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The Graphic Design Rules of Engagement, Part 1: The Principles


Graphic design is a dynamic field that reaches across the globe to find its many audiences eagerly engaging this expansive arena. Given this worldwide accessibility there are considerations to be made when we are putting the design together. For instance, we must always keep the rules of engagement in mind. This is not a foreign concept to most, for those still scratching their heads though, allow me to clarify. Now the most common context for this phrasing rests under a military or police operations umbrella, however the rules of engagement (or ROE) that we are discussing today, borrows on that theme transferring it over into the design field.

graphic design rules

Generally these rules govern when, where, and how these groups engage their enemy or the public. Under the design umbrella, the definition does not vary much (aside from the enemy bit). The design ROE basically applies to the various elements of the piece and principles applied that communicate to the viewer. These are the points within your design that talk to the public, transferring the message of the design, or our transference talking points. So the ROE are important to understand for any designer, and knowing the underlying principles behind them, that govern them, can help as you move to create your latest design. Especially those who are wanting their design work to remain competitive in this globally growing market.

This is not to say that these rules of engagement vary depending on the size of market you are wanting to appeal to, but being aware of what parts of your design are communicating with its viewer, and what they are saying does change. Different cultures and peoples all interpret various symbols and objects based on their own experiences and environments, so the wider the reach of our design the more we have to consider the multiple interpretations that can be derived from the various design elements. Again, the interpretations may vary, but the ideas behind the presentation do not. So knowing which of these inclusions are communicative, is important for you to be able to identify before you begin.

The Basic Idea

We all know that design, by its very nature, is highly engaging. As the designer you need to be sure you are aware of every aspect of the work that is speaking to your audience so you can effectively steer everything that it is saying. If elements get added merely for appearance or balance without any consideration for what, if anything, it communicates, you can essentially contradict and work against the other elements in your design. This is where the rules of engagement fully come into play. Through this inspection of the various components of this visual grammar you can craft a completely collaborative message for the viewer.

graphic design rules

If a picture speaks a thousand words, then surely a design can communicate just as many through the multitude of approaches offered to the comm-savvy designer. So take a look below for a little insight behind the proverbial scenes at all the areas of a design that speak out to the public, and the discussion of the principles that are driving them. Hopefully it can help clear up a few of the rules for you, or at least help you get a firmer grasp on this idea.

The Basic Visual Breakdown

The way visual communication breaks down in design is essentially into the following categories: The Principles, The Elements, The Abstract, and The Concrete. Or at least that is the way it breaks down in these posts. Those are the four main areas to consider when you are building this visual dialog via your work. Not only do these communicative design inclusions interact with your audience, but they also interact with each other in order to achieve the full message you are hoping to visually dictate.

Given the depth of these four categories, and all of the weight of the overall discussion, the post has been broken up into two posts for the easiest digestibility for the readers. This initial installment will take a look at the seven design principles that tend to speak to your audience through your work, and some of the basic things that they communicate. In the follow-up post we will take a look at the remaining categories concerning The Elements, The Abstract and The Concrete.

The Principles

Now there are several principles of design that help to engage and speak to the viewer, and while there is some variation throughout the community on the principles themselves, their importance is pretty much agreed upon. The principles matter. Now their communication to the viewer comes from either acknowledging and following these principles, or by breaking away from any one principle to communicate a slightly different message to the audience. So the principles themselves speak to the viewer somewhat more passively if we follow them, and somewhat more actively if they are broken. Now as pointed out before, what interpretations will be taken away will vary based on the user, but there are some general constants that we can surmise will be spoken by the use of these various principles.


The first design principle that we are going to look at, is the principle of Variety. Now the meaning is fairly intuitive on this one, because it means just that, a variety. The addition of multiple design elements to provide your design with some variation is key for breaking up the monotony of the overall piece. If you have a design that uses the same elements throughout, things can tend to get a bit stale feeling for your audience.

graphic design rules

Now by using the principle of variety you are communicating to the viewer a couple of different things. For one, you are expressing a desire to break up the monotony around you, as well as in the work, using your design to say this. It speaks of a sense of uniqueness to the audience. With this principle applied, you are also communicating an active state for the work. The variety helps indicate action, or a sense of motion against the stillness of the same. Breaking from this principle, and opting to use all of the same elements says just the opposite. It can add a stillness, a sense of calm.


On the other end of the principle spectrum, far from the reaches of variety, is our next principle, the principle of repetition. Now this is not much of a mystery either, as we can already get a sense of this principle through the examination of its opposite. Repetition in this context is simply the application of the same design elements throughout the piece you are creating. Rather than breaking up monotony, using the principle of repetition actually combats a sense of randomness from filling your work.

graphic design rules

Through the application of this principle, you are communicating an idea of holding in this atmosphere of inaction. Naturally this is a much more revealing principle when you consider what elements are being repeated, however just by looking at the principle itself, we again see an element of stillness being conveyed. That calming hold in the quiet reflection of the ideas we are getting through the work. And without this principle in place, we know from the above example where that can lead as far as talking to the viewer.


The next principle that we are going to dissect a bit in our discussion here is the principle of harmony. Now harmony in your design can be achieved in a number of ways, usually through a delicate balance of variety over repetition. When you various elements but tie them together through some common trait, you are creating a harmony between the different pieces of the whole. Weaving them together by introducing some commonality, through either shapes, colors, functions, etc… can bring about this sense of design Harmony.

graphic design rules

Now this is one principle that most do not tend to stray from, because this is usually a matter of visual comfort for the reader, but it does happen. Even if by accident. Though if you are trying to get to an uncomfortable place, if that is actually the talking point that you are trying to hit, then breaking from this principle can help you convey that sense to the user. An internal disquiet. Once again, through using this principle we find that calm once more. A sense of things all connecting and belonging can come across as well with this principle in practice.


The next design principle that we are going to cover is actually somewhat tied in to the principle we just left, and that is the principle of unity. Borrowing from its real world connotations, the principle of unity does not stray far from this context as it moves into design. It means simply that each element working in a design all feel like they belong there, creating a whole unit from its many pieces. Many attribute achieving this unity to working in balance when employing repetition, finding that harmony among the pieces.

graphic design rules

Unity of design can bring in a warm feeling to your work, transferring that over to the audience, for generally, with a sense of togetherness comes warmth. Just the opposite can also come across to your viewers in the absence of this principle of unity. The user can sometimes feel a sense of cold isolation as the pieces no longer tie together and work as one. Or even a sense of disjointedness can be felt from the design, leaving the user with somewhat of a disconnected feeling.


Working in quite the opposite tone as the last couple of principles that we have discussed, there is another principle that we can effectively implement when we strive more to make certain elements stand out rather than tie together, and that is the principle of contrast. This principle says that there should be a variety of elements employed to offer some visual hierarchy or steering for the user. With the different elements applied, we can find helpful ways to focus the users attention through this Contrast.

graphic design rules

Just as the principle of variety can add a sense of activeness to your design, so can the principle of contrast. Motion can essentially be created through the contrasts that you implement, and that motion can communicate a lot of different active ideas to the viewer, depending on how you implement it with the various elements of your design. Once again, not adhering to this principle can instill that stale, monotonous feeling we have already discussed. Providing no direction, everything just sits, it does not lead the user anywhere.


The next principle that we are going to examine, also adds a sense of direction to your work when effectively applied, and that is the principle of alignment. Through this principle, everything is placed according to the connection it has with the other elements that interact with it. Again, there is a visual connection that is created via this Alignment which can held direct the viewer, sort of carrying their eye to the next important or connected element.

graphic design rules

Now if you effectively apply this principle in your design projects, then you are actively communicating to the viewer that sense of order and connectedness that exists within your work. That idea of one thing leading to another, and taking the next step are easily transferred through these aligned talking points. Breaking from this principle, can say quite the opposite as would be expected. Once more bringing that disjointed feeling to the viewer as all of the connections between the elements are severed.


The final principle that we are going to discuss engaging in our talking point dissection of the principles of design, is the principle of proximity. This is the principle that governs the elements in the design that are related, saying that they should all be grouped together in close proximity in the plane that contains the entire work. Be it a web page, physical page, or even something larger like a poster or billboard. Whatever the presentation, the principle dictates that these related elements should be close to one another.

graphic design rules

From this principle we find again, a connectedness offered through its implementation. The proximity principle conveys that togetherness, but it also can hone in on that sense a little tighter, almost in a cliquish sort of way. Implying more of a group within the masses kind of feeling, a sense of family, rather than overall unity. Just as before, breaking this proximity can add to a conveyance of isolation, or in this case, as the items are all related, as sense of distance. Somewhat more of separation, than straight isolation.

To Be Continued…

That is all for part one of this two part post discussion of the design rules of engagement. Remember that though many of the principles can communicate similar ideas, knowing about each of them still offers us approaches for achieving these talking point transfers in more ways than one. Are there other principles that you feel should have been looked at in this transference talking points dialog? Or what would add to the points brought up, or for that matter, what do you disagree with about the points that were brought up? Use the comment section below to fill us in. Be sure that you check back to get the finishing touches on this examination of the proverbial ROE.

Checkout the Part 2

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