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Design principles in marketing

Why read this? : We look at the role of design principles in marketing. Learn how core principles like contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity can increase your brand’s visual appeal. Plus, learn how advanced principles like the rule of thirds and the Golden Ratio improve the impact of designs. Read this to learn where and when design principles matter in marketing. 

Design principles in marketing

How this guide raises your game :-

    1. Learn the core design principles of contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity.
    2. Explore more advanced design techniques like the rule of thirds and the Golden Ratio.
    3. Discover where and how to use these design principles in marketing.

The best way to start learning about visual design is to look at what’s worked in the past. And then work out how to apply that to your current design challenge.  

The most comprehensive list of design learnings we’ve found is the Universal Principles of Design, by Lidwell, Holden and Butler. This lists 125 practical design principles with clear directions on why they work and how to use them. 

But 125 principles is a lot to take in. For non-designers, a better place to start is Robin Williams The Non-Designer’s Design book. This easy-to-follow book focuses on just 4 key design principles. It’s designed for anyone to use. Even marketers. You can use these principles to improve the layout of most designs.

This guide gives our take on these principles of contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity. We’ll focus on how to use these design principles in marketing. We’ll also share some of our favourite more advanced design principles, like the rule of thirds and the Golden Ratio. These design principles also have uses in marketing. 

Overhead shot of three plants in pots lined up to show good composition on a wooden table

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Take the 2 minute, 5 question Three-Brains design principles in marketing quiz and see how much you know about design principles in marketing already.

The objective of design principles in marketing

The marketing objective of most designs is to organise relevant information clearly and consistently. It helps you show the target audience what’s important and how to prioritise the information they see. You aim to reduce the amount of “work” they have to do to understand and use the information. 

Done well, your visual design creates more compelling communications and customer experiences. Customers understand and engage better with strong visual design. It has more impact

And of course, all designs can only carry so much information. So design principles in marketing help you deliver your message in the most efficient way with the space available. 

The 4 basic design principles 

As we said, the most common and easy-to-understand design principles in marketing are contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity.

These form the easy-to-remember acronym C-R-A-P.

We’ll work through examples of each in turn.

But to start, let’s look at a simple example where we use all 4 principles to change the design of some words.  

An undesigned text block

So, look at the example here where we start on the left with a block of undesigned text.

Design principles - CRAP example

It’s the 4 words of the design principles with no design principles applied. Viewed this way, they’re just 4 random forgettable words.

Add contrast and repetition

However, applying contrast in step 2 creates more visual impact. We increase the font size and add colour to the initial letter of each word. And change the font style by unbolding the lowercase letters. This makes the C-R-A-P of the first letters much clearer than in the step 1 version.

Also, the repetition of the formatting across each word helps reinforce that your eye is supposed to scan down the bold letters to get the acronym.

However, you can see, it still needs some work. When we increase the font size, it also increases the jagged edge alignment which centre-aligned text suffers from. It also increases the spacing (leading) between each line. Now the words look quite distant from each other.

Add alignment and proximity

So in step 3, we align all the capital letters to the left. And we adjust the leading (line spacing) to create more proximity between the individual words. This makes it seem more like the words sit together as a single item.

If you look closer at the Step 2 version, the large font capital letter and the small font of the other letters create gaps. They look separated. For example, there’s too much white space between the “P” and the “r” in Proximity,

In the step 3 version, we manually adjust the kerning (spacing between the letters) so the small font “fits” better with its large first letter. For example, see how that changes the word Proximity between steps 2 and 3 above. (See our marketing typography guide for more on leading and kerning).

Let’s now go through each principle in more detail.

Contrast

Contrast is one of the most common design principles used in marketing. It helps draw attention to the most important parts of any message or visual communication.

When you scan a piece of information, such as text on a written page or website, or an advertising visual, your brain doesn’t scan every element. It tries to pick out only the key elements. And it uses these to translate them into the “whole” so you understand enough of the meaning and move on. 

Contrast example - text

This example has 2 paragraphs with the same text.

But the first paragraph uses no contrast. When this case, readers see the text as all the same. Your eyes don’t know where to look first.

However, adding a few elements of contrast to the second paragraph, such as colour or font style, makes it easier to scan the text, and pick out the key elements.

The key message isn’t clear in the first paragraph. It’s a long uniform block of text. But in the second paragraph, you quickly get the meaning. The colour and bold font draw your attention. Your eyes focus on what’s different. 

Design principles in marketing - contrast.text

You spot both first, and second are in italics. This helps you work out this text compares 2 things with each other.

And see what happens if you only read the bold text.

No contrast; all the text as the same; elements of contrast; colour; font style; easier for the consumer. 

You quickly get the gist of the paragraph without needing to read the whole text. The contrast helps you as the reader understand faster. 

Contrast example - visuals

This is helpful when you have to write text paragraphs such as website copy.

Use colour in headlines and bold for key points to make the page more visually appealing. Help the reader scan the page with contrast. 

But contrast also works in visual elements beyond text. Look at the Contrast visuals example image we have here.

On the left, we’ve deliberately picked a very standard font (Helvetica Neue). It’s in the default font size of 24. And we made the colours grey on a light background.

It’s difficult to read, isn’t it? Nothing grabs your attention.

Design principles in marketing - contrast visual

Apply contrast and see what happens

But look what happens when you apply contrast. You make all the boxes a vibrant RED colour. You use a more unusual font (Black Ops One), with a bigger font size, and add drop shadow to each box.

It’s now more visually pleasing. And then, of course, there’s the contrast of the black number 3 box. Why’s it black when the rest are Red? Well, we wanted to show that when you deliberately contrast one thing against everything else, that’s where your eyes go first. And, when your brand name starts with “three”, you tend to want to make that number stand out.

Contrast as a principle is especially important when you work with different typography and font styles. You can read more about how to pair font styles with contrast in our marketing typography guide.

Repetition

Repetition is about being consistent in the way you use design elements. This has 2 main marketing benefits.

First, repetition helps reinforce your brand identity when you apply it to tangible assets like your logo, typography and colour palette. It reinforces the customer’s association of those assets with your brand. The repetition helps the customer “learn” the visual cues which identify your brand. 

Check out this example on our home and shop pages.

You can see we repeat the size, colour and placement of our logo. We have a consistent page design layout, choice of colours and fonts. These are part of our brand identity.

And it’s not just the visuals. There are key phrases like “raise your game”, we repeat so they stand out, and are consistent. These are also part of our brand identity.

Usability

Repetition also makes the design easier for the target audience to use. Particularly in areas where they need to interact with a design, like on websites.

Check this example from our online shop. See how we repeat the order of the information on the product page. It’s always image, style, description. This makes it easier for the shopper to scan each product and find the one they want.

But see also how key information is always in the same place. For example, the price always sits at the bottom of the description. Find Out More and Contact Us is always at the bottom of the page. Whichever page you land on, you ‘learn’ where these key elements are.

This makes the design more useable because items are repeated and consistently in the same place. Finally, you can also see that all our action buttons use the same format of white font in a red box and in bold. So, you always know what’s an action button and what’s just text to read. 

Alignment

Alignment is when you use the natural way the eye scans information to make text or visuals appear in harmony with each other. It’s easier to scan elements which line up.

For example, most people know you can left, centre, right or justify align text in Word / Pages and Powerpoint / Keynote.

But in most cases, left alignment works best because it creates a natural line for the eye to scan at the start of each line. In particular, with large blocks of text, you should left align and never centre align.

Look at this example, which compares centre-aligned text with left-aligned text.

When it’s centre-aligned, your eye has to scan for the start of each line separately. It has to jump around to find the start of the line (shown by the red line). This slows down your reading. And over time, it’s more tiring to read because of the extra eye movement.

The left-aligned example is much easier to read. Your eye knows where the start of each line is when it’s left aligned. It’s quicker and easier to scan. Your eye naturally returns to the straight eye line.

Right alignment

In the same way, right alignment shouldn’t be used for paragraphs of text. It makes the left alignment or the start of the line, even more jagged. As you can see from the only lines we have right justified on this entire site. 

Justified alignment

You should also try to avoid justified alignment. While it keeps the left alignment, it often leads to unnatural spacing in words. This makes the text harder to read. Your eyes have to adjust for the spaces between the words which aren’t consistent throughout the text. This is the only justified text paragraph on our website.

Grid design

Alignment doesn’t just apply to text, it also applies to visuals. Let’s now look at grid design, a useful tool when it comes to visual alignment.

Most graphic design tools come with some sort of grid system. Grids help you visually align different elements of your designs.

In this example, the boxes on the left haven’t been set using a grid, so some are slightly off alignment. This creates a messy impression. You don’t want a messy design.

The boxes on the right though have all been adjusted to fit onto a grid, so the lines all align.

It’s a more orderly, balanced and harmonious layout. The visual is better organised and structured. It feels cleaner and more efficient.

Grids help you align items in a much faster and more efficient way as you can ‘snap’ items to the grid lines and know they’re correctly aligned. 

Grid terminology

Grids in design come with their own terminology. The most common terms are :-

  • Format – the full area of the design that will either be printed or viewed on a screen.
  • Margin – The space around the format.
  • Module – Grids are a combination of (horizontal) rows and (vertical) columns. Modules are where a row and column come together.
  • Spacial zones – These are groups of modules either in horizontal or vertical formats. They’re usually designed to hold specific design elements like an image, video or block of text.
  • Gutters – These are the spaces between rows and columns and should be kept equal in size to maintain good visual balance.
Design principles - alignment - grids

Proximity

The principle of proximity helps organise the information and items on the page so things which ‘belong’ together sit close to each other.

Consequently, things which don’t belong together sit apart.

When you’ve lots of different information to convey, you want to make it as easy as possible for the reader to understand how it’s organised. Proximity helps you do this.

Check this example from our brand strategy page. There are 4 different information groups. The 3 content sections of marketing plan, brand activation and marketing innovation. And the credentials and call to action box for Three-Brains.

Note, the vertical gaps between the images and text on the top 3. You visually recognise the format of image – header – text – button. So you know if you want to learn more about marketing plan, for example, you hit the button under the marketing plan text. 

You can see the credentials and call to action aren’t a content section like the others. There’s a clear horizontal gap left to show it’s separate.

Proximity and typography

The principle of proximity comes up often in typography.

For example, Kerning is the process of adjusting the spacing between 2 letters. You use it to make letters feel more like they “fit” better together.

Tracking is similar to leading. But you use it on whole words or paragraphs of text.

Leading is the space between lines, and again, applies the principle of proximity.

It helps make things which belong together both visually and in terms of meaning, sit closer together on the page. 

Typography spacing

More advanced design principles in marketing

The C-R-A-P principles get you through many common design challenges. They help you avoid basic mistakes. You can use them to work out why some things look ‘right’ and others don’t.

However, there are more advanced principles in visual design you can also use. For example, see our design psychology article to learn how understanding people influences designs. But to close this guide, we’ll look at 4 of our favourite areas :- 

  • emphasis and balance.
  • the rule of thirds. 
  • the golden ratio.
  • Occam’s Razor. 

Emphasis and balance

Consider the different elements in your creative design. Which is the most important you want the audience to remember? Is it a person? An icon? Your company’s name or product?

This is the element you want to emphasise in your creative design. It should be the focal point of your design.

Making something bigger or adding more contrast to other design elements, draws attention to it.

Or you make the other design elements smaller or blurry so they fade into the background. You could even remove them if they’re too distracting.

Design principles - example of emphasis and balance

Balance is another important consideration in your design. When elements are balanced across an image, it creates a more natural sense of harmony. How you keep different elements separate on the page with appropriate use of white space can also help the relative balance of your composition.

The rule of thirds

The rule of thirds evolves from early uses of the grid system. It’s a way to divide an image into a 3 x 3 grid and uses the natural “third” weights to create interesting visual layouts.

You place the primary focus of attention at one of the intersections to draw attention to it. This is generally agreed to present an interesting aesthetic.

If you look at the 2 images in our example, the focus point of the image on the left is the 2 runners.

Note how that part of the image aligns very closely to the intersection of the horizontal and vertical third lines. You can also see how the sky / horizon line in this image aligns with the top third / middle third split.

This gives another nice balance, rather than having the horizon line sit in the centre.

In the image on the right, the focal point is the hands of the woman writing. Again, it sits at an intersection of horizontal and vertical thirds, which gives an effect that’s quite different to if that part of the image had been in the centre. Note how her arm and leg essentially follow the bottom horizon third line. 

Rule of thirds and composition

You can apply this rule to make more interesting compositions and layouts. 

For example, in a landscape photography shot, have the horizon either one-third from the bottom or one-third from the top. This is a natural line for the image to feel balanced.

For our images of the merchandise in our online store, for example, we always try to place the background horizon level at around a third of the way down. 

Once you start to see it, you notice this rule of thirds crops up everywhere.

For example, check out TV news reports when the reporter is out in the field.

In most cases, you see the cameraman naturally line up one-third from the left or right. The background takes up two-thirds of the image.

The Golden Ratio

The Golden Ratio has a long history in art design, architecture and many other fields. It’s a ratio where when 2 objects are put together, the dimensions of the larger object are at a 1 : 0.618 scale.

Pinecones, seashells and the human body all famously exhibit the Golden Ratio.

Artists like Mondrian and da Vinci used it in their paintings. You find it in famous historical landmarks like the Parthenon, the Great Pyramid of Giza, and Stonehenge.

Check out our example. If you start with a square of a 1:1 ratio, and then create a 0.618 : 0.618 ratio square next to it, you can then create a third square that’s 0.618 : 0.618 compared to the second square. And so on, and so on, until you can’t make smaller squares.

But if you were to use each of these squares in a design, they’d be the exact 0.618 ratio from each other. And if all those squares are arranged and centred inside each other, you get a very harmonious effect.

Golden Ratio - Circles

You can take it a stage further and draw circles in each square as we’ve done. Then take all those circles out and you have the same effect, but with circles. As long as you don’t then adjust any of the ratios, you can use these squares and circles to create shapes and designs that will always meet the golden ratio. 

These naturally are in perfect proportion to each other. You often see the Golden Ratio used in logo design when the aim is to create a visual design which looks harmonious and balanced.

Occam’s Razor

Our final design principle derives from Occam’s Razor. The principle originally meant the simplest explanation is most likely the right one. But when applied to design, it’s more the view you should use the minimum and simplest amount of design to deliver your design objective. 

In the words of famous designer, Dieter Rams, “Less, is more”.

Designs and visuals are seen to be more efficient and aesthetically pleasing when they use less clutter. When they remove unnecessary elements. Designs based on this principle are much cleaner and simpler to understand.

This is particularly used in minimalist design where the designer tries to convey the maximum impact with the minimum amount of design elements.

It’s particularly common in logo design. Consider famous logos from Apple or Nike, for example. They’re instantly recognisable and rarely need to include the brand name. They’re recognisable from the minimal logo / icon alone.

Half open and lit up apple macbook on a glossy beige table

Conclusion - design principles in marketing

You can use all these design principles in day-to-day communications. When you write an email, present something or do a social media post. Using them makes your visual impact stronger. 

Beyond that, there are clear marketing applications. When you work with marketing agencies, packaging designers, or photographers, use these design principles when you evaluate their work. Ask them which design principles they’ve used to help your own learning. And be worried if they don’t know or haven’t applied any of these principles. 

With these principles in mind, when you evaluate advertising you’ve more tools to judge whether the advert will work or not. When your agency shows you designs for website pages or digital media, check what they present fits with these principles. 

Above all, keep looking at visual designs and apply the principles so you can articulate why they do or don’t work. It can help take your marketing and e-Commerce activities to another level. 

Three-Brains and Graphic Design

We coach and consult businesses on how to best meet their graphic design needs. We can help you find a graphic designer, manage it in-house or help you build your own graphic design skills. Our goal is to help you develop the skills which will make your creative visual work have a bigger impact.

Get in touch to find out how we can support your graphic design needs via our coaching and consulting services.

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