Design Elements and Principals

Design Pet Peeve #4: Unreadable text.  Can’t find that shop?  Can’t read what’s on that jar?  How many signs or labels around the world do you know that are unreadable or confusing for one reason or another?  I know a lot.



One case-in-point is museum labeling. The offending labels often fall into one of four categories.  1.) The text is too small.  2.) The text is lacking in contrast (differences in value between the subject and the background). 3.) The text and/or symbols do not accurately state the information intended for the reader.  4.) The labels themselves are improperly placed for the reader: too low; too far from the art; too little light; or under glass too far from the visitors.  If you will forgive a generalization, art museums are the worst offenders.  It seems as though many curators strive to provide text that defies readability.  I have actually had curators tell me that they wished they could hang the art without any labels.  Ironically, this would work excellently if each piece of art had an accompanying number corresponding to an entry in a wireless application or a catalogue (An excellent example of the later labeling technique is the recent exhibit of works by Peter Paul Rubens in the Prado Museum, Madrid, with an extensive catalogue).  But that’s not what they meant.


Maps are another example.  No matter how well designed maps are, it’s a fact that many people just have a hard time using them.  The non-linear tracking required to read a map, and the variety of symbols and colors used are major causes for this confusion.  It does not help the hapless user, therefore, when map text suffers from some of the same design flaws as signage mentioned above.  And when the map is a You-Are-Here installation and is orientated differently from the physical space it’s in; or does not provide an indicator of the reader’s location on the map . . . the people who installed the map might just as well have saved their money.


Retail signage probably has the most examples of unreadable text.  While some chain and franchise establishments suffer from signage that is all too clear and blatant; many other signs are too small, lacking in contrast, or ill-placed to be seen under any circumstances.  Added to that, some retailers exercise their own personal aesthetic, and install signs on which the content is too “artistic” to be readable.  And when signs are carved and the letters gilded, no matter the contrast between text and background, forget trying to read the sign when light reflects off the content.


On the other side of this subject are those instances in which a great deal of effort has been expended to make text as readable as possible.  The typeface coming into the most common usage on United States Department of Transportation highway signs, for example, is called Clear View Highway.  After extensive testing of several fonts and font varieties, it has been recognized as the most readable under highway driving conditions.  Other tests have proven that the most visible text/background combination for a backlit sign is bright yellow and black.  This combination has been successfully employed in signage installations in major airports all over the world.

What’s my point? Take pity on the poor reader.  Use large and simple content in high contrast with its background.  Make the content logical, and relevant to the user within the context of the use.


Design Elements and Principles. Throughout history, design has held significant meaning for the practitioners and audiences of its time.  This meaning has been achieved through the pieces (elements) and tenets or parameters (principles) used in design.  Some design elements are permanent, based on shared human traits such as biology or culture.  Shelters, for example, have always protected humans from the elements, no matter the shelters’ shapes, sizes, or materials.  Some design elements are ephemeral, tied to a society, period, technology, location, or individual requirements.  Shelters in Eastern Asia and Western Europe looked markedly different from one another for millennia, for example, until transportation and communication shrank the globe and people started appreciating and adapting one another’s architectural aesthetics.  Design principles tend to be universal for most uses, processes, or circumstances.


The following are some elements used in design to achieve specific goals, in alphabetical order.


  1. Balance (including intentional imbalance): Visual symmetry or asymmetry.
  2. Color: Combinations, compliments, contrasts, families, hues, saturations.
  3. Contrast: The readable and recognizable differences between elements.
  4. Direction: Implied or stated by shapes spaces or placement of shapes in spaces.
  5. Form: Three-dimensional shapes.
  6. Function: How a design, its operation, and people using it relate to one another.
  7. Importance: achieved by size, placement, shape, color, etc.
  8. Level of detail: low for general use; high for specific or sophisticated use.
  9. Line: Two-dimensional shapes.
  10. Movement: Implied or stated by shapes or placement of shapes.
  11. Perspective: Relative distance and three-dimensional space.
  12. Sequence of operation: achieved by size, placement, shape, color, text, etc.
  13. Shape: An object or color with a distinctive look.
  14. Size: Implied by relating elements to one another.
  15. Space: Foreground, middle ground, and distance implied by sizes, placement of elements, and other properties such as contrast and color saturation.
  16. Texture: Surface quality and/or variability.
  17. Universality: A design’s approachability and use by the most diverse group possible.
  18. Value: The amount of light or dark.

Dennis O’Brien. Composition for Illustrators (a Handout for Rhode Island School of Design’s Continuing Education Department class: Illustration Overview). 2009.


The following are some principles used in the development of designs, in alphabetical order.


  1. Circulation: Understanding of use-flow around an object or through a space.
  2. Clarity: Legibility: visual contrast, figure-ground relationship, and hierarchical structure; functionality, transparency, and emphasis or de-emphasis.
  3. Cleanliness: Lack of clutter, simplicity, organization.
  4. Clues: Operation apparent in the visual and tactile details.
  5. Cognition: Processing of information; recognizing, understanding and subsequently acting.
  6. Cohesion: Harmony, unity, parts working together to form a whole.
  7. Combining: Grouping information into limited units; chunking.
  8. Comfort: Psychologically and physically easy to understand and use. Ergonomics.
  9. Communication: Intrinsic telegraphing of function; transparency.
  10. Community: Sense of inclusion for people with widely varying needs, goals, abilities, and limitations; universality.
  11. Completeness: Everything necessary must be present and available.
  12. Composition: Layout; proximity or distance of elements, as required; proportion, harmony.
  13. Concept: A general idea or notion; a mental image.
  14. Conciseness: Nothing extraneous; simpler is better.
  15. Conservation: Public information, awareness, prevention, maintenance, sustainability, environmentally responsible.
  16. Consistency: Usage of elements identical throughout any project or program.
  17. Conspicuousness: Variety of elements and placement to make use obvious.
  18. Content: Elements, ingredients, material, subject matter, substance, theme.
  19. Context: Background, circumstances, environment, parameters, relevance, situation.
  20. Contrast: The readable and recognizable differences between elements.
  21. Control: Evaluation, correction, and updating; prototyping as necessary.
  22. Conventions: Adherence to commonly agreed upon guides or rules.
  23. Correctness: Accuracy, appropriateness.
  24. Correlation: Agreement among parts.
  25. Creativity: Pretty, innovative, arresting, interesting, aesthetically pleasing.

Dennis O’Brien. Wayfinding and Signage, in Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. 2009. London, Taylor & Francis.  (updated).  See also: William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler.  Universal Principles of Design. 2003. Gloucester, MA, Rockport.


For next time: Design Disciplines and Movements


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Dennis O’Brien