Understanding Design Jargon: Elements of Design

The design world is filled with a bunch of different terms you'll be expected to know, whether they're about the elements of design, design principles or even just different kinds of vocabulary that you'll have to understand to speak with other people in the industry, such printers or developers. This article is first in a series to help you begin to understand some of that design jargon.   Every design is composed of a compilation of certain elements. Once you've learned about the elements of design you'll be able to understand the building blocks used to create your composition. You'll also understand the words that people are using when they're talking about their designs or even when they're critiquing yours.  


A line is a mark  between two points, simple, right? They can be used for a bunch of different reasons, to stress a word or phrase, connect content, creating patterns, dividing content, the list could go on and on. Representation of line Lines can be distinguished two different ways. One can be just linear marks made with a pen, brush, or the pen tool - basically the path of a point moving through space. The other is the edge created when two shapes meet. Texture can also be created through lines. Lines can remain a constant thickness, or vary in thickness along their length, like in something that's calligraphic. There are a bunch of different kinds of lines. Some of the most common are: actual, implied, vertical, horizontal, diagonal and contoured. You can use different kinds of lines to evoke different feelings in your designs. A long curved line will have a much different feeling than a thicker, hard line. Just look at these two red lines above. The straight line is rigid and uniform, where as the line above it feels much more organic an soft.  


We all know our basic shapes from Kindergarten, like triangles, squares, circles, and rectangles. But the shapes in design can be categorized as much more than those geometric shapes. Representation of shape There are two other basic kinds of shapes, abstracted which include icons and graphic representations, and natural, which is things like leaves, fruits, animals and people. In the most basic sense, shapes are enclosed flat 2D lines with no form or thickness. The shapes also imply more 3D form through depth, length and width. You might also hear the words positive and negative in relation to shapes. A positive shape in a composition automatically creates a negative shape behind and around it.  


Size is pretty self explanatory. It's the relationship of the area occupied by one shape to the shape of another.  It's often used to attract attention or convey importance. The size of your elements can tell your viewer a lot about your composition.  


In design, texture refers to the surface quality of a shape. Texture can be actual or visual. Some common textures are: rough, smooth, soft, hard and glossy. The texture on your design can actually be felt, if it's a physical design, or implied through other design means. Different kinds of media, like using paper or film or cloth, can be used to create actual texture. Visual texture gives the illusion of texture.  


Color seems like a pretty simple concept, but color as a design element has a bunch of other terms than come with it. In relation to a design element, color has three properties: intensity, value, and hue. The name of the color as it's labeled on the color wheel is its hue. The value refers to the lightness or darkness of the color. Value is also another important element of design. Intensity refers to the brightness or dullness of the color. Two different color wheels There are three primary colors that can't be mixed using any other colors - red, yellow, and blue. All other colors can be created through a combination of these colors. Secondary colors are created by mixing primary colors. Orange, purple and green are three secondary colors. Tertiary colors are created by mixing a primary color with one of the secondary colors next to it on the color wheel. A great reference is the color wheel, which shows the chromatic scale using all the colors made with the primary triad. Tints are created by adding white to the color, shades are created by adding black and tones by adding gray. Color can be used to get the viewer to react a certain way subconsciously to your design. Different colors evoke different emotions. Blue is generally calming whereas red is often used to signify anger or importance.  


Value refers to the lightness or darkness of an area in a design. Sometimes this element is called tone. It's the contrast between black and white and all the tones in between. Depiction of value Contrast can be achieved through extreme differences in value. Emphasis and depth can also be created through value.  


When talking about space as an element of design, it refers to the area in which the art is organized or the distance around or between the elements in the artwork. Often space is categorized as positive or negative. Positive space is the subject of the art, and the negative space is the background. Depiction of positive and negative space Space can be used to separate or group information. Used effectively can also give your viewers eyes a rest, since without adequate space, your composition can be hard to digest.   You should feel comfortable with the common elements of design. Next up in our design jargon series is learning the principles of design and how they can help make your designs even better.