Elements and Principles of Design

Elements of Design

What do you list as the elements of design? What do you list as the principles of design? Think you have it all figured out? Even textbooks do not agree - web sites do not agree. What I would recommend is get together as a staff in your district and come up with a vocabulary that you all agree to use. The less we "confuse" the students the better. I tried to give the students other words they might hear that meant the same thing - although I don't recall giving them tertiary colors (I know I used Intermediate colors). The textbook I used with students did list Triadic colors - but they got that from me. This topic does come up on the Art Education list serves. Marvin Bartel has shared this wonderful explanation. While you are "drilling" the Principles - Be sure to introduce the Percy Principles of Composition. Read and enjoy.



From Marvin Bartel - Ceramic artist and retired professor of art at Goshen College.


I will give you my current take on what is an element and why principles cause so much confusion. Space as a visual element is difficult to conceptualize and hard to explain. Is it worth it? Who needs to know it? I find it easier if we put some time into ways artists create an Illusion of Space (depth) (a visual effect). I have added a category.


1. Visual Elements (the basic things that can be seen)

2. Design and Composition Principles (arranging the basic things better)

3. Visual Effects (ways to fool the eye - make an impression)


An element is one of those most basic visible things. In science, the elements are on the periodic chart (hydrogen, iron, oxygen, gold, sulfur, etc.). All the complex chemicals are simply combinations of these (H2O). In art, it is an element if it is visible and there is nothing more simple or basic to define it. It cannot be a combination of more than one thing and still be an element. In practice, the elements are commonly seen in combination with each other. For example, color and value are very different elements, but they always exist in combination with each other. For that matter, color always exist in combination with "saturation", but nobody includes "saturation" in their list of elements, but value is one every list. Go figure. This stuff is not logically consistent. Saturation (intensity) sometimes shows up in the description of a principle, but generally saturation is neither an element or a principle.


Principles are are even more confusing than elements. There are at least two very different but correct ways of thinking about principles. On the one hand, a principle can be used to describe an operational cause and effect such as "bright things come forward and dull things recede". On the other hand, a principle can describe a high quality standard to strive for such as "unity is better than chaos" or "variation beats boredom" in a painting. So, the same word, "principle" can be used for very different purposes.


The first way to think about a principle is that a principle is something that can be repeatedly and dependably done with elements to produce some sort of visual effect in a composition. I am not confident that any list of these principles is comprehensive, but there are some that are more commonly used (theme with variation to give interesting unity, simultaneous repetition with change to create unity and interest, devices to create depth illusion, devices to create motion effects, etc).


Another way to think about a principle is that it is a way to express a value judgment about a composition. I am not confident that any list of these effects is comprehensive, but there are some that are more commonly used (unity, balance, etc).


When we say a painting has UNITY and DEPTH we are making a value judgments. Too much unity without variety is boring and too much variation without unity is chaotic. Unity and depth are examples of visual effects produced by the first definition of principle.


On the web page that I published for my elementary education majors I include elements, principles, and effects in my attempt to be slightly more logical. This is the URL for it: http://www.goshen.edu/art/ed/Compose.htm. It is a fairly interesting and attractive page and quite a few teachers have requested permission to make handouts from it for their students. If you want to, feel free to make a link to it on your sites http://www.goshen.edu/art/ed/Compose.htm from Marvin Bartel)


As an artist, these are the principles that I actually use.

Percy Principles of Art and Composition

See more of Marvin Bartel's work on his personal site. See his links pages too.

Design Principles


See more on the art elements and principles of design on IAD:

Introduction to the Elements

The Elements of Design - With visuals and project

Elements and Principles of Design Test - A multiple choice test.

Principles of Design lesson series

Elements of Design Test Series - A series of tests



An orderly arrangement of elements using the principles of design


The principles of design help you to carefully plan and organize the elements of art so that you will hold interest and command attention. This is sometimes referred to as visual impact.


In any work of art there is a thought process for the arrangement and use of the elements of design. The artist who works with the principles of good composition will create a more interesting piece of art it will be arranged to show a pleasing rhythm and movement. The center of interest will be strong and the viewers will not look away, instead, they will be drawn into the work. A good knowledge of composition is essential in producing good artwork. Some artists today like to bend or ignore these rules and therefore are experimenting with different forms of expression. We think that composition is very important. The following will assist you in understanding the basics of a good composition:


Elements of Design

Line - is a mark on a surface that describes a shape or outline. It can create texture and can be thick and thin. Types of line can include actual, implied, vertical, horizontal, diagonal and contour lines. (note: Ken does not list "psychic line" - that was  "new term" to me)

Color - refers to specific hues and has 3 properties, Chroma, Intensity and Value. The color wheel is a way of showing the chromatic scale in a circle using all the colors made with the primary triad. Complimentary pairs can produce dull and neutral color. Black and white can be added to produce tints (add white), shades (add black) and tones (add gray).

Texture - is about surface quality either tactile or visual. Texture can be real or implied by different uses of media. It is the degree of roughness or smoothness in objects.

Shape - is a 2-dimensional line with no form or thickness. Shapes are flat and can be grouped into two categories, geometric and organic.

Form - is a 3-dimensional object having volume and thickness. It is the illusion of a 3-D effect that can be implied with the use of light and shading techniques. Form can be viewed from many angles.

Value - is the degree of light and dark in a design. It is the contrast between black and white and all the tones in between. Value can be used with color as well as black and white. Contrast is the extreme changes between values.

Space - refers to variations in the perspective, and proportions of objects, lines or shapes. There is a variation of sizes in space of objects either real or imagined. (some sources list Proportion/Scale as a Principle of Design)

These elements are used to create the Principles of Design. Principles are the results of using the Elements. When you are working in a particular format (size and shape of the work surface) the principles are used to create interest, harmony and unity to the elements that you are using. You can use the Principles of design to check your composition to see if it has good structure.

Principles of Compositional Design

The principles of design are the recipe for a good work of art. The principles combine the elements to create an aesthetic placement of things that will produce a good design.

Center of interest - is an area that first attracts attention in a composition. This area is more important when compared to the other objects or elements in a composition. This can be by contrast of values, more colors, and placement in the format.

Balance - is a feeling of visual equality in shape, form, value, color, etc. Balance can be symmetrical or evenly balanced or asymmetrical and un-evenly balanced. Objects, values, colors, textures, shapes, forms, etc., can be used in creating a balance in a composition.

Harmony - brings together a composition with similar units. If your composition was using wavy lines and organic shapes you would stay with those types of lines and not put in just one geometric shape. (Notice how similar Harmony is to Unity - some sources list both terms)

Contrast - offers some change in value creating a visual discord in a composition. Contrast shows the difference between shapes and can be used as a background to bring objects out and forward in a design. It can also be used to create an area of emphasis.

Directional Movement - is a visual flow through the composition. It can be the suggestion of motion in a design as you move from object to object by way of placement and position. Directional movement can be created with a value pattern. It is with the placement of dark and light areas that you can move your attention through the format.

Rhythm - is a movement in which some elements recurs regularly. Like a dance it will have a flow of objects that will seem to be like the beat of music.

The Principles of design are the results of your working with the elements of art. Use them in every piece of art you do and you will be happy with the results.

These are the things I teach for the elements and principles of design.

Here is a list and definitions for Elements and Principles of Design. Include the Percy Principles of Composition. To me, these are more valuable.

From Ann Heineman:

I'd like to add "symbolic meaning" to the list of extended principles. Without our knowing the cultural/historical roots of a work of art, a composition can still "work" aesthetically but it may lack heart and soul because we don't know the artist's cultural/historical background. The artists of religious works of arts in the Renaissance, for example, had a wealth of narratives and symbols (compositions in triangular form to represent the Holy Trinity for example) upon which to draw inspiration. I think it is important that the students know that they can use these tools of their time to express an idea which is uniquely theirs. The fuel for these "motors" must come from the minds of the artists.

Thoughts to ponder from Peter London from NO MORE SECONDHAND ART (Shambalah 1989 P. 9-17)

"For the primal image-maker, craft was in the service of power. The more carefully wrought the object was, the more powerfully the object would serve as an instrument of transformation and the more likely the gods would be inclined to honor the supplication."

"Beauty was not the intended outcome.  Beauty was a natural by-product of craft diligently applied to serious things."

"...the root and full practice of the arts lies in the recognition that art is power, an instrument of communion between the self and all that is important, all that is sacred."

"The solutions to the problems posed in art do not lie outside in the realms of technique and formula; they reside in the realm of fresh thinking about perennial issues, in honest feelings and awakened spirit... All creative journeys begin with a challenge to introspection, to fathom not only 'what's out there,' but 'what's in here."

London's book is available in paperback on Amazon.com very inexpensively, and is a great read. There is a lot of information there on "what is the point" of all of the work we attempt to do. ~ Posted by Kathy Douglas.


Principles of Graphic Design - by Andrew Mundi [Archive]

Composition and Design- by Marvin Bartel


Introduction To The Principles of Good Design - IAD's extensive section.

Handout created by Joe Cox for Elements of Design

How to Write a Test for Creativity and Knowledge - by Marvin Bartel

Multiple Choice (Easy to use with scan-tron)

True - False (for use with scan-tron)

Short Answer (homework/take home test)

25 point matching (this was done for Ruth Wilson)

Student Elements Worksheet (revised from Woody Duncan)

Student Principles Worksheet (revised from Woody Duncan)

List of suggested art prints- Compiled from many art teachers

PDF Files from Tom Thompson Memorial Art Gallery [Archive] - An educational exhibition about the Elements of Art using works selected from the Permanent Collection.

ELEMENTS OF DESIGN: Site by John Lovett. Find an overview here, with illustrations, on the basic principles and tenets of design. Use the chart for each student to fill out their own design principles table.


How to Write a Test for both Creativity and Knowledge by Marvin Bartel

Elements and Principles Matrix

Click on the image to print