Design principles in marketing

This guide covers the design principles of contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity. Learn how to apply these design principles in marketing to improve the quality of your visual designs. Then, learn how to apply more advanced techniques like the rule of thirds and the Golden Ratio. And we close, with advice on how and where to apply design principles in marketing activities. 

Design principles

How this guide raises your game.

  1. Learn the design principles of contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity.
  2. Find out about more advanced design techniques like the rule of thirds and the Golden Ratio.
  3. See how to apply these design principles in marketing activation.

To create great visual designs, you should learn from what’s worked in the past, and find new ways to apply those learnings. 

The best list of design learnings we have found is the Universal Principles of Design, by Lidwell, Holden and Butler.

This useful reference book lists 125 practical design principles. It gives clear and helpful advice on why they work and how to use them. 

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.

Design principles for non-designers

But 125 learnings is a a lot if you are new to visual design.

So, for newcomers to design, we recommend Robin Williams The Non-Designer’s Design book. This easy to follow book takes just 4 key design principles and focuses on them. It’s designed for anyone to use. You can apply these principles to improve the composition and layout of any designs.

Our guide below introduces these core principles – contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity, but puts a marketing led spin on them.

With these 4 principles in place, we then introduce some of our favourite more advanced principles. These include the rule of thirds and the Golden Ratio. Learning these principles can help you move from beginner to more advanced.  

And then we finish off with links to the key marketing activities where you can best apply these new learnings.

The objective of design principles in marketing

The objective of visual design from a marketing point of view is to organise relevant information in a clear and consistent way. It helps you show the audience what’s important. It shows them how to prioritise the information that they see. Your aim is to reduce the amount of “work” the audience has to do to understand the intent. And the amount of “work” to actually use the information. 

When you can help the audience do this, your visual design helps to drive more impactful communications and customer experiences. Customers understand and engage better when there is strong visual design. 

And finally, in any design work, there are always constraints and limitations to how much information you can fit into the space available. So design principles in marketing help you deliver your message in the most efficient way with the space available.

The four basic design principles. 

As we said, the four 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 though examples of each of these in turn.

But to start with, let’s take a very simple example where we use all four principles to change the design of some words.  

Text block

In this Design principles : Intro example image, you can see we start on the left with a block of text.

Design principles - CRAP example

It’s the four words of the design principles without no design principles applied to how they look. They are centre aligned, all in bold, all the same font space and with the same space between each line.

Viewed this way, these are just four random words. Pretty forgettable, really.

Text block with contrast and repetition

But when we apply contrast to the first letter of each word, we start to create more visual impact. We increased the font size. We added colour and changed the font style to bold.

The contrast helps us highlight the acronym C-R-A-P that the first letters form. This isn’t clear in the first version on the left.

We also removed the bold from the rest of the letters in each word to make it even clearer.

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

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

Text block with contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity

So, in the final example on the right hand side, we have aligned all the capital letters to the left. And we adjusted 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 more closely, you’ll also note in the middle version of the word, the large font capital letter and the small font of the rest of the copy, creates some gaps between the letters. This makes them look separated. So, between the “P” and the “r” in Proximity for example, there’s too much white space.

In the final version of the layout, we’ve manually adjusted the kerning so that the small font “fits” better with its large first letter. Look at the difference in the word Proximity between the second and third examples. 

Let’s now go through each of those four design principles in more detail.

Contrast

Contrast is an important design principle in marketing. It helps draw attention to the most important parts of any message or visual piece of communication.

When you scan a piece of information, such as a block of text on a written page or website, or a visual in an advertisement, your brain does not scan every single element of that design. It tries to pick out only the key elements. And it uses these to translates them into the “whole” so that you understand enough of the meaning and move on. 

Contrast example - text

In this example, we have two paragraphs, where the text is exactly the same.

But, in the first paragraph, we have applied no contrast whatsoever. When there is no contrast, as a reader you see all the text as the same, so your eyes do not know where to look first. 

But, in the second paragraph, when you add in a few elements of contrast, such as colour or font style, you make it much easier for the consumer to scan the text, and pick out key elements to focus on.

Which of these do you find easier to read?

When you look at the first paragraph, it’s not clear what the key message is. It’s a long uniform block of text.

Design principles in marketing - contrast.text

But when you read the second paragraph, you instantly know what the paragraph meaning will be. The colour and bold font instantly draw your attention. Your eyes focus on what’s different. 

You recognise that both first, and second are in italics. This helps you pick out that this text is comparing two 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 the need to read the whole text. The contrast helps you as the reader understand faster. 

Contrast example - visuals

Clearly, you can apply this when you have to write paragraphs of text such as in website copy.

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

But contact 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 if you apply contrast.

If you make all the boxes in a much more vibrant RED colour. If you use a more interesting and unusual font (Black Ops One), with a bigger font size, and some drop shadow added to each of the nine boxes.

It’s now a much more visually pleasing design.

And then of course, you have the contrast of the black box in number 3. Why’s it black when the rest of the boxes are Red?

Well, we just wanted to show that when you deliberately choose something to stand out and contrast against everything else, that’s where your eyes go first.

And well, when our brand name starts with “three”, we have a tendency 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 guide to marketing typography.

Repetition

Repetition as a design principle is where you are consistent in your use of specific design elements. From a marketing point of view this has two key benefits.

Firstly, repetition helps to build your brand identity when you apply it to key assets like your logo, your typography choices and your colour palette.

It reinforces the association with those brand assets. Through the repetition, the consumer essentially “learns” the visual cues that identify your brand. 

Check out, this example on our home and shop pages

You can see that 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 certain key phrases like “raise your game”, we repeat so that they stand out and are consistent. These are also part of our brand identity.

Useability

But repetition doesn’t just help your brand. It also helps the audience, particularly in areas where the need to interact with a design, like on websites.

So as you can see in this example from our online shop. See how we repeat the order of the information we show about each product. It’s always image, style, product description.

This makes it easier for the shopper to scan each product and find the one they want.

But note also that key information is always put in the same place. Our price for each product always sits at the bottom of the description.

In the example, on the right hand side, our Find Out More and Contact Us box is always at the bottom of each page.

This means whichever page on the site you land on, you ‘learn’ where these key navigation tools are. This makes the design more useable because items are repeated and consistently in the same place. 

And then finally, you can also see that all our action buttons on the site, are the same format of white font in a red box and in bold. So, you always know what is an action button and what is just text to read. 

Alignment

Alignment is when you use the natural way that the eye scans information to make text or visuals appear in harmony with each other. 

At a very simple level, most people are aware of how to left, centre, right or justify align from using Word Processing or Powerpoint / Keynote.

But in the vast majority of cases, you should use left alignment.

In particular, when you have large blocks of text, you should left align and never ever centre align.

Look at the example above, which is the same text centre aligned and left aligned.

When it is centre aligned, your eye has to scan for the start of each line separately. Your eye line has to jump around to find the start of the line. The red line shows where your eye has to travel to find the start of each line. This slows down your reading. And over time, it’s more tiring to read text this way.

The left aligned example is much easier to read. Your eye knows where the start of each line is when it is 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 generally also try to avoid justified alignment. While it does keep the left alignment, it often leads to unnatural spacing in words. This makes text more difficult to read. Your eyes have to adjust for the spaces between the words which are not consistent through the text. This is the only justified text paragraph we have on our website. 

Grid design

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

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

If you look at this example, the set of boxes on the left have not been set using a grid, some of them are slightly off alignment. When you look at the overall image of all nine boxes, the impression created is a messy one. 

The boxes on the right hand side though have all been adjusted to fit on to a grid, so that all the lines seem much more aligned.

It’s a much more orderly, balanced and harmonious layout. The visual is better organised and structured, and the design 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 that they are correctly aligned. 

Grid terminology

Grids are used often by designers, and 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 and modules are where a row and column come together.
  • Spacial zones – These are groups of modules either in horizontal or vertical formats. They are usually designed to hold specific design elements like an image, a video or a block of text
  • Gutters – These are the spaces between rows and columns and should be kept equal in size in order to maintain good visual balance.
Design principles - alignment - grids

Proximity

The concept of proximity in visual design is used to help organise the information and items on the page so that things that ‘belong’ together sit close to each other.

And by consequence, things that don’t belong together are separated.

When you have a lot of different information to convey, you want to make it as easy as possible for the reader to understand how it is organised. Proximity helps you do this.

So, look at this example from our brand strategy page.

There are four different information groups on this page. The three 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 that sits immediately under the marketing plan text. 

You can see that the credentials and call to action is not a content section like the others, so there’s a clear horizontal white space gap left to show that it is separate.

Proximity and typography

You see the principle of proximity come up often when design is applied to typography.

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

Tracking is similar to leading, but you use it to apply to whole words or paragraphs of text.

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

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

Typography spacing

Design is closely linked with colour and typography

As we’ve gone through these basic C-R-A-P design principles, we’ve referred to how interconnected these principles are with typography and colour. If you haven’t checked out our separate skill guides on those topics, they are helpful reads to set more context to the design principles. 

More advanced principles of design

The four basic principles will get you through many common situations when it comes to design and layout. They will help you avoid many common mistakes. You can use them to guide yourself on why some things look ‘right’ and other’s don’t.

As we said in the introduction though, there are many more principles and theories in visual design you can also use. We’ve picked our four favourite principles to give you some more advanced level guidance, These are emphasis and balance; the rule of thirds; the golden ratio and Occam’s Razor. 

(You can also check out our article on design psychology to look at how you can apply an understanding of how people think to your designs).

Emphasis and balance

Consider the different elements in your creative design.

Which is the most important element that you want the viewer or reader to remember? Is it a person, an icon, your company’s name or product?

This is the element that you want to emphasise in your creative design and become the focal point of your design.

When you make the element bigger or ensure it has a colour contrast against other design elements, you draw attention to this element.

You could even look at the other design elements and make them smaller or blurry. You could even remove them if you don’t think they help with the overall design.

Design principles - example of emphasis and balance

Balance is another important consideration in your creativity and 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 with the relative balance of your composition.

The rule of thirds

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

You place the primary element or 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 two images in our example, the focus point of the image on the left is the two 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 to this image, 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, that give 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 composition and layouts. 

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

For our images of the merchandise that we sell though 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.

Check out TV news reports when the reporter is out in the field. Nine times out of ten, you will see the cameraman naturally lines up one third from the left or right. So that you see the background taking 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 is a ratio where when two 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 Mondian 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.

As you can see from the example image above, 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 is 0.618 : 0.618 compared to the second square. And so on, and so on, until you can’t make smaller squares.

But each of these squares if you were to use them in a design would be the exact 0.618 ratio from each other. So if you look at all those squares arranged and centred inside each other, they create a very harmonious effect.

Golden Ratio – Circles

You can take it a stage further and draw circles in each square as we have 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 seem to be 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 that looks harmonious and in balance.

Occam’s Razor

The final design principle is the one which derives from Occam’s Razor. 

The principle originally means that the simplest explanation is most likely the right one. But when applied to design, it’s more taken as the view that you should use the minimum and simplest amount of design to deliver the objective you need to. 

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 to do the job intended. Designs based on this principle are much cleaner and simpler to understand.

This is particularly used in the area of 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, so think about logos from Apple or Nike for example. Those are instantly recognisable and rarely need to also include the actual name of the brand. They are recognisable from the minimal logo / icon alone.

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

Where to apply the design principles in marketing

At a very basic level, you can use all of these design principles in day to day communications. When you write an email. When you have to create a presentation. Or when you post something on social media.

If you apply these design principles, you can make the visual impact much more likely to be read and engaged with. 

Beyond that, there are very clear marketing applications.

When you work with marketing agencies, packaging designers, or photographers, apply these design principles when you review their work. Ask them directly which design principles they have used to increase your own learning. And be a little worried if they don’t know or haven’t applied any of these principles. 

With these principles in mind, when you evaluate advertising you have more tools to judge whether the advert will work or not. When your agency show you designs for website pages or digital media, check that what they present doesn’t “fail” any of the principles we’ve covered above. 

And above all, keep looking at visual designs and trying to apply the principles so you can articulate why they work or not. It’s a powerful skill in marketing and e-Commerce and will greatly increase your chances of successful visual communications. 

Three-brains and Graphic Design

We specialise is coaching and advising on how to best meet your graphic design needs, either using graphic designers, managing it in-house or building your own graphic design skills to make your creative more impactful and more efficient. 

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