Using fundamental design elements

September 2, 2013 |

One of the first things I was taught in art school were the fundamentals of design. At the time, it was just a class that was kind of boring because i just wanted to play in Photoshop. I thought design could only happen on computers, and  that I was going to make something “pretty”. I never thought about the feeling that was perceived from my work until a bit later. Feeling is the most important part of design and art. A big part of the client work I do is about finding ways to make these feelings and while the idea may seem complex I always fall back on the fundamental design elements.

Feeling is the most important part of design and art.

Line, Color, Shape, Texture, Space and Form make up the design fundamentals. I’ll go over how to use these design fundamentals in your design and the feelings you can achieve from your viewers.


Lines are defined as “a long, narrow mark or band”. Lines are all around us, as they are the result of two shapes meeting. In a photo of a building with the sky in the background, a line is created where the sky and building meet.


Use thick lines to create a stronger more powerful emotion. On the other hand, you can use thin lines to create a feeling of calm, slow or soothing. All lines can be used to help break up big areas or help organize designs.



Shapes are a geometrical element that can be considered the foundation of everything. They can be created in positive as well as negative space.


Different shapes have different meanings as described in this link. Shapes can be used to create form or symbolize or provide a flow or direction. Certain shapes can provide different feelings, such as the triangle. Because of it’s sharp, less than 90 degree angles it can feel a bit dangerous or aggressive. The circle provides a feeling of wholeness and togetherness because it doesn’t have any corner angles.



Space is the amount of background or negative space. It can also be described as the foreground, middle-ground and background.


Space is very important in design. You can provide breathing room or negative space to keep your subject the focus of your design. People often feel like they have to fill every inch of a design, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I believe it’s the most common mistake by new artists.



Direction is important because you want to give the viewer a path to follow in an order of your choosing. This can be like reading a book from left to right.


Use direction to tell a story, to get users of your site to click buttons or to just give your users to something to focus on.



Size is a relative term used to describe how big something is compared to the piece as a whole. An element that covers 80% of your design can be considered big in size or an element that takes up 10% may be considered small in size.

  • Use big elements in design to give the emotion of strength, dominance or control
  • Use small elements to give the feeling of composure, loneliness or peacefulness.



Texture adds pattern and detail to elements. It can add interest to certain object or create a lot of different feelings.


You can use texture to create many different kinds of emotion. If you add a grungy texture over top of an element, it can give the emotion of old or damaged. A wood texture (that everyone seems to use way too much) can give the feel of ruggedness or toughness. Or a grid pattern might give you a more technological or high tech feel. As you can see the options for texture are endless.



Color is what I believe to be the easiest way to control emotion on a design. Every color symbolizes something and it is one of the first things people will notice about a design. I will explain the symbolism of each of the main colors. I could go on and on about the meanings of colors so I’ll keep it simple. Almost all colors have negative meaning as well, but I’m going to focus on the positives.


Red symbolizes passion, love and heat. Studies say it makes the viewers heart beat faster.


Orange symbolizes creativity, energy and enthusiasm.


Yellow symbolizes happiness, optimism and focus.


Green symbolizes nature, wealth and  health.


Blue symbolizes calmness, loyalty and trust.


Purple symbolizes mystery, royalty and spirituality.


Black symbolizes elegance, formality and sophistication.


White symbolizes purity, innocence and cleanliness.



Value is the amount of light or dark in an object.

  • You can use dark value to simulate depth and lighter color to simulate closeness.
  • You can give a subject meaning with its value alone compared to the rest of a design.



I’ve noticed that there is no common answer for what the fundamental design elements are, but I put together this list to help you think about the basics when making a design. It’s easy to over think a design sometimes, but all you need to do is take things to a more basic scenario and, hopefully, you can come up with the perfect solution to whatever you’re working on.


Tell us what you think

Are there any specific types of feeling you try to get from the user with any of the design elements? Tell us about it below.



Post Written by Matt Vojacek

Matt is the founder/art director of Zwelly Co. since 2010. Matt is also currently a motion design and web freelance artist in Columbus, OH. / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Linkedin