Graphic Design Fundamentals
Alexander White in his book, The Elements of Graphic Design, outlines seven important and fundamental design components. Whether you're writing the company newsletter, designing your personal website, or putting together your slides for a sales presentation, understanding these basic points on graphic design will help set you apart.
If you can master these fundamental concepts, your graphical treatments from PowerPoint slides to Microsoft Word documents to company brochures will greatly improve. And even if you will never be the one actually making (designing) the documents, you will be able to better judge what is good visual communication and what is not.
Seven basic graphic design principles
Unity may be the single most important concept. All elements on a page (or slide, poster, etc.) must look like they belong together nothing can seem accidental or random. The entire design, then, is more (and more important) than the mere sum of its elements. Unity can be achieved in many ways. For example, using black & white photography throughout the pages rather than, say, mixing cheap clip art with high quality black & white photography and common color stock images, can give the design a sense of unity. Unity can be achieved also by using similar items conceptually such as "things found in Japan." For a PowerPoint presentation, a high-quality background theme used consistently throughout the entire presentation adds visual unity.
However, it is important to break up the unity once in a while (or on parts of a page). You need unity so that the message you want to communicate comes out clearly and strong. But you also need variety in the design to add interest and life and to grab attention. A well designed poster, for example, will do two things in this order: (1) It will grab your attention (variety of design often does this), and (2) It must be read and understood easily (unity of design helps with the this).
When you say the overall design "works" you are describing the design's Gestalt. The whole is more sometimes much more than the sum of the design elements. With music for example, the total sound that results from the interplay of several musicians is far greater than the sum of the notes being played by all the band members. I saw a Tower of Power concert recently at the Osaka Blue Note. The musicians are individually world class, some even legendary. But put them together, and they are not just a great band they are TOWER OF POWER perhaps the greatest blues band ever with a trademark signature sound. The "Gestalt," so to speak, of Tower of Power is far greater, cooler, more amazing than the totality of its talented members. Likewise, in visual design, Gestalt helps us to perceive the overall clear message of the design. If the design elements are arranged properly, the Gestalt of the overall design will be very clear.
One of the biggest mistakes typical business people make with documents is going out of their way to seemingly use every centimeter of space on a page, filling it up with text, boxes, clip art, charts, footers, etc. Space, often called "white space," is good. Embrace it. Use it. Often, the more space you don't use on a page, the clearer your message becomes.
Empty space is beautiful, yes. But empty space also implies importance, elegance, professionalism. This is true with graphic design, but you can see the importance of space (both visual and physical) in the context of interior design. Think of the retail space, for example. Target is dedicated to design although they are a discounter. They know about space. Target stores are well designed. They have more empty space than other discounters, Walmart, for example.
The conscious use of color to create hierarchy, dominance, and balance in a design can be very effective. If one simply applies and changes colors randomly on a page/slide (which is often the case), one can confuse the viewer and degrade the design's intended message.
Remember that color is useful for achieving a more unified and organized design. But to do so one must be consistent with the use of color on a page. Consistency is easier to achieve if the designer (i.e., you) limits the use of color choices to just a few. Using many colors in a single design would be like using many different font types this inevitably leads to a messy and confusing piece of work. Make your color choices at the beginning of the design process rather than at the end. Leaving color choice to the end will likely end up leading to a superficial application of color. Color, like good design in general, is not cosmetic or veneer. Color choice is fundamental.
Good color usage can help you guide the viewer's eyes through the design. Color can be used to emphasize. For example, darker type is noticed first. Color (say, red on a white page with black body text) can be used to highlight elements on a page which are most important. Color can also provide direction. Warm colors bring elements forward; cool colors move elements back. Alexander White suggests using graduated tints since there are no flat colors found in nature. When it comes to color use, however, one thing is quite clear: The benefits of color usage quickly diminish when color highlights are used too much or too many colors are applied to a design.
Dominance is essentially the same idea as Contrast. You can create contrast on a page/slide in many ways. For example you can contrast color, size, shape, etc. If one item in a design is clearly dominant, this helps the viewer "get" the point of the design. Every good design has a strong and clear focal point and having a clear contrast among elements (with one being clearly dominant) helps. If all items in a design are of equal weight, with nothing being clearly dominant, it is difficult for the viewer to know were to begin.
A well designed page/slide has a clear starting point (helped by a clear dominance) and guides the viewer through the design. What is most important, less important, and the least important parts of the design can be clearly expressed by having a clear hierarchy. You can achieve clear hierarchy of elements by clearly separating the most important element on the page and group more closely together other less important elements. You can use the same color or shape of similar elements to guide a reader or viewer down the page. In general, according to White, having more than three levels of hierarchy in a single design leads to confusion for the reader.
If a design is out of balance, the individual elements of the design will dominate the overall design. A well-balanced design has a clear, single, unified message. Alex White points out that there are three types of balance: Symmetrical, asymmetrical, and mosaic. Symmetrical balance is vertically centered and is equivalent on both sides. Symmetrical designs are more static than asymmetrical designs and evoke feelings of formality (think wedding invitations).
Asymmetrical designs are more informal and are dynamic with a variety of sizes, shapes, etc. on both sides of the page/slide. Asymmetrical designs make good, calculated use of white space. Asymmetrical designs evoke feelings of action and modernity.
Mosaic designs usually are ones with too much information according to White. This kind of balance often lacks hierarchy and a unified message can be difficult to achieve, leaving the design to look just plain "noisy."
All seven of the above design elements are evident in good design. You can focus on one or two more than others, but all will be in there to one degree or another.