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Apply Graphic Design Principles in Your Digital Creations

What is Graphic Design?

Graphic design refers to the purposeful combination of images, colours and text to communicate ideas in a visually appealing way.

Examples of graphic designs include research posters, flyers, infographics, book covers, podcast covers, portfolios, webpages, magazines, PowerPoint slidedecks and more.

Copyright Notice

Unless you have explicit, written permission from the copyright holder of a work to use their work in your graphic creation, you must use freely licensed items that permit adaptation and abide by the work's terms of use. This usually means giving credit to the original creators somewhere in your work, especially if you are sharing your work online.

Here are some tips to help you stay copyright-compliant:

  • Cite

    • Cite all the media works you used in your design. See the "How to give attribution" link below for more information

  • Use

    • Works that you've created yourself
    • Images from stock libraries in online image editors like Canva
    • Works that have a Creative Commons license* or that are in the public domain (CC0)
      • *Do not modify Creative Commons works with a "No Derivatives", "NoDerivs" or "ND" stipulation
      • Check out the "Find Audio, Images and Videos for Remixing" guide below for a list of resources you can use to find freely licensed media
    • Copyrighted works you have explicit, written permission from the copyright holder to use. 
  • Do not monetize

    • Do not sell or otherwise profit from your work if your project uses copyrighted works or Creative Commons works with a noncommercial (NC) stipulation

  • If you have a specific question about copyright, email the library at

Before creating your design

Before you begin creating your design, you will first need to identify the following elements:

  1. Purpose

    • What are you trying to achieve with your design?
    • What ideas will you need to communicate to achieve this purpose?
    • E.g. The purpose of a flyer may be to promote an event. This means that you will need to communicate the time and location of the event as well as details about the event.
  2. Context

    • Who is your target audience?
    • In what context will the final composition be viewed?
    • E.g. If you're submitting a portfolio for hiring committees to review, you will need to consider the aesthetics of the organization you're applying to when designing your portfolio.
  3. Format

    • Are you designing for the web or for print? 
    • How big will your final design need to be to be readable?
    • What is the best resolution to ensure your designs are clear?
    • E.g. If you're designing a presentation slidedeck for a large auditorium, you will need to consider font size and use of graphics to maximize audience engagement.

10 Principles of Visual Design

1. Hierarchy

  • Make the most important content the focal point of your design with different colours, larger scale and/or positioning
  • Format other elements similarly based on order of importance -- this helps to direct the viewer's gaze

Example: Hierarchy

2. Space

  • Use blank space and margins generously
  • Leave padding around all graphic elements such as text and images

Example: Space

3. Colour

  • Use a colour scheme of ~2-5 main colours to tie your composition together
  • Use colour effectively to convey tone and evoke moods (e.g. light green for spring, navy blue for professional)
  • Tip: Create a colour palette and reference the palette while creating your design

Example: Colour

4. Balance

  • Consider the visual weight of graphic elements when distributing elements throughout your design
  • Use symmetry to create a sense of organization, but note that not everything has to be symmetrical

Example: Balance

5. Contrast

  • Use framing shapes and high contrast colours to ensure that text is clearly readable and important elements such as icons stand out 
  • Avoid superimposing text over a complex image; this will make the text more difficult to read

Example: Contrast

6. Repetition & Juxtaposition

  • Duplicate elements such as shapes, fonts and image styles to create a sense of cohesion throughout your design
  • Place unlike elements next to each other to make content pop and keep your design interesting

Example: Repetition and Juxtaposition

7. Grouping

  • Create relationships between related elements by adjusting
    • Proximity (related elements are positioned closer together)
    • Colour (related elements have the same colour)
    • Size (related elements have similar scales)
    • Style (related elements have the same typography/illustration style)

Example: Grouping

8. Alignment

  • Use grids and rulers to match text and other graphic elements with the edges of your design
  • Create order in your design by aligning elements in relation to one another

Example: Alignment

9. Theme

  • Tie your visual composition back to a central idea
  • Consider how the theme of your design may affect how you style your text and which colours and images you use

Example: Theme

10. Creativity

  • Don't be afraid to bend the principles of visual design with purpose
  • Add your own personality into your designs!

Find Graphic Design Tools

Resources to Help with Graphic Design

Link to Guide: Find audio and images for remixingLink to Dos & Don'ts of Designing an Academic PosterLink to Guide: Write clearly: Grammar

Suggest an edit to this guide

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.