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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:

Provide attribution

  • Give proper attribution to the creators for  all the media works you used in your design. Read more about How to give attribution.


  • Works that you've created yourself
  • Free 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 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:


  • 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 other details about the event.


  • 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.


  • 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. 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
    • Symmetrical balance is when the weight of elements is evenly divided on either side of a design.
    • Asymmetrical balance uses scale, contrast, and colour to achieve flow in a design.

music festival poster example demonstrating asymmetrical balance

2. Proximity

  • Proximity creates relationships between similar or related elements, but that doesn’t mean all elements have to be grouped.
  • Visually connect the design elements using similar font, colour, size and style.  
  • Create relationships between related elements by adjusting
    • Font: related elements have similar fonts.
    • Colour: related elements have the same colour.
    • Size: related elements have similar scales.
    • Style: related elements have the same illustration style.

music festival poster example showing words with the same font in proximity to one another

3. 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 images, shapes, and blocks of texts in relation to one another

example poster with a dotted vertical line and a dotted horizontal line across the design to demonstrate alignment

4. Hierarchy

  • Make the most important content the focal point of your design using different elements
    • Use larger and bolder fonts
    • Place the key message higher than other design elements
    • Add colour to the most important visuals
  • Format other elements similarly based on order of importance -- this helps to direct the viewer's gaze

example poster with numbers indicating size hierarchy

5. Repetition and juxtaposition

  • Create rhythm and cohesion throughout your design by tying together consistent elements such as shapes, fonts, image styles and colours.
  • Place any unlike elements next to each other to make content pop and keep your design interesting

example poster demonstrating repetitive elements and different elements

6. 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
  • The most common types of contrast are:
    • Dark and light
    • Large and small
    • Contemporary and traditional 

three panels of the same text on different backgrounds, demonstrating good, bad, and terrible contrast

7. Colour

  • Use a colour scheme of ~2-5 main colours to tie your composition together and dictate the mood of your design.
    • Gold and neutral shades evoke an overall feel of sophistication
    • Bright colours evoke a feel of happiness and fun
  • Colours can be used to contrast or complement other design elements.
  • Tip: Create a colour palette and reference the palette while creating your design

example poster with the colour palette that was used

8. Negative space

  • Use margins and blank space around your elements to guide the eye of a viewer through your design.
  • Use space to create a shape and highlight the important components of your design.

example poster highlighting the blank space in the design

9. Theme

  • Ensure that the text and language in your design is legible, readable and appealing to the eye.
  • Consider how the style, colour and placement of your text and other elements contributes to the overall theme of your design.

example poster indicating how the theme of music and fall was used

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.