We will be debunking the principles of visual design. But first things first: what is design?
Design is about coming up with a plan to build both the aesthetics and the functionality of an object or a system. It is also a language. For example, when concept artists draw a character, it will not be used as it is in the game.
The character design sketch is a plan or blueprint that is meant to be used by other artists create the final 2d or 3d character. It establishes the look of a given character in a way that works with the game’s design.
So what’s the job of a designer then?
Designers create systems for others. They create both the aesthetics and the functionality of systems. When we work for ourselves, we take the risk to write in a language that only we fully understand. That is not the goal of a professional designer.
If you want to become a game designer, a visual storyteller, or a composer in the entertainment industry maybe, you will have to learn to put your work at the service of others. This doesn’t mean that you can’t pick a goal that is meaningful to you. You will still design the framework of an array of experiences.
But as a designer, you have to make it accessible to others. The good news is: we have a language for that. The language of design. It’s a language composed of what we call the elements, and the principles of design.
The elements of design are the raw material of our creations. They are a sort of vocabulary, a set of building blocks. In the case of game assets, they are color and light, shapes, textures, etc. The principles of design, on the other hand, are a form of grammar. They bring the elements of design together into a coherent mix.
The design grammar is partly common to all forms of arts. Be it music scoring, development, sound design, writing, etc. Who has never heard about rhythm in music? Repetition, or contrast? Those are principles of design.
Note that to get a good understanding of both the elements and the principles of design, we have to study them separately. Just like when we learn a new language: we have to alternate studying new words and studying grammar.
But why are we looking at the principles of design right now? Why not the elements first, may you ask?
Well, when we learn a language, this is truth that we start with some basic vocabulary. But I am pretty sure that most of you already have that vocabulary. You have certainly already drawn some faces, characters, rocks, etc. Played with colors and light a bit… you name it.
The principles we are going to look at will give us a solid foundation to build upon. You can see them a bit as verbs: with some practice, they empower you to create many new coherent sentences, or paintings or characters in that case. The principles of design give you tools to better analyze and filter parts of pieces of art to study from.
They give you the means to better dissect the art you are going to look at. Every time you see a beautiful shot in a game or a movie, it is thanks to the team’s understanding of the principles of design.
There are about 6 principles of design, depending on how we decide to categorize them. They are all essential lenses we will use to analyze every single bit of our own creations. Although we study them separately, they are supposed to be applied in synergy.
Pretty much any professional designer uses them all, all the time. Be it consciously or not. Right now, I am going to give you a quick rundown of the 6 principles of design.
It takes time to get a good understanding and feel of both the principles and the elements of design. And by time, I don’t mean just hours of practice: as with any language, you have to be patient and let the concepts sink in slowly.
So we will keep coming back to them, whenever we have an occasion to do so.
6 Principles of Design
Principle I is scale and proportion.
Once we have a good grasp of the proportions of any object in the real world, we can start playing with it. Here’s an example of that principle in action. The designers of Asura’s Wrath decided to create a huge boss: Wyzen.
He is bigger than a planet. Put in perspective with the human sized Asura, we get an awesome, mega epic scene. This choice dramatically accentuates the drama and tension when the main character gets crushed by his opponent’s finger.
Playing with the inner proportions of a character or object is pretty straightforward. We can lengthen or thicken parts of it. But how can we express the relative scale of objects with one another?
We mainly have 2 tools at our disposal to achieve that: overlapping elements and repeating them. Note that you should always incorporate an element of reference for the viewer to understand the relative scale of other objects in the scene. Like a human being, a house… or the planet Earth!
2. Principle II &III is Repetition and contrast.
In order to make a scene coherent, you will have to repeat certain elements around your design.
For one, repeating minor elements like rocks or foliage will help your environment to look consistent. Repeating elements like a symbol on an armor, or physical traits among a group of characters will reinforce those elements to the eyes of the viewer.
Then, repetition is also a solid tool to create contrast: if you repeat a certain pattern in your image, any unique element will pop out. You can easily see that when you have a crowd surrounding an isolated character. What about contrast? Contrast is a straightforward principle, as it boils down to the meaning
of the word itself.
That is to say that you want to juxtapose opposing elements in your visual composition to intensify their unique aspects. Next, let us talk a bit about balance, and imbalance. All of the elements you add to your design, all of the objects have a certain visual weight.
This weight depends on their size on the canvas, but also on their color, value and contrast. Your image’s composition doesn’t need to be balanced. It doesn’t need to be symmetrical, or carefully weighted to get to a visual equilibrium.
Controlled imbalance can create a sense of tension, or intensify your shot’s emotional strength.
Principle IV is Emphasis
Using contrast, unique shapes, strong colors or light, you can choose to attract the eye of the viewer
on a given part of your creation. The one part of your piece you decide to emphasize will generally be its focal point as well. The previous principles help reinforce our creation’s hierarchy.
Principle V is Hierachy
You want to have important elements and less important ones. On a painting, you generally want to emphasize one subject that tells your image’s story. In a game, your characters are most of the time at the top of the visual hierarchy. Then, there are your gameplay-related assets. And finally the background and other effects are at the bottom of the hierarchy.
In Ori and the Blind Forest, you can clearly see how bright the character is compared to the background. The very surface of the floor, where the player can walk, is strongly lit as well. Those elements are at the top of the visual hierarchy. The player must see them to know where he can walk, where he is
and who he is controlling.
In general, you will use other principles of design to create a good hierarchy. Here, contrast. And repetition: the character is unique, but the elements that make up the ground are being repeated. This helps the character to pop even more.
Principle VI is Unity
The last principle we are going to talk about is unity, or harmony. Unity is achieved when you apply all of the other principles of design together successfully. It is really your goal as a designer. A harmonious design does its job beautifully, it’s that simple.
We can take a look at the title screen of The Last of Us for example. It is quite sober, not too complex. It focuses on one element: the window. There is a clear contrast in terms of value, lighting, and color saturation that reinforces this very window.
The foliage, the curtains, as well as some barely visible building in the background give us a sense of scale. The hierarchy of the scene is thus pretty clear: the window is very central to the piece. Its placement creates a sense of movement and of controlled imbalance.
Which makes total sense, considering that the game talks about a post-apocalyptic world. Alright, this was quick! My goal here is for you to be aware that those principles of design exist, and that they are part of the essence of any of your creations.
Finally, I just want you to note that those principles are meant to be used as lenses. We can apply them at different levels of our creations: on a single character taken alone, as well as on the same character within a whole composition.
If you want to learn more about the principles of design, Matt Kohr made a free video series on the topic. He goes over the principles of design applied to visual arts one by one.
Thanks for Reading!