Principles of Design

Contributor: Stefani Allegretti. Lesson ID: 13310

Every artist should understand the fundamental principles of design, like contrast and balance. In this lesson, you will discover what they are and get to experiment with them!


Visual Arts

Fine Arts
learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Beaver, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Did you know many famous artists utilized different principles of design in their work?

Artist Pablo Picasso experimented with proportion and contrast. Georgia O'Keefe captured balance and harmony in her paintings of the natural world. Sculptor Claes Oldenburg experimented with scale.

The principles of design are essential tools in an artist's toolbox! Let's learn about them.

Artists understand and often experiment with the principles of design.

Principles of design describe the way artists use different elements in their artwork. For an overview, watch 6 Design Principles from Simple Art Tips:

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The video discussed six principles of design, and there are several more. Some of the most important elements include:

  • harmony
  • contrast
  • directional movement
  • rhythm
  • pattern
  • proportion and scale

Let's break these down and examine them in different works of art!

Balance refers to how the different elements in a work of art (shape, color, space, texture, etc.) work together to create a pleasing visual whole.

artwork with balance

You can see evidence of balance in the abstract artwork above. Notice the symmetry in this unique digital piece.

Harmony (or unity) is another principle of design not mentioned in the video.

It is similar to balance in that all of the design elements work together to create a sense of cohesion giving the artwork a sense of order and purpose.

nautilus shell

You can often see harmony in artworks that depict nature, like the one above. Nature, as an art subject, is typically harmoniously designed to begin with.

Contrast is when opposite elements (large v. small or dark v. light) are arranged in a work of art to create interest or excitement.

Contrast is all about elements in the composition being different from each other in some way. Take a look at the image below:

example of contrast

  • Can you see evidence of contrast?
  • What stands out as being strikingly different?

Watch Design Principles: Contrast, from Aaron's Design Class, to explore this element in more detail:

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Let's move on to directional movement, which is exactly what it sounds like. It is the use of elements (lines, shapes, color, etc.) to direct the viewer's eye throughout the artwork.

lavender fields

Notice how the artist draws you to the castle in the above image even though it is the smallest aspect of the piece.

Pattern is a repeated decorative design. It can be similar to the repetition principle shown in the opening video.

When a pattern is used in artwork, there is usually a repeated element like shapes and lines.

pattern example

Next up is rhythm, which occurs when one or more elements are used in a sort of pattern to create a sense of movement or mood like visual music.

Learn more about rhythm and see different examples in Principles of Art - Rhythm, from GHSVideoProductions:

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Lastly, proportion and scale are related to size. Proportion is the size relation between parts, while scale refers to the size of an object in terms of how large or small it is.

Experimenting with proportion and scale can be fun when creating artwork. One example of an exaggerating scale can be seen in the Minneapolis sculpture Spoonbridge and Cherry by sculpture Claes Oldenburg:

Spoonbridge and Cherry

Image by Geoffrey Fairchild, via Flickr, is licensed under the CC BY 2.0 license.

As you can see, the spoon and cherry are much bigger than people, cars, and buildings!

Another example of an exaggerated scale is the Clothespin sculpture located outside City Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


Now that you know more about several principles of design, let's move on to the Got It? section to test your knowledge!

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