A Comprehensive Guide to Design Theory (With Tips)

Updated January 26, 2023

Design theory is a collection of design principles that graphic designers can use before beginning a project. Design theory offers insight into how patterns, colors, organization and symmetry influence how viewers perceive your design. Using design theory may help you determine which graphic elements can best represent the main purpose of your designs. In this article, we discuss what design theory is, explain why it's important and provide a list of design theory principles and tips to help you better understand the concept.

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What is design theory?

Design theory is a system that helps graphic designers better understand how they can communicate a message to audiences through visuals. It involves identifying the different elements in an image and explaining why they're important. You can use design theory to comprehend the aesthetic principles that impact a viewer's design interpretations. Design theory can help you make artistic decisions and ensure that your work communicates the intended message to your audience.

Graphic designers typically use design theory when designing images for marketing purposes, like creating advertisements for a company or creating brand logos.

Related: 27 Ways To Become a Better Graphic Designer

Why is design theory important?

Design theory is important because it helps graphic designers communicate thoughtful and clear messages to viewers. For example, if you want to demonstrate the importance of education, then you may create a visual that includes children sitting at desks and interacting positively with their teacher. Using design theory may help you create advertisements and logos that stand out to viewers and establish an emotional connection.

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Design theory principles

There are five principles of design theory that individuals may use when beginning a new project. While each principle offers individual support to a project, it's important to have all five principles so that they can combine to communicate a clear and meaningful message to viewers. Here are the five principles of design theory:


Graphic designers use alignment to ensure that their visuals match the message they want to communicate with viewers. Having an aligned visual can mean that the designer has an organized design system, like following a design pattern that's easy for viewers to understand. A well-aligned design may help viewers understand the meaning of the graphic, along with the message that the visual communicates. For example, if a graphic designer wants to create an advertisement for a children's cereal, they may include an image with bright colors and big lettering to align with the theme of the cereal.


Repetition involves introducing elements of design that repeat throughout an image. A graphic designer may choose to repeat a design in one image, or they may repeat it throughout several images. Graphic designers often use repetition in marketing campaigns so that viewers can familiarize themselves with the image's content. For example, if a company repeats the use of purple stripes throughout their designs, viewers may associate all purple stripes with that specific company.


Contrast takes place when a graphic designer uses two opposing design styles or materials and combines them in one image. Using contrast can place emphasis on a specific aspect of the design. For example, if a designer places more light colors than dark colors in an image, then the design may feel more positive to viewers. This may help viewers recognize an advertisement more easily. Here are some examples of contrast that graphic designers may use in an image:

  • Dark and light colors

  • Warm and cool tones

  • Large images next to small images

  • Contemporary and classic font

  • Vibrant and dull hues


Hierarchy involves placing items in an image close together to imply that the items relate to each other. Viewers may use hierarchical design to help them identify the key message of the image. For example, if a book has a photo of two people that are close together on the cover, the reader may determine that they are the two main characters.


Graphic designers use balance to create tension or peace in an image, which affects how a viewer reacts to it. The type of balance that a designer uses depends on their goals for the image. Here are the two types of balance that a graphic designer can use:

  • Symmetrical balance: This balance involves having matching formatting and design on each side of the image. A designer may use this type of balance to create feelings of peace and calmness for the viewer.

  • Tension balance: Tension balance involves using asymmetrical designs and opposing elements in an image. This balance may create negative emotions in a viewer, and designers may use it to emphasize the key message of the image.

Related: How To Practice Graphic Design Skills: Tips and Tricks

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Tips for using design theory

Here are some tips to help you use design theory:

Understand color theory

Color is a key tool that you can use to create an image that connects with the viewer. Color theory involves how colors impact viewers, and designers can use color theory to include specific colors in an image, depending on the image's message. This theory uses the same principles as design theory, though instead of applying the principles to the entire image, you can apply them to only the colors in the image. For example, if you use the color yellow in an advertisement, it may convey feelings of happiness and positivity.

Practice design thinking

Design thinking may help you use design theory more effectively. It involves making an image for a specific audience and brainstorming different ways to catch their attention through graphic design. Here are the five parts of design thinking:

  • Empathize: First, understand who your target audience is before beginning a project. You should have an idea of the viewer's preferences and what images they may respond to.

  • Define: After they understand their audience, identify and define a problem that they can solve using their design.

  • Iterate: Have a brainstorming session where you can think of graphic design ideas and concepts to connect with viewers.

  • Prototype: Next, make decisions about what design elements and materials your brainstorming ideas include and how you can create it.

  • Test: Show a small segment of your target audience your design to see how they react. They can provide you with feedback on the strengths of your design and highlight areas of improvement.

Research graphic elements

While developing your design theory, research graphic elements that you can use in your image. Graphic elements are a fundamental part of graphic design, since most image creation begins with deciding which elements you want to include. Here are some examples of graphic elements:

  • Lines

  • Shapes

  • Colors

  • Textures

  • Design type

  • Amount of blank space

  • Size of the image

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