Visual Elements of Design

The "Elements of Design" in the visual arts, also known as the "Elements of Art" are essential building blocks or tools used to translate any idea into a visual concept, design or composition. They can be found in drawings, paintings, mixed media, photography or any other means of visual communication.

The elements are the basic vocabulary with which the visual artist or designer composes. Very similar to words within a spoken language, each one of the elements may have 'meaning' on its own or may relate to the other elements to convey a message. Artists deliberately use these individual elements to control how their message is articulated. Here is a brief description of each.

Line

Definition: noun. a long narrow mark on a surface. Lines can also be created from edges of shapes. In or out of focus, they may be sharp, firm, soft or lost. Lines can create boundaries or contours defining shape or form. Lines can create the illusion of motion or lead the viewer's eye throughout an image.
Straight lines can be horizontal, vertical or diagonal. Organic lines can be radial, spiral or curved. Line lengths can be either long, short, continuous or broken, whereas the line width can be thick, thin, uneven or tapered. Lines can also be implied, and their quality can be soft or bold. Lines also convey feelings such as when observing sharp or jagged lines versus elegant or smooth lines. 

Shape

Definition: noun. the external form or appearance characteristic of someone or something; the outline of an area or figure. Shapes are areas enclosed by lines or curves otherwise known as closed contours which automatically create a negative space around it. A shape may also be defined as an area that stands out from the space next to or around it due to a defined or implied boundary. 'Shape' may also be defined by their perimeters such as silhouettes.
Shapes can also direct the eye, they may be simple or complex, but the meaning is always based on the viewer's culture. There are endless varieties and combinations of shapes that may be natural, geometric, abstract or free form.

Value

Value describes the 'lightness' or 'darkness' of an object. It is one of the many characteristics of color. With or without color, we use it to determine one object from another, even in dark conditions if we cannot determine what the color is. 'Tone' is referred to as a single shade of gray or one color swatch. It is also one single step of value when compared to another tone on a scale.
Tones can be light, dark or in between. Any variations in light and dark create patterns. A gradation is a gradual change from one tone to another and is used to depict the volume or three-dimensional characteristics of an object. Gradual changes in value creates the illusion of a 3D object within a 2D environment. A tonal contrast can create interest or direct the viewer's eye.

Space

Definition: noun. a continuous area or expanse that is free, available or unoccupied. Either two dimensional or three dimensional, nothing exists without space. It refers to the distance between objects. It can also be thought of as the distance or area around, between, above, below or within places. Positive space is the space taken up by objects (i.e. the surface of an object). Negative space is the distance between objects (i.e. the white space in between objects). 
Space also refers to the illusion of depth (or three dimensions) in a two-dimensional artwork. 2D space such as paintings, drawings, prints and photographs (flat space) is primarily limited to height and width however space can be created by linear perspective, atmospheric perspective, amplified perspective, placement, elevation or overlap. 3D space is recognized as having height, width, depth, and is referred to as actual space. 

Size

Definition: noun. the relative extent of something; a thing's overall dimensions or magnitude. Size describes how small or large an object is in relation to another object. Larger objects are defined as more important than smaller objects.
Contrasting sizes create visual interest or may attract more attention. Smaller objects appear distant next to larger objects.

Texture

Definition: noun. the feel, appearance or consistency of a surface or substance. 'Texture' is the roughness or smoothness of material. It is both tactile and a visual phenomenon. 'Physical' texture is the actual variations upon a surface. For example fur, wood grain, sand, smooth surface canvas, metal, clay, glass or leather are all textures.

Visual texture is the illusion of natural texture in a 2D environment, it portrays the subject matter realistically, usually by repetition of shapes or lines which creates a pattern. Without a sense of structure, texture is just a pattern. 'Texture' may create visual interest or variety. Textures also convey feelings such as when observing smooth versus rough.

Color

Definition: noun. the property possessed by an object of producing different sensations on the eyes as a result of the way the object reflects or emits light. 'Color' is the most expressive element, it also has symbolic meaning and is always based on the viewer's culture.


Color has four characteristics: hue, value, intensity and temperature. Individual hue combinations can create harmony or discord. Colors are capable of affecting our mood, they can also create a feeling of warmth or coolness. Scientists have found that actual physiological changes take place in human beings when they are exposed to certain colors.

The "Elements of Design" are different than the "Principles of Art" which will be covered in a later post. It's good to be familiar with the elements and how they function because the more you know, the more choices you have to help you visually articulate your idea. 
  1. Line
  2. Shape
  3. Value
  4. Space
  5. Size
  6. Texture
  7. Color
The list of individual elements varies across sources, so you will find differing opinions on what they are. My list does not include form, edges, direction or motion.  I consider all of these derivatives of other elements on the list. 'Form' is created from the combination of point, line or shape. Edges are created from shapes or lines. Motion is created by lines or space and direction is formed by lines or shapes.

Are you using these elements to articulate your visual message?

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