The Basics of Graphic Design Theory and Why It Can’t Be Self-Taught

June 14, 2013 General, Graphic & Comm. Design 0 Comments

Game Design TheoryMany people believe that you do not need a degree to pursue work in a particular field. That’s the “American dream,” after all. However, today’s world is technology-driven and constantly evolving. Employers are looking for skilled workers who understand foundational theories and who are highly skilled.

In graphic design, the basic foundational theories and skills seem easy to learn. But, to master these basics and develop upper-level theoretical skills is more difficult than it appears. Courses in drawing, color, 2D, 3D, illustration and typography may help you develop your skills.

You may be a very talented, self-taught graphic designer. But, without the proper training in a degree program, your skills may still be at the novice level. Improve your expertise at Harrington College by focusing on these foundational design skills:


Arrange constructs to achieve equilibrium between forces of influence. Objects are arranged based on their visual weight in relation to one another. Designers must learn how to judge images against ideas of physical structure, such as gravity or an implied frame.

Examples of balance include:

  • Symmetrical
  • Asymmetrical
  • Radial

Unity and Variety

Establish a relationship between individual parts of a design and the whole. Designers must learn how to use variety within a piece to increase an appearance of oneness. Good design utilizes unity to tie a composition together, give it a sense of wholeness, or to create a sense of variety.


Establish a center of interest in your design that allows viewers to focus their attention on what is most important. Designers may learn how to utilize scale, the stages of dominance and color to convey their message.

Joshua David McClurg-Genevese [] notes some related concepts you can study to master this foundational skill:

  • Positive and Negative Space
  • Rule of Thirds
  • Visual Center
  • Proportion
  • Typography

Directional Force

According to Chad Engle, [] this may “help guide the eye and mind movement of the viewer.” Both implied and actual, directional force is a movement within your design.

As a designer, you may learn how to utilize techniques in closure and continuance to achieve this literally and metaphorical in your graphic designs.

Rhythm and Repetition

Couple recurring design elements with a certain order (such as in defined intervals). Combining rhythm and repetition techniques allows designers to create continuity, texture and flow within their work.

Types of rhythm include:

  • Regular
  • Flowing
  • Progressive

Harrington College offers a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design as well as a Masters of Arts and a Masters of Fine Arts in Graphic/Communication Design. At all levels, Harrington instructors emphasize the theoretical basics and ask you to build on this important foundation.

Understanding theory and the process behind design is essential to the college’s objectives for its Graphic Design students. You can learn how to combine these theories with analytical thought to create functional and powerful design messages.


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