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Graphic Design Rules of Engagement, Part 2: The Elements and More


Back in October of last year, we took a look at the an area of graphic design that not only every member of the field should be aware of, but that governs a large portion of the communicative nature of our individual pieces. The Graphic Design Rules of Engagement, is a series that looks the various ways that the design interacts with the viewers, and which inclusions we can use to transfer our talking points over without having to use text. The first installment of the post covered a handful of the Principles of design that play a part in this visual grammar that we construct in our designs.

If you remember back to the first post we mentioned how designers are responsible for knowing the way that every principle applied or broken, every element that is included, and the very nature of the work itself, all speak to the viewers. They convey underlying themes or messages across by the way they have been used in the work. Or even in the ways that the elements and principles that are present work together to get our points across visually. The first post further showed us that the idea of what you don’t say can often speak louder than what you do say, even in design.

Take Two

In part two, however, we are going to bring our focus into the more tangible realm to get this post going. While the Principles can be considered largely theoretical or abstract in their applications, the elements are the more physical pieces that comprise the whole. This also tends to mean that the meanings attached to them tend to be more simplistic, and less interpretive than the principles. This makes the elements a bit more approachable for some designers. Given that the talking points they tend to convey are a bit more straightforward.

Once we have sufficiently covered the elements, then we will move into the final areas of this discussion, the overall Abstract and Concrete sections. For whether your design tends more towards the abstract or the concrete also speaks to the viewer in the end. So there are numerous considerations that need to be made when you are setting up your piece. The layout of the elements, and their interactions are somewhat second nature to some designers, but even the best of us can overlook some of the talking points inadvertently created in our work. Hopefully this post will help connect some of those proverbial dots.

The Elements

Now most designers are familiar with the various element types that are used in design work. But given the simple nature of some of these elements, there are those in the design field who undervalue them when it comes to the visual grammar. They see the inherent communicative properties of certain elements like Shapes and Colors, but then turn a blind eye to the others. As if they play little to no part in weaving this web of visual communication. But they couldn’t be further from the truth.


Points are one of the smallest of the design elements, and consequently are often completely discounted as no real place in this communication. But Points not only can convey a nice array of ideas on their own, and are essentially the building blocks of other elements too. Dots, consequently, which are how we tend to view points, are simply points of focused attention. Proving that even the smallest details can be visually important to this conversation that we are crafting between the design and the viewers.

Now taking a series of dots and linking them in a chain, so to speak, can draw our focus to a number of different things, communicating as we go. If they are encircling other elements, they can interpreted as somewhat binding or securing them. These points could also be indicating a sense of togetherness, in a sort of links in a chain type of way. Used to create a sense of depth or layering with transparency. But the most standard use of points to communicate to the viewer is as a another type of chain. A visual one that leads them from one element or section to the next. Drawing the eye and taking it where it needs to go in the design.


Another common element in design that perhaps does more talking with the viewer than it is given credit for, are Lines. This is perhaps another element whose basic nature often have its value in this visual conversation overlooked. Lines can be especially effective when working to establish tone throughout the design, which is where these elements do most of their talking. And given that the public has somewhat been conditioned throughout various areas our lives in regards to the meanings of lines, then their use should be almost second nature in our designs.

For instance, we tend to associate things being underlined as stressing that they are somewhat more significant than anything around it. The lines are meant to direct us, to lead us somewhere or indicate motion. And that is how they are used in design also. Like dots, the Line elements can also be used to lead the viewer through the piece. The use of grunge or distressed Lines, over clean and sharp Lines, is where they tend to speak loudly as to the tone of the design. So there are numerous ways that Line elements can communicate with the viewer.


Earlier we mentioned Shapes being generally one of the more understood talking points of a design, as they are often recognizable symbols of some kind. This also means that for designers most of our guesswork when using them goes out the window, as there tends to be a solid idea or meaning attached to each one already. In fact it is often these meanings that tend to land particular Shapes in the mix. Because they are easily interpreted and understood by the average viewer.

Shapes tend to be one of the more concrete ways that designers tend to visually communicate, but there are instances where Shapes can be somewhat used in the abstract. For example, if you are using geometric shapes, that have little concrete meaning attached to them, you can create an abstract air of precision or even use them to foster a sense of mechanical inclination. Geometric Shapes, with their sharp corners and precise nature can also tend to bring to mind a mathematical or scientific atmosphere, and can be used with other elements to transfer that talking point to the audience.


The next design element that we are going to be talking about is Space. Once again, we move into a more conceptual elemental area when dealing with this examination. For space can be used or interpreted in a couple of different ways, and as a result, can be used for various communicative purposes. Either through a more minimalist or a more maximized use of Space, or through what has been called the Illusion of Space.

The Illusion of Space refers to the use of space in design to create the illusion of three dimensional space in a two dimensional plane (i.e. our virtual or literal canvas). This can communicate a depth of the design to the viewer, giving it a more realistic feel. Or can at least communicate the idea of grounding the design in reality. Contextualizing the piece for the audience. Also, by using whitespace of a lack of it, you can also create some talking points that the viewer can take away from the piece. The more clutter, the more chaotic the takeaway. The more minimal, the calmer less urgent the piece speaks.


Another element that we previously mentioned, whose importance as a fully functional part of this visual communication tends to be understood by most of the design community is Color. We will not spend much time on this element, as again, there are volumes of posts online that have stressed this elements role in design. But we felt that it would be amiss of us to not mention it in a post covering the transference talking points, as it ranks high on the list of vital elements in this conversation.

But we will note that Colors tend to be interpreted somewhat widely across the globe, so it is important to know where all this design will be connecting with viewers to choose the appropriate ones. For the most part, discerning color meanings is easy with a simple web search, and given the global nature of the web, it is usually a safe bet that web designs will have a global presence on some level. But knowing the specific area of the design’s target audience can allow for a more focused approach to your use of Colors, over a more generic one.


Another one of the more understood communicative design elements, which we see used quite frequently, is Texture. The online design communities fondness for this element can be read from the amount of resources dedicated to it. You only need take a quick glance around the web to see the vast number of textures that are available for designers to choose from. With the subtle addition of texture to even another element in the design, can completely alter the entire message of the piece.

Through even the slightest of modifications to the surface quality of a item, the once sharp, fresh feel can be aged and withered contextually, completely redirecting the talking points and their tones. So Texture can be an invaluable tool for designers crafting this kind of visual dialog through their work. Adding depth, and a richer sense of a tactile nature to the various accompanying design elements is the main use of this element. And with so many resources at our disposal, we can craft virtually any sort of message we want through the inclusion of a simple texture.

The Abstract

Now we move out of the design elements and into a section that we have touched on in regards to its attachment to certain principles or elements, but that has not been addressed as an overall design approach and what that conveys to the viewers. Just like in the art world, there are many working in the design waters who will opt for the more abstract themes. This way of communicating with the viewer is highly interpretive, and can therefore be tricky to use with a solid, clear message to convey.

In general terms, when designers choose an abstract approach it immediately tells the viewer one majorly important detail about the piece. It essentially tells the viewer that whatever meaning they get from the piece, they are going to have to work for. This can be just as big a turnoff to some as it can be a draw to others. Many viewers like the journey aspect of having to uncover the message behind a well designed piece. Though admittedly, others do not. And clients are not always the biggest fans either. They want the message to be clearly conveyed, and they want little to no room for interpretation. Or as they more than likely view it, misinterpretation.

And to be sure, the misinterpretation fear is not unfounded. If you are working with abstract themes, imagery, etc, then we cannot always guarantee that the interpreted outcome is going to be the one we necessarily desire. What it says to us, may not be what it says to others. For this reason, most clients and projects demand a more concrete approach.

The Concrete

Which brings us to the last section in this two part discussion of the graphic design rules of engagement. The Concrete. With design, this tends to be the more prominent path that is walked, mainly for the reasons described in the last part of the Abstract talk. Most clients and messages tend to be served better, by working with more recognizable themes that they themselves can identify with. Which is what we tend to mean when we talk about the Concrete. This is an easy to understand, more straightforward approach, with little guesswork involved for the viewer.

The benefits of using this approach are fairly easy to grasp without us laying them out for you, but we will briefly indulge. Just like with the Abstract, this approach immediately speaks to the viewer. It lets them know that there is a clear message waiting for them inside. Using more concrete elements, also allows a connectability with the design that many users cannot get with an Abstract one. And naturally, given that the overall design is filled with recognizable elements, the door is open so much wider for your message. Not to mention the many ways in which you have to be able to convey said message that you could not with the Abstract approach.

That is a Wrap

That wraps up this second half, and the discussion overall. Well, at least from our side. Now we once again, turn this conversation over to you and the comment section to expand on or disagree with, or to simply add you own two cents to. What areas of the rules of engagement do you feel should have gotten more coverage? Or less? Let us know below.

  • Graphic Design Rules of Engagement, Part 2: The Elements and More
    [See the full post at: Graphic Design Rules of Engagement, Part 2: The Elements and More]

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  •  Steve Edge

    Great article!! An interesting read!!

  •  Vladimir

    Good article, thanks for sharing it 🙂

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