A Non-Designer’s Guide to Design

Chances are, if you’ve been handed social media as a side task, you’ve probably also been asked to design event flyers, postcards, and office memos, too. Daunting task, right? I get it. A completely blank page is staring you in the face, daring you to make it beautiful. Even a seasoned designer might find that unsettling.

But, with a few extra tools in your tool box, you’ll be able to create anything your boss throws at you. AND, those designs will pop (and not in a bad way). They’ll be branded, pretty, simplistic, and will most definitely get your message across.

Good design doesn’t require fancy software. Good design comes from an understanding of how different elements work together to form something visually appealing. Good design comes from understanding the rules.

The Rules

Believe it or not, art has rules. When you’re just starting out, it’s best to follow these rules in order to produce the best stuff. Once you’ve mastered the basics, break the rules all you want. But for now, let’s color inside the lines.

These rules are known as the principles of design, and they’re a helpful way of quantifying why good design works.


Balance refers to the visual weight of a composition. It can be symmetrical, asymmetrical, or radial. Think of balance like a scale. All of your visual elements (text, colors, shapes) need to be placed so that the design is stable and isn’t tipping to one side.

example of symmetrical asymmetrical and radial balance


Contrast is the difference between two elements placed next to each other. Black text on a white background is perhaps the simplest example of this. Contrast makes a design pop (in a good way) and commands the viewers’ attention. Contrast isn’t just about color (dark green and white). It can be size (big and small text), value (light and dark), or texture (smooth and rough).

black and white CSU to show contrast


Movement is how our eye travels through a design. What’s the most important piece of information in your design and how do you move the viewers’ eye to the second most important piece of information? Movement can be directed by lines, shapes, space, texture, and value.

example of movement


Pattern is uniform repetition of the elements of art. They are even, repetitive, and uniform. The College of Health and Human Sciences has brand patterns that we use on most designs that add visual flare or unify a set of pages in a brochure or presentation.

example of patterns from CHHS VBL


Rhythm is similar to pattern in that it is repeating. But instead of being uniform, it can vary in shape and size. Think about a series of dots that get progressively bigger. Rhythm helps direct movement and can create unity.

four dots increasing in size to show rhythm



Emphasis is your visual “so-what?” It shouts at your viewer, “LOOK AT ME!” It’s your hook. It’s the area of your design you want to stand out by contrasting it with the rest of the design. Maybe it’s bigger. Maybe it’s a different shape, color or texture. Maybe both.

text says find your state really big to show emphasis


Unity is what makes all the design elements fit together. Variety makes the design standout. Too much unity creates a monotone design. Too much variety creates chaos. A little of both creates a design that’s just right.

example of emphasis

Exercise your new knowledge

Think about the worst flyer you’ve ever seen (or google “worst graphic design examples”). What didn’t you like about it? Was it busy, were the colors clashing, was it hard to focus in on the main point?

The reason that design didn’t work is because it didn’t follow the principles of design. Too busy? The balance was off. Clashing colors? There wasn’t unity. No main point? There wasn’t emphasis.

How to apply it

A poster of the Principles of Design that hung in my mom’s elementary art classroom for many years.

When you’re sitting down to design your next event poster, how can you actually put this to good use?

  1. Remind yourself that everyone is creative. Even you.
  2. Create an outline. What is the main point of your poster? Emphasize that.
  3. Insert text boxes for each piece of information that needs to be on the poster. Delete at least one of them. Chances are you’ve added too much information and the design will be cluttered, unbalanced, and not unified.
  4. Add any remaining elements (shapes, patterns, photos), and balance the design.
  5. Add green (or whatever your primary brand color is).
  6. Polish and play. This is the fun part. Continue balancing, add contrasting accent colors, vary the size of your text, add pattern, create unity.
  7. Save and close your design and give yourself at least 30 minutes before looking at it again.
  8. Open your design and look at it. On first glance, does anything feel off? If so, read through the principles of design to identify the problem. Is my design balanced? Is there contrast? Is it rhythmic? Is something emphasized? Is it unified? Is there enough variation?

Like anything, mastery comes with practice. Each time you sit down to create something, think about the principles of design. You can start small by applying one principle to your next design. Then when you’re comfortable with it, start working on a new one. Before long, you’ll have the principles down so well, you can start breaking the rules.

Wanna talk design with me? Got a question? Hit me up on Twitter, and we’ll chat: @misgreen123