5 Principles of Design and how to apply them to your Life.

Photo by russn_fckr on Unsplash

As a person working in design, I realized that it is good to have a certain number of principles that you apply to your work. Art and design differ in the way that design always has a purpose. So it’s good to have your toolkit of principles ready to play around with and use as a fundament to get things started and orient yourself.

But why not take this to another level? Because maybe you’re not a person doing any design-related work (although I would argue that everything you do is design-related in some way, shape or form) or you are a person working in design, but have never taken the time to look at the things you deal with every day from another, unorthodox perspective. So let’s ask ourselves the question, what sort of additional values some principles that apply to design might have on a grander scale.

Principle 1 — Emphasis

1. Emphasis

The first principle I want to talk about is Emphasis.

Emphasis asks the question, what is the first piece of information that gets communicated while looking at a design. It is about Order and Storytelling. What’s the first thing I see and what does it convey?

To further analyze this principle, I want to dive into the domain of Interior Design. More precisely, the restructuring of my living room.

Before thinking about the contents of this article, my living room pretty much looked the same as probably most living rooms do. When you walked into the room, you looked at a couch that is facing a media console with a TV on it. The idea behind the structure was logical. When I come home from work, I want to relax on the couch and watch some Netflix or play some video-games. But then the question occurred to me: is this actually the ideal way to spend my evenings? Wouldn’t it be better to use the few hours of free time I have per day more productive and with a deeper purpose? What if my living room had more “living” in it? What if it was a place of writing. Of doing creative work. Of gathering with friends, eating good food, discussing interesting ideas.

So I got to work. Now the first thing you see, when you walk into my living room is a big, empty table with enough room for many people and all sorts of projects. The structure of the room motivates you to sit down, be productive or invite some friends over for dinner. I didn’t get rid of the couch or the TV. I just placed them in a less prominent area of the room. They are not the first things you see while entering the living room. The Emphasis in the room lies on communication, creation and living.

And this principle does also apply to topics of other scales. What is the first thing you see, when you sit down at your desk? Is it cluttered? Or does it have only the things on it that will help you in solving a specific issue? You get the point. In your environment, make sure to put Emphasis on the things that you want to deal with and get done. That will help you get a step further in leading a more productive, meaningful life.

Principle 2— White Space

2. White Space

This second principle I would like to start off with a verse from The tao the ching by Lao-Tse:

Though thirty spokes may form a wheel,
It is the hole within the hub,
Which gives the wheel utility.
It is not the clay the potter throws,
Which gives the pot its usefulness,
But the space within the shape,
From which the pot is made.
Without a door, the room cannot be entered,
Without the window it is dark.
Such is the utility of nonexistence.

Most of the principles of design deal with the task of what you add to your design. White Space, however, looks at the things you do not add. It creates room for a design to breathe, creates hierarchy and organization and emphasizes the things that make out the design.

So how does an object that is not present add value to your life? How can an absence actually result in creation?

Well, how about the recent trend of minimalism or as I like to refer to it: essentialism? What does this philosophy teach us? It challenges us to deal with our environment and ask the question of what really is necessary for our lives and what only adds unnecessary weight. What is essential? What do we really need? In what way might we be lying to ourselves and the people around us?

Thinking about the notion of White Space, it seems so obvious, but at the same time incredibly profound. It pertains to all areas of life: relationships, how we furnish our home or how we schedule the time of our day. Only when things are absent, can we really learn to appreciate the things we do have. By letting go, you create awareness for your surrounding. Things that got lost in the mess suddenly become present and crucial.

White Space creates a relation. It puts things into perspective. Applied to the principle of Yin and Yang, White Space is the area in which both of them exist. By not being there it creates space for things to be in. By not-existing it creates the possibility of existence.

So do yourself a favor and create some White Space in your life. Take a step back and look at what is necessary. Have the courage to let go of things and cast off the weight that has been pulling you down. Despite logical thinking and what society tells us, see the tremendous value in not-having.

Principle 3— Proportion

3. Proportion

The third principle Proportion deals with the visual size and weight of elements in a composition and their relationship with one another.

When looking at this principle in a design, it is helpful to divide it into sections, instead of looking at it as a whole.

In a recent article of mine, I wrote about priorities and how important it is to create a healthy balance by prioritizing the different sections that make out your life. In my understanding, these sections are health, relationships, and money/work. You can think of your life as a triangle with each one of these sections making up a corner of that triangle.

Now, it only makes sense to look at Proportion, because a composition is always limited to a certain amount of space. That means we can’t make every part of the design as big as possible. When you increase the size of one, others will have to decrease their size. The sections are interrelated. Scaling is only possible in a proportional manner.

Just as a composition, your life is also limited. Not particularly in space, but in time. We all have 24 hours per day and some finite number of rounds we get to take around the sun. This means you have to ask yourself how you want to split these 24 hours and what you want to prioritize. Do you want to be successful in your career and lead a satisfying intimate relationship? Then you have to probably make sacrifices in terms of your health by doing fewer sportive activities or sleeping less. Do you want to spend more time with your family, but at the same time maintain your own well-being? Then you probably have to lower your sight in terms of career and money.

Nothing in life is inexhaustible. Adding resources to one thing means taking them away from another one. But it also means creating a clear focus. It makes you realize which things really count, lets you take responsibility for your actions and gives meaning to your life. Arrange your life in the proper proportions and everything will work out in perfect harmony.

Principle 4— Repetition / Pattern

4. Repetition / Pattern

If you make use of the principle of Repetition / Pattern in design, it can unify and strengthen it. It lets you create a motif and gain control over everything.

It makes use of the fact that a design should be limited to a certain number of elements, colors, and fonts, in order to not overload the composition with too much visual information. By repeating things in your artwork, you create a golden thread, making your design look harmonious and consistent.

Consistency is key in every person’s life. Without it, we would never be able to acquire any sort of new knowledge or skill, because we rarely achieve things straight away in one session. We achieve them one step at a time. One repetition at a time. You won’t get strong and healthy by going to the gym only once. You attain these goals by going there consistently, several times a week. You have to make it a habit of yours.

I cannot stress the importance of habits enough. Habits really are the things that make out your life. If you do things every day, you do them a lot. Let me bring home this point by doing the math. Let’s say, for example, you have a habit of watching Netflix 2 hours per day. Doesn’t seem too much, right? It’s just 2 episodes of that new, awesome TV series. Well, these 2 hours per day result in 14 hours per week, 56 hours per month and eventually 28 days per year. So you end up watching Netflix for about a month of one year. This puts these 2 hours daily into a whole other perspective. So the question is, what do you do with the other 11 months of your year?

To inverse this argument, it’s not hard for you to understand how important it is to more or less only have habits that have a positive effect on your life in the long run (e.g. eating a healthy diet, working out regularly and taking time to meditate). It really is a question of your state of mind and the willingness to resist instant gratification and make sacrifices in order to achieve something bigger than your current self is able to comprehend completely. Heck, even Rome wasn't built in a day or as a Chinese proverb puts it:

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Another way to think about Repetition is the principle of a Pattern. A Pattern consists of one or several individual elements being repeated a number of times while following a certain set of rules. A Pattern isn’t defined by one element alone, but by the repetition of it. It goes hand in hand with the saying of missing the forest for the trees. You have to step back and take a look at the bigger picture, not just at a segment. It is the constant repeating that strengthens the design and makes it appear unified.

As you may have noticed, consciously or unconsciously, even in this article I use the principle of Repetition, to help make the contents more comprehensible and help you stay focused while reading it.

Principle 5 —Contrast

5. Contrast

A design with a well thought out use of this last principle seems to transcend the two-dimensional plane and stick in your memory. Contrast creates space and difference between elements in an artwork. It is especially important when it comes to the relationship between the background and foreground and what part of the design will get categorized in which one of them.

The Contrast that has the strongest visual effect is the one between black and white. Between dark and bright, shadow and light. This Contrast cannot exist through one element alone. You need at least two elements to create a relationship. And these elements cannot be the same. They need to differ from each other to some degree.

By creating such a relationship, we come to the realization that one couldn’t exist without the other. Their individual existence is correlated through the way they relate to each other. Without a background, there could be no foreground and vice versa.

To take things to another level, it leads us to recognize that without Hell, there would be no Heaven. We need rainy days in order to appreciate the days when the sun is shining. We always need something we can measure things against. Otherwise, we would have no desire to move forward in life. We wouldn’t be able to evaluate our current situation and work towards a possible approvement in our future.

On a less profound level, Contrast is about trying new things and seeing new perspectives. A lot of times we get stuck in life, because we can’t see beyond our current perception. We live life in the usual way, do the things we usually do and seek no further external stimuli. But once you decide to break out of this loop and go beyond your comfort zone you will see things more clearly. All of a sudden not everything is dark anymore. Suddenly there is this speck of light standing out past of all this darkness. You again have something to orient yourself toward. There is a light at the end of every tunnel, but sometimes we get stuck staring at the walls in frustration, cursing the world and our current situation. But sometimes all you have to do is turn your head to one side and change the way you look at the world.

And although this doesn’t make things any easier, it at least gives you some perspective. It stops your head from spinning and once again puts a vision in your life. Additionally to the Hell, you ran from up until now, you now also have a Heaven you can run towards.

So, what to do with all of this?

To bring things to an end, my conclusion of this article is that I am not trying to tell you how to live your life. You have to figure that out for yourself. Life is way too complex to try to break it down into the above five principles. Equally, the elements of a design should be viewed as constantly moving parts which get combined momentarily to tell a story. So depending on your individual situation, feel free to take away whatever is useful for you or curse me for having wasted 10 minutes of your life.

One thing I would rather like you to take away from all of this, in the hopes of having expressed it properly, is how valuable it is to always take newly acquired knowledge and put it on a transcending meta-level. Constantly ask yourself the question of how the appliance of a principle from one domain might be useful in other domains.

Think outside the box. What works well in that one blue box, might have the same or even greater worth, when applied to another, red box. Or that round one. Or say “Screw all the boxes!” and create your own one, just as a Design doesn’t have to strictly follow the rules above to be considered “good”. Some of the best designs ignore one or more of them in order to create an eye-catching and effective work. But in order to break the rules, we first have to know and incorporate them.

I want to end this article by making the proposition that it is this skill of putting learnings into practical usage and constantly challenging them that distinguishes mere knowledge from wisdom. A virtue we should all seek to strive for on this beautifully insane journey we call Life.

If you want to hear me talk about these topics and more, check out my new podcast ‘Going Meta’:

Art Director and worshipper of life. I love doing things I suck at.

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