A Modern Look at Design Principles

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you already know about my little “infatuation” with Denman Ross and his Theory of Pure Design. Ross was born in 1853, died in 1935, and his book on design theory was published in 1907. Not exactly a treatise on modern thinking of our day. Still, I love his book. I enjoy reading his old-fashioned sentence structures and convoluted discourses on the design principles he finds most important: balance, rhythm, and harmony. Together, these principles lead to Order — always with a capital O.

But what about more modern approaches to design principles? Are Ross’s old-fashioned theories still in vogue, or are they not only old-fashioned but out-dated, as well? A quick bit of research shows that his concepts of balance, rhythm, and harmony are still very much a part of good design; art and design instructors today, however, are quick to add many more principles.

Before we move on, maybe we should look at what design is all about. In simple terms, design refers to the arrangement of elements in art. It’s an aspect of composition that every artist should consider. Even the most abstract works can succeed or fail on the basis of design.

Precisely what those design principles are depends upon what source you’re using for reference. Denman Ross focuses on three, but you might want to check out a few of these links:

The 6 Principles of Design

The 7 Principles of Design

The 8 Principles of Design

Some design sites go even further, listing as many as 12 “primary principles” and another dozen as “secondary principles”. Yikes! Thank you, but no, thank you.

If you read through these various articles, you’ll see that many of the principles mentioned are really synonymous. “Unity” is another word for “harmony”. “Alignment” is merely another aspect of “balance”.

What it all comes down to — especially for those of us who are studying on our own — is that like so many other things in art (and in life), we can make it as simple or as complicated as we choose. I’m choosing simple.

My studies of design have been prompted in large part by my decision to learn more about abstract art and how to create it. This led me to Eva Magill-Oliver, an artist working in Atlanta, Georgia. The link will take you directly to her blog.

She is the author of Paint Alchemy: Exploring Process-Driven Techniques Through Design, Pattern, Color, Abstraction, Acrylic, and Mixed Media, published in 2018. A long title, yes, and that word EXPLORING certainly caught my attention. That’s what I’m doing in 2021, you know. Exploring new concepts, exploring art history, exploring who I am and how I can best express myself as an artist.

Magill-Oliver bases her work on five design principles:

  • Balance
  • Proportion
  • Rhythm
  • Emphasis
  • Unity

These ideas are essentially the same as those of Denman Ross with the addition of proportion and emphasis. 

In the April 2019 issue of Artist Magazine, she was featured in the “Build” section, showing a quick project for learning and utilizing proper design principles. Soon, I was sitting cross-legged on the studio floor, scissors in hand, gleefully cutting circles and squares and squiggly shapes from a variety of different papers.

The idea, of course, is to learn by doing. Like a child playing with blocks, I was able to play with different shapes, moving them around the page, and seeing if I could put together an image that used good design principles.

Here was my first “Shapes” illustration: DISCLAIMER: SORRY FOR THE POOR PHOTO.

“Child’s Play – 1”

I’m calling this “1” because I’ll be doing more of these as I continue “learning by doing” with the different principles. It’s hard, though, for me to judge whether or not I’m applying all the concepts.

Does this illustration feel balanced to you?

Are any of my shapes too “out of proportion” for the illustration?

Is there any rhythm to this?

Have I emphasized my “main idea”?

Does the illustration have unity or harmony?

I think I succeeded in some areas, and in other areas, not quite so much. Overall, I found it intereting that even in an “abstract shapes exercise” I seemed to revert right back to landscape thinking. As I was putting these pieces together, I clearly “saw” a tree, a few bushes, clouds in the sky, the sun, and even a bird.

I noticed, too, that I was reluctant to take away too much “white space”. I felt I needed that lightness to “balance out” the colored shapes.

None of these shapes is glued down, so now that I’ve photographed the illustration I’ll clear the page and start over. In coming days I’ll focus on both “right” and “wrong” — deliberately doing an illustration that lacks balance, deliberately doing an illustration where shapes feel out of proportion, deliberately ignoring or misusing each of the design principles so that, hopefully, I can see a clear difference between good and bad design.

So, what do you think about my illustration? How would you rate it on each of the five design principles I was working with?

NOTE: I’m planning to save all these shapes I’ve been cutting out. They will be great fun for playing with the grandkids — and teaching design principles to them, as well.



  1. I had a design teacher with a pretty good reputation in graphic arts and he said balance is boring to an art viewer and unbalance will keep the viewer interested longer. He said the mind seeks balance but when it sees balance it instantly moves on to the next thing. For that reason we shouldn’t divide a composition in half, put a focal point in the center of a painting, etc. He made fun of paintings with a red circle. He said it’s like Target having a red spot on a sale rack. He called it the red circle trick, Your eye goes to the red spot and doesn’t move around the painting. Red sunsets wouldn’t get a passing grade. I never read up on other design theories.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Exactly! Balance can be boring because it’s static, so the real trick is learning to create both balance and movement — which is contradictory. Design theory is interesting to study.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Cutting out shapes and playing with them was really a lot of fun. It was a very simple project, and I enjoyed playing with the shapes. I saved them so the grandkids can play with them too. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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