6 Principles of Visual Design
In the last video, we initiated a transition
towards the world of design. In this video, you will learn a bit about the principles
of design. But first things first: what is design?
Design is about coming up with a plan to build both the aesthetics and the functionality
of an object or a system. It is also a language. For example, when concept artists draw a character,
it will not be used as it is in the game. The character design sketch is a plan or blueprint
that is meant to be used by other artists to create the final 2d or 3d character. It
establishes the look of a given character in a way that works with the game’s design.
So what’s the job of a designer then? Designers create systems for others. As I said, they
create both the aesthetics and the functionality of systems.
When we work for ourselves, we take the risk to write in a language that only we fully
understand. That is not the goal of a professional designer. If you want to become a game designer,
a visual storyteller, or a composer in the entertainment industry maybe, you will have
to learn to put your work at the service of others. This doesn’t mean that you can’t
pick a goal that is meaningful to you. You will still design the framework of an array
of experiences. But as a designer, you have to make it accessible to others.
The good news is: we have a language for that. The language of design. It’s a language
composed of what we call the elements, and the principles of design. The elements of
design are the raw material of our creations. They are a sort of vocabulary, a set of building
blocks. In the case of game assets, they are color and light, shapes, textures, etc. The
principles of design, on the other hand, are a form of grammar. They bring the elements
of design together into a coherent mix. The design grammar is partly common to all
forms of arts. Be it music scoring, development, sound design, writing, etc. Who has never
heard about rhythm in music? Repetition, or contrast? Those are principles of design.
Note that to get a good understanding of both the elements and the principles of design,
we have to study them separately. Just like when we learn a new language: we have to alternate
studying new words and studying grammar. But why are we looking at the principles of
design right now? Why not the elements first, may you ask?
Well, when we learn a language, this is true that we start with some basic vocabulary.
But I am pretty sure that most of you who are watching this video already have that
vocabulary. You have certainly already drawn some faces, characters, rocks, etc. Played
with colors and light a bit… you name it. The principles we are going to look at will
give us a solid foundation to build upon. You can see them a bit as verbs: with some
practice, they empower you to create many new coherent sentences, or paintings or characters
in that case. The principles of design give you tools to better analyze and filter parts
of pieces of art to study from. They give you the means to better dissect the art you
are going to look at. Every time you see a beautiful shot in a game
or a movie, it is thanks to the team’s understanding of the principles of design.
There are about 6 principles of design, depending on how we decide to categorize them. They
are all essential lenses we will use to analyze every single bit of our own creations. Although
we study them separately, they are supposed to be applied in synergy. Pretty much any
professional designer uses them all, all the time. Be it consciously or not.
Right now, I am going to give you a quick rundown of the 6 principles of design. It
takes time to get a good understanding and feel of both the principles and the elements
of design. And by time, I don’t mean just hours of practice: as with any language, you
have to be patient and let the concepts sink in slowly. So we will keep coming back to
them in future videos, whenever we have an occasion to do so.
The first principle is scale and proportion. Once we have a good grasp of the proportions
of any object in the real world, we can start playing with it. Here’s an example of that
principle in action. The designers of Asura’s Wrath decided to create a huge boss: Wyzen.
He is bigger than a planet. Put in perspective with the human sized Asura, we get an awesome,
mega epic scene. This choice dramatically accentuates the drama and tension when the
main character gets crushed by his opponent’s finger.
Playing with the inner proportions of a character or object is pretty straightforward. We can
lengthen or thicken parts of it. But how can we express the relative scale of objects with
one another? We mainly have 2 tools at our disposal to achieve that: overlapping elements
and repeating them. Note that you should always incorporate an
element of reference for the viewer to understand the relative scale of other objects in the
scene. Like a human being, a house… or the planet Earth!
The second principle we are going to talk about is repetition and contrast. In order
to make a scene coherent, you will have to repeat certain elements around your design.
For one, repeating minor elements like rocks or foliage will help your environment to look
consistent. Repeating elements like a symbol on an armor, or physical traits among a group
of characters will reinforce those elements to the eyes of the viewer.
Then, repetition is also a solid tool to create contrast: if you repeat a certain pattern
in your image, any unique element will pop out. You can easily see that when you have
a crowd surrounding an isolated character. What about contrast? Contrast is a straightforward
principle, as it boils down to the meaning of the word itself. That is to say that you
want to juxtapose opposing elements in your visual composition to intensify their unique
aspects. Next, let us talk a bit about balance, and
imbalance. All of the elements you add to your design, all of the objects have a certain
visual weight. This weight depends on their size on the canvas, but also on their color,
value and contrast. Your image’s composition doesn’t need
to be balanced. It doesn’t need to be symmetrical, or carefully weighted to get to a visual equilibrium.
Controlled imbalance can create a sense of tension, or intensify your shot’s emotional
strength. Our 4th principle is Emphasis. Using contrast,
unique shapes, strong colors or light, you can choose to attract the eye of the viewer
on a given part of your creation. The one part of your piece you decide to emphasize
will generally be its focal point as well. The previous principles help reinforce our
creation’s hierarchy. This is our 5th principle. You want to have important elements and less
important ones. On a painting, you generally want to emphasize one subject that tells your
image’s story. In a game, your characters are most of the time at the top of the visual
hierarchy. Then, there are your gameplay-related assets. And finally the background and other
effects are at the bottom of the hierarchy. In Ori and the Blind Forest, you can clearly
see how bright the character is compared to the background. The very surface of the floor,
where the player can walk, is strongly lit as well. Those elements are at the top of
the visual hierarchy. The player must see them to know where he can walk, where he is
and who he is controlling. In general, you will use other principles
of design to create a good hierarchy. Here, contrast. And repetition: the character is
unique, but the elements that make up the ground are being repeated. This helps the
character to pop even more. The last principle we are going to talk about
is unity, or harmony. Unity is achieved when you apply all of the other principles of design
together successfully. It is really your goal as a designer. A harmonious design does its
job beautifully, it’s that simple. We can take a look at the title screen of
The Last of Us for example. It is quite sober, not too complex. It focuses on one element:
the window. There is a clear contrast in terms of value, lighting, and color saturation that
reinforces this very window. The foliage, the curtains, as well as some barely visible
building in the background give us a sense of scale. The hierarchy of the scene is thus
pretty clear: the window is very central to the piece. Its placement creates a sense of
movement and of controlled imbalance. Which makes total sense, considering that the game
talks about a post-apocalyptic world. Alright, this was quick! My goal here is for
you to be aware that those principles of design exist, and that they are part of the essence
of any of your creations. Before we part ways, I just want you to note that those principles
are meant to be used as lenses. We can apply them at different levels of our creations:
on a single character taken alone, as well as on the same character within a whole composition.
If you want to learn more about the principles of design, Matt Kohr made a free video series
on the topic. He goes over the principles of design applied to visual arts one by one.
Link in the description below. As I said though, will be coming back to the
principles of design in future videos. I hope you like the video! If you did, don’t
hesitate to share it with your friends! You can also become a subscriber on this channel
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Thank you for watching…