Graphic Design Fundamentals
The foundations and principles that govern the art of visual communication
4 August, 2020 by
Carlos Pascual Adell
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Design theory explains the foundations and principles that govern the art of visual communication, studying how we see and perceive information, and how style, taste and trend are connected to the universal principles of aesthetics, common to all people. The representation of ideas has been a constant desire in our nature, with the first examples found in cave paintings that date back to approximately 40,000 years ago.

The concepts of Greek aesthetics, sensation and beauty of the Latin bonus (good, nice) are nothing more than a consensus on the subjectivity of a perception. The curious thing about art is that if there is a consensus there will be a basis we can study from. We anticipate that what underlies aesthetics is nothing more than harmony, stemming from the Greek word armós (adjustment), placing things next to each other in a way that is pleasant. In this process, geometry and proportions, as in other branches of artistic expression such as music, take a greater role.

In today's article we will present some of the basis applied to graphic design, reviewing three recurring themes that our graphic design team usually deals with along with our clients: Shape and Composition, Typography and Color Theory; the order of presentation of these three elements is intentional because it follows the logical flow of development.I

Due to the length of the article, we have divided it into three installments:

  • Form and Composition

  • Typography (Available on September 2)

  • Color Theory (Available on  October 7)

Form and Composition 

The Golden Ratio

As for the geometric composition, there is a proportion present in nature known as the golden ratio, which recurrently manifests itself  in many of its elements.

In addition, it may be familiar to you because we have emulated this geometry in other elements created by man such as art, architecture and even everyday elements such as credit cards or many of the logos you know such as Apple and Twitter, among others.

Its mathematical expression comes from the division in two of a segment, keeping the following proportions: 

The total length a + b is to the longest segment a, as a is to the shortest segment b; Being the value of this ratio 1.6.

We also find it present as the limit of the Fibonacci series 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13 where each number is constructed as the sum of the previous two and its limit is asymptotically due to excess and default to itself. If we make the ratio between two elements of the series, as we progress through it, the number converges more to the golden number 5/3 = 1.66; 13/8 = 1.62.

We can also build the relationship by means of what is known as the Golden Rectangle of Euclid, by drawing an arc from the perpendicular bisector (G) of one of the sides with radius one of the opposite vertices (GC) and extending the segment to the extension of segment AB to construct AC.

This geometry is present in various regular geometric figures such as the pentagon and the dodecahedron.

As an extension of this composition, we can build the golden spiral, very useful in composition, and also  present in other forms of visual expression such as photography or painting.


Now that we also treat the subject of photography, at this point it is also convenient to mention what is known as the rule of thirds, whichinvites us to place the elements that stand out in a composition at the intersection of the segments that result from dividing an image into 3 parts for each axis.

Grid Development

When developing logos, iconography or similar elements, it is useful to rely on a grid type system, similar to the one seen in the Apple logo or in the one shown below,  the icon developed for one of our clients, the GSIC (icon with hexagonal base)

These grids simplify construction and harmonize the final design, facilitating the ideation process and making adjustments by successive approximations ranging from the sketch to the finished art.

Gestalt Principles

In addition to the aforementioned rules, the current of Gestalt, current of modern psychology emerged in the twentieth century proposes the following laws or principles regarding composition:  

  the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

                              — Wolfgang Köhler 


The distance between the elements plays a key role in the perception of the whole. Faced with a constellation of stimuli we tend to group the closest members in space, integrating them into a unit.

Unilever. A group of individual objects that assembled together form the letter U.


There is a natural tendency to connect similar or equal elements (in shape, color, or dimension), to give cohesion to the design, since our brain automatically searches for patterns in the set.

Black Cat. We group the letters “C”, recognizing in them the shape of the eyes of a black cat blending  into the background.


The Closure Law occurs when an object is incomplete, or its outline is not delimited. Closed forms are more visually stable than open ones, which is why the human brain tends to auto complete them.

WWF. The silhouette of the panda is clearly distinguished despite not having a fully delimited outline.

Common Destination

A collection of different objects that seem to move in the same direction and at the same speed are perceived as a group.

HELIUM. The apex of the letter "i" indicates an upward direction making a clear reference to helium balloons.

Background Figure Law

The brain cannot interpret an object as figure and background at the same time. The eye recognizes a figure on a background; however, figure and background can function as background and figure, respectively.

Snooty Peacock. Two figures are combined to complement each other, on the one hand the face of a woman, and on the other a peacock.


Symmetrical images are perceived as equal, as a single element, in the distance. It has such transcendence it goes beyond the field of the perception of forms to constitute one of the fundamental phenomena of nature. Biology, mathematics, chemistry and physics, and even aesthetics themselves, are organized following the simple or multiple mirror laws of symmetry.

The Installers. The letter "I" being symmetrical refers to two open doors.

Geometric Shapes and their meaning

As for the geometric shapes present in the compositions, it is interesting to project the following conclusions:

  • Circle: Positive emotional message, Community, Relationships, Commitment, Feminine forms, Affable.

  • Square: Stability, Balance, Strength, Professionalism, Effectiveness.

  • Triangle: Power, Science, Religion, Law and Justice, Female (pointing downwards), Male (pointing upwards)

  • Horizontal Lines: Community, Tranquility, Calm.

  • Vertical Lines: Masculinity, Strength, Aggression

Horror Vacui

The tendency to reject empty spaces is interesting, as they are perceived as a waste of resources and opportunities.

Horror vacui is used in art to describe the action of filling the entire space of the work with any element. This is mainly applied to art, being present in Baroque churches, Victorian houses, Islamic decoration, and in Greek and Byzantine art. Making decisions such as leaving a blank page, a wide margin for the body of a short text or using a small illustration on a large page, among many other eventualities, creates conflicts as to whether or not the use of space is correct. On the other hand, the minimalist style is presented as a strong trend in which small objects occupy large spaces, valuing the saving of resources. The main motto of this movement is «Less is more».



Carlos Pascual Adell
4 August, 2020
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