland is in November!!! Bother - perhaps a bit of Artist's licence allowed here.

The other spread of Easter so I thought I could section it up with a cross and do 4 panels and combine 2 of the 5 principles. I think that will work.

I'm so glad you said there aren't any rules for Altered Books, just added the month names to my title pages too - What am I like? BJ

Helen said...

Plenty to think about here! I never normally plan my work - certainly not to this extent - I just go with what I think looks ok, so this will be an interesting couple of weeks.... I may start to fall behind with homework....! Thanks for all your hard work in researching this Elizabeth.

Karen said...

ooo now this has set me thinking :-D Thank you for being you & explaining it all so well my lovely! Oh and as you have asked for lesson 4's work to be linked in I have linked it again. Hope thats not too much bother for you, HUGS xxx

Carolyn Dube said...

This is so important! It wasn't until the last year or so that I became aware of what a critical difference things like balance and proportion in a piece of art. Again, so generous of you to put so much time and energy into sharing this with such clear explanations! Thank you!

Dianne said...

wow. you've tackled a complicated topic here. whole textbooks have been written about this... but I think you've boiled it down well to understandable concepts. Nicely done! Trouble is, us pesky artists are always breaking the 'rules!' =) Great job!

Dianne said...

wow. you've tackled a complicated topic here. whole textbooks have been written about this... but I think you've boiled it down well to understandable concepts. Nicely done! Trouble is, us pesky artists are always breaking the 'rules!' =) Great job!

Ann B said...

Lots of information there Elizabeth and I'm afraid I have fallen a bit behind as I haven't completed lesson 3 yet. Our elder Grandson is staying with us this week so I can't get to do any craft and although I did my glue pages bit I haven't done the gesso spread yet. I'll catch up later and post then.
Ann B

elle said...

You are amazing with all your wonderful information. I am keeping up but that is thanks to a head start. lesson 4 is linked. I'm starting to get quite excited as things begin to jell and build on one another. Thanks so much, Elizabeth.

Darla said...

Wow! So much research, so much shared info. As a self taught artist this is all interesting to me. I think I do some things by instinct but will look at what I do though the lens of the info you've offered.

Thanks Elizabeth.


Tuire Flemming said...

Now I have my lesson 4 linked in the right place - I put it last week where should be lesson 3! I still have not finished my niche...

Jennifer McLean said...

I sure do appreciate your lovely compliments on my stormy weather waves. That you thought it was assemblage is so flattering. Your series lessons here are wonderfully in depth, gosh I might actually learn something about how to do art!
Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting, it was so nice to see you.
Jenn of

SandeeNC said...

Thank you for the kind words you left me Elizabeth, I cannot express how much fun I am having in your class, and yes, Bluebeard is the teacher's pet, but I'll gladly settle for the star student, lol I am already crafting my pages for the balance theme, I was so excited I forgot to post a comment here and had to come back to do it! lol waving hi from the hills of North Carolina :)

Beverley Baird said...

What a comprehensive look at design elements! Thanks so much for sharing them!

Terrie said...

You've outdone yourself - there's a wealth of information here! I'm really looking forward to playing with the elements/principles of design - balance is always a fun one for me! Thanks again for this outstanding class and all the guidance. I'm having a blast!

Healing Woman said...

Elizabeth! I feel as though I have just taken a college course in design! For Free! Thanks so very much. Does being spontaneous play anywhere in design theories? I think it adds so much to the other principles.

voodoo vixen said...

I have read this twice... and I think I may need to read it all again more than once more so that I take in all that info you just served up!!

Tuire Flemming said...

I´m reading this about fifth time... I have a bit problems with the language, too :) I also seem to have problems with Mr. Linky: don´t know why my link is there twice!

HeARTworks said...

You are awesomely thorough Elizabeth!!!! Patsy from

donnalouiserodgers said...

I am currently doing some detailed colour theory, which blows composition and design theory out the water, our eyes see things so subjectively, I am more and more convinced the best measure of a composition is - Does it move you? if you say yes - it has merit, if someone else 'gets' it too - well what a bonus!!!

I love your 'high on education' page - see - that, to me, is a pleasing composition,

righto - off to alter my pages...


Jacqueline said...

I am now going to sit and chill and have a good read through lesson 5! it looks REALLY interesting! :D

Take care

Jackie x

Currie Silver said...

I am utterly and delightfully over the moon with your class. I got a little sidetracked the past 2 weeks, then, without really any effort whatsoever, I just picked myself up and got back in step. It really helps to see what others are DOing with their AB's and while this isn't really in any sense a "live" class, I was able to join in again like I'd never really "left" for the past 2 weeks.

I'm back in my "sweet spot" again and eager to get on with things. This lesson, yet again, amazes me with your details and insights, including asides, and your remarkable generosity.

Ann B said...

Finished lesson 4 this afternoon and have linked in. Have read all of lesson 5, and taken some notes as I find it sticks in my head easier that way, but will have to come back to it again before I try out my homework. Just love the idea of doing homework again after XXX years.
Thanks so much Elizabeth.

fairy thoughts said...

I have just finished lesson 4 too.
There is a lot to think about in this lesson, but to be honest I don't really plan to this extent, I'm a lets do this and see what happens type of girl.
I will try and plan a bit more, just for you :)
Hopefully I will get time to do some homework before you post lesson 6

Susan said...

I have really been struggling with this lesson, be reading and rereading it and trying to figure out how to express these concepts in my book. Still working on it!