One of the first things I learned when I was in college for my Interior Design degree was “The Elements & Principles of Design.” I had absolutely no idea that there are actually specific words for how I’d been designing my spaces. I figured it was all about whether or not you had good taste. It turns out I was wrong. Yes, that's right - even people with HORRIBLE taste can be educated and taught! Now, it’s not necessarily YOUR job to teach them. But maybe you can pass along this article and inspire them to stop putting navy sheets on their bed. Just sayin…
So what’s the difference between an Element & Principle? An element of design is something so basic it seems almost ridiculous—line, shape, form, color, texture, space, and value. These can be 100% literal translations. Follow the lines on some wallpaper in a room, or even “implied” lines through the seams of something. Shape should be a no-brainer. Are they squares, circles, pentagons, etc? Form can be a little different - we’re talking about the difference between a geometric shape and an organic shape. Think about when you see a little kid scribbling shapes on paper. That’s an organic shape. Texture - our entire post last week was on playing with different textures. Space is all about how you use the area. Not how big or small it is, but how creative you can be inside of it (and in some cases, outside of it!).
Value is tricky. But once you get the hang of it, it’ll make sense to you. There are different apps you can download on your phone to help you with this. I’m cheap, so I automatically roll with a free trial whenever I see one. You can try the “old-fashioned” way, where you look at something and then squint your eyes super tight to where you only see the light and shadows. That, my friend, is a value study: the light and the dark!
Okay, we went over the Elements, so what the heck are Principles, and WHY are there so many to learn!?
Let’s start with the first part of that question: the Principles of design are pattern, contrast, emphasis, balance, scale, harmony, and rhythm/movement. Are you starting to see why the elements and principles are separate and different? The elements are more tangible, while the principles require a little more thought. For patterns, think paisley, checkered, stripes, etc. Contrast is similar to a value study, but imagine it in color! Hop online and check out a virtual color wheel; often, complementary colors (across from one another on a color wheel) are also contrasting colors. Emphasis is a tricky one - it’s a strategy the artist or designer takes (or you!) to draw attention to a specific spot. It’s creating a place that’s intentionally supposed to stand out from the rest. Balance does not necessarily mean symmetrical; it just means the project has a sense of balance to it where one area is not over-saturated or “heavier” than the other.
Scale - this one I personally think is the MOST important when designing your space.
Again, another topic we briefly touched on last week, but it’ll most likely be written repeatedly throughout this blog because of my own bias. Essentially, I firmly believe in the highs, lows, narrows, and wides of EVERYTHING. Scale creates a sense of play, drama, and interest that is the easiest way to draw your eye around a space. No one said your nightstands, bed, and dresser all had to be the same height - so stop doing it!
Harmony is the visually satisfying effect of combining similar or related elements like adjacent colors or similar shapes. It’s hard to explain, to be perfectly honest. It’s this inner-connectedness that happens when everything comes together. It’s weird - you’ll understand, though, when you see a space or even a piece of art that embodies this specific principle. Usually, it’s when other elements and principles of design are followed.
Rhythm and movement are so much fun! Have you ever seen the Sydney Opera House? Do you remember those pictures that got passed around in grade school that were optical illusions? How about a spiral staircase? These are all fantastic examples of this principle! It’s how the object creates a sense of movement either in the artwork, photograph, or design space.
Okay, if you made it through all that - then you’ve got a good idea of what the E & P of design is. Once you start looking at spaces through this lens, things will start to stand out to you. I’m not a huge fan of super bright and eccentric spaces. But guess what, I can appreciate them. You change your perspective, accept and acknowledge that just because something is different from your “taste” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ugly. It could follow all the design elements and principles and still not be your style. However, something isn’t “wrong” simply because you would choose to avoid that in your own space. It’s looking at art and design from an objective place.
The easiest way to get in the pattern of doing this is to be mindful of what you see. Try to recognize the lines, patterns, and movement of things. This can quickly become a habit, and next thing you know - you can design for everything, regardless of their style!
Written by: Jacquelin Blegen