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What is Design Theory?

And why does it matter?

Design theory involves the fundamentals and principles of creating visual communication and all types of art. It deals with how we see and perceive visual information, and separates ideas of style, taste and trend from the universal principles of aesthetics that are common to every person. It is foundational to the pursuit of design, photography, illustration and visual arts in general. This common visual language connects designers and image makers from history to current day and continent to continent.

Design theory involves an understanding of  the tangible elements including form, space, proportion, color, scale, texture, structure (grid), composition, line, shape and volume and how to arrange them to achieve balance, rhythm, pattern, hierarchy, emphasis, and unity. Design theory, blended with a purpose or problem to solve, results in effective design solutions.

Design theory creates value for clients and causes.

The value of designers to their clients and causes is the thinking and the ability to combine form (design principles) and function (the purpose of the design) to achieve an effective and pleasing result. Form and function as universally applied design concepts were first defined and formalized at the Bauhaus, and have been the basis for good design ever since. Software has changed the design process and the way we work with design elements, but it has not changed the elements themselves.

The reason it is essential to learn design theory is so that you can be a designer and not simply a technician. When you understand principles of balance, order, hierarchy, composition, structures, color, value, shape, space, scale, texture, etc,. you will have the foundation to create good (meaning effective, appropriate and appealing) design and be far more valuable to your clients than a “wrist” could ever be. And, if you want to be a designer, why not strive to be an excellent one? Excellence in working with the visual forms, a solid process and sound design thinking are what make you valuable to your clients.

Simply knowing how to use software does not mean you are a designer. Stop and think for a moment – designers have been around for millennia, creating excellent and effective work long before software came along. The design principles we work with have not changed. You are a designer whether you use pencil and paper or Adobe Creative Cloud. The tool doesn’t matter. If you cannot design using pencil and paint, you will not be able to using Illustrator and Photoshop.

Where this applies to clients is in the quality of the work they receive. In written communication, a wrong word or a mark out of place hurts the message. This also happens in the visual language. Clients should seek designers who understand how to combine the forms and principles of design to communicate their messages well.

The best means of learning design theory is a combination
of study, application and evaluation.

The best means of learning design theory is a combination of study, application and evaluation. Schools are great for this all-around approach. Any degree or certificate program in design, illustration or photography will include courses in design theory and color theory. Choose courses where you actually have to apply your learning to projects that are critiqued. The more opportunity there is for experience and feedback, the more you will benefit.

When there is no opportunity for formal schooling, look for a design mentor or an internship with a designer who regularly uses design theory and can explain their thinking. You can certainly observe the design process and read texts, but it is in the hand-on attempts at creating design that you make the theory your own.

Clients, you experience the effects of design theory applied every time you read a book, walk the grocery store aisles, click on a call to action button or visit a Starbucks. Think about how you react to the designs that are all around you. How do you want your customers to understand your business? Your own messaging deserves good design. Why would you settle for less?

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.

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