When you throw yourself into the world of DIY graphic design, it can be tough to find your footing — so many technicalities and skills can’t be learned on the fly.
But while being an expert designer is no easy feat, nailing down some graphic design basics is a great way to get started.
“What the heck does visual hierarchy mean, anyway?!”
Don’t worry, we’ll get into that — and many other elements of graphic design — below.
By learning these design principles and terms, you’ll be on the right path to designing your own logo, marketing materials, website, and much more.
Typography is the arrangement of type, ideally in a visually appealing and legible format. It’s one of the most fundamental design basics, and is a broader descriptor for both the use and design of typographic elements like typefaces, fonts, hierarchy, and more.
Learning about typography is a great place to start your design journey, as it plays a vital role in any design it’s included in (and that’s most!).
And because many people confuse the two, or think they’re the same thing, here’s what the terms typeface and font actually mean:
- Typeface: a set of one or more fonts that are put in a single category, due to their shared common design features. Example: Avenir.
- Font: a specific typeface of a certain size and style. Fonts within a shared typeface will often differ in weight, slant, italicization, and more. Example: Avenir LT Std 35 Light.
2. Kerning, Leading, and Tracking
These are three graphic design principles that all refer to the space between type.
- Kerning is the spacing between two specific characters in your type
- Leading is the spacing between two lines of copy
- Tracking is the space between all letters
Image source: MGS
All of these elements play a big role in the legibility of your type, and can also be used to convey different emotions.
For example, text that has widespread tracking and leading can evoke feelings of calmness, whereas tight kerning and leading may cause feelings of tension.
When using tools like Photoshop and Illustrator to play around with the spacing between your type, make sure to keep the user experience in mind! It’s better to have text that can be easily read than text that’s overly “stylish.”
3. Serif Typeface
Serif typefaces contain small decorative strokes (also referred to as “feet”), which are at end of each line in the letters. Fonts of this style are often seen as classic, fancy, or professional. Many newspapers use serif typefaces, and they’re also popular in books, brochures, and fine print.
Some examples of this font type are Baskerville, Caslon, Didot, Bookman Old Style, and Times New Roman.
4. Sans-Serif Typeface
Sans-serif typefaces are the opposite of serif fonts: they contain no decorative strokes at the end of each line in the letters, making them appear more modern and simple.
They’re super readable in both large and fine print, which makes them ideal for use on any digital asset, from websites to ebooks.
Some examples of this font type are Avenir, Futura, Circular, Lucida Sans, and Helvetica.
5. Slab Typeface
Slab typefaces are a type of serif typeface that have a thicker, more bold appearance. Because of this, they’re usually only used as titles or headlines (or as a company name in a logo), and are rarely used as body text.
In the example below, only the company name is in a slab typeface, while the slogan is sans-serif, giving clear hierarchy.
Some examples of this font type are Clarendon, Black Slabbath, Sentinel, Rockwell, and Arvo.
6. Script Typeface
Script typefaces mimic handwriting, with decorative curls and twists. This style can add romanticism or elegance to a design. Because they can be harder to read at different sizes, script typefaces work best in headings or larger applications.
Some examples of this font type are Hickory Jack, Noelan, Beautiful Bloom, Dancing Script, and Sweet Mia.
7. Visual Hierarchy
Visual hierarchy is the arrangement of design elements to guide a viewer and help them decide what information is most important. It’s achieved through the use of fonts, colors, images, and sizing — such as a brighter, bigger, and bolder company name, with a lighter and smaller slogan underneath.
This is one of the most critical graphic design principles to get right, as it affects the overall user experience.
As you can see above, without the correct hierarchy (on the right), this logo design becomes unclear. If Tera is the name of the company, then it should be bigger, bolder, and draw the most attention.
Help your viewers out by using correct hierarchy, and guiding their eyes to your company name or main message.
8. Branding and Brand Identity
A brand is the overall essence of a company. It’s what makes your business unique, and stand out (or blend in) from your competitors.
You can try your best to communicate exactly what you think your brand is, but in actuality, your brand is what your audience and customers say it is!
– Marty Neumeier
Image source: Kaejon Misuraca
On the other hand, branding is what you actively present to the world. It’s your logo, tone, font choices, colors, messaging, ads, affiliations, and so much more! All of these elements are chosen to communicate in a specific way, and to target a specific demographic.
So, what can you do to help shape a brand identity through graphic design? Understand your customer/audience, and craft your visuals to appeal directly to them.
For example, if you’re a jewelry maker focusing on feminine bracelets and rings, then your brand should reflect this!
Once a company solidifies their brand, they’ll often create custom brand guidelines that help to keep their messaging, tone, and visuals consistent across all touch points.
Contrast is the level of difference between two opposing elements. This commonly refers to the juxtaposition between dark vs. light in a photograph or image, but can also account for elements like rough vs. smooth, or thin vs. thick.
The more contrast, the more these elements become different. The less contrast there is, the more they blend together.
Think about this carefully when you’re creating a design. Contrast can be a great way to pull attention towards a particular element or even word, but can also deter people from the overall design when used too heavily.
10. Negative Space
Negative space (also called “white space”) refers to any area of design that isn’t filled with visual content. The space doesn’t have to be the color white necessarily, but it’s the absence of design.
Designers sometimes use negative space to convey hidden messages or meanings, or to tease the viewer into seeing various shapes, symbols and letters in the white space used.
Check out the famous FedEx logo below, and how it uses negative space to forms an arrow between the “E” and the “x”.
Monochrome is a color scheme built out of only one color. For example, if you wanted to create a monochromatic image with the color green, you could use any shade of green, including dark and light tones, but nothing outside of this range.
When would you use this scheme? Whenever you want to evoke unity in a visual. Monochrome color palettes are actually a common practice in interior decorating!
12. Transparent Background
Transparent background refers to when graphics or logos have no background color — or really, no background at all.
These designs are often saved as a PNG file and can be placed over top of videos, ads, photos, and more — take this example of a logo being used on a black hat. (Note: When you purchase a Looka Premium or Enterprise package, you get versions of your logo on a transparent background).
13. Clear Space/Exclusion Zone
Clear space (or the exclusion zone) refers to the specific amount of space (or padding) that a logo must have on all sides. No matter where it’s used, there must be this set amount of space around it.
Why does this space exist? To ensure that a logo always looks great, and is clearly visible and not crowded by other elements. It’s usually specified in a brand guidelines document.
A gradient is the gradual change in color, starting at one tone and morphing into another. You can also use a gradient that fades from one color into transparent, which is an effect often used as overlays on images and designs.
There are two common types of gradients:
- Linear gradients, where each color sits on opposite sides of the frame
- Radial gradients, where one color sits in the middle, and another at the edge
The Instagram logo redesign is a famous example of gradient in a design. Though it contains many colors, each color blends into the next gradually, giving this logo an almost retro/psychedelic feel.
They then used this gradient design and color scheme and applied it across their other app designs: Instagram TV, Boomerang, Hyperlapse, and Layout.
While reviewing these graphic design basics may seem overwhelming, it’s important to remember that every great graphic designer practices creative constraints.
Whenever you’re taking steps to create a new piece of branding — from a logo to a poster to a website — and want to add a design element, ask yourself these three questions:
- How will this improve my design?
- Is it necessary?
- Does this appeal to my ideal customer?
Without constraints, it’s easy to lose sight of your original vision! That said, don’t be afraid to experiment, explore different variations of a design, and have fun.