Illustration by Nayane de Souza Hablitzel
The seven principles of design have been around for a very long time, and their shared goal is to help guide designers on how to get the very best out of their work. They do this by focusing on the key attributes of each element and how altering even the most minute detail can have a large impact on the overall design.
In this article, we are going to learn about the unity principle of design and how we can use it to improve the visual design of our products.
What is the unity principle of design?
Unity is the principle of design that unifies all other principles within a piece of work, allowing each individual element to coexist with one another to form an aesthetically pleasing design. Ultimately, unity is what gives a design the appearance of cohesiveness despite its internal components differing in scale, contrast, or style.
A designer must leverage all of the principles of design in order to successfully achieve unity. This is done by assessing all of the elements within the design to better understand their relationships and how they interact with one another. In doing so, the designer is able to ensure that whether it’s a painting, poster, or web design, it is consumed as it was intended by the designer.
In short, unity is an agreement between parts that make up the whole. Unity is achieved when each individual element within a design comes together like a puzzle to reveal a singular cohesive vision.
What are the principles of design?
Now, if you are not yet familiar with the principles of design, don’t worry. It is likely you are already using them without even knowing. Think about the last time you worked on a design that contained multiple elements, and after stepping back to take a look from afar, you realized something about it just wasn’t working. So, you erased some parts and adjusted others until all of it finally seemed to fit together. Well, those instincts you had to change and alter your work were most likely influenced by the principles of design, even if you weren’t cognitively aware of it.
The principles of design are a set of seven essential guidelines that help advise designers on how to produce a succinct and compelling piece of work each and every time. These principles include: Balance, Contrast, Emphasis, Proportion, Movement, Pattern, and Unity. Each principle focuses on a key component of design and how its attributes effect the overall presentation of the work. In some cases, ignoring the principles of design can lead the audience to misinterpret the designer’s original intentions of the work.
As designers, we often think about design as a vessel for our creativity. The principles of design help us succeed in doing that by providing rules that assist us. By following these rules, we’re able to make it so that other people can consume and understand that vision.
Before we dive into the unity principle of design, let’s begin by quickly reviewing the other six principles of design.
Similar to a graph chart, a composition has both a vertical and horizontal axis. Designers must be aware of these axes as they lay out where they should place their key elements. The reason is so that each new element added to the composition includes its own unique visual weight.
Part of a designer’s job is to maintain equilibrium and designers will usually assemble their artistic elements in two ways: symmetrically, using the space on either side of the axis in the same way with objects that share very similar characteristics; or asymmetrically, where the space on either side of the axis is mismatched while still maintaining an equal visual weight.
To better understand balance, think about the layout of a webpage. It contains a variety of different pictures, icons, and font sizes. In order for all of these differently sized elements to work together, a designer will have to strategically think of how to lay them out in a way that is balanced and makes it easier to view.
Most compositions include a variety of different and opposing elements. This can include a range of lighting, an assortment of colors, or even an array of textures. A designer can increase the contrast between two objects to highlight, for example, one being in the foreground and the other in the background. Using the same example, a designer can also reduce the contrast between the objects to visually place them at the same depth.
There are many ways that elements can contrast one another, which is why it is important for designers to understand how they oppose one another and also how to make those differences work in the overall composition. Contrast is especially important for UX designers to ensure a user interface meets the needs of users with impaired vision.
Contrast is also used to differentiate the actions of buttons. A button that is used to save something will have a very different contrast than one that is used to delete. Without contrast in design, a user’s experience would become very frustrating.
In a conference room, a podium is used to bring emphasis to the person who is speaking, whereas in a theater performance, a spotlight is used to bring emphasis to a single performer during their monologue. Similarly, a designer will use a variety of different techniques to make a specific component of the visual design stand out. When done correctly, this can be a useful tool to bring attention to a specific area of the composition.
To better understand emphasis, simply pick up your phone and open your favorite app. Look at how color, contrast, and scale are used to emphasize a certain button, icon, or action over others.
Proportion is simply the scale of each individual object. By adjusting the scale of different elements, a designer can convey one object’s relationship to another, their hierarchical structure, or even their distance from one another. Proportion brings organization and understanding to a design that, without it, may struggle to express its intended meaning.
Even in this article, you can see how the proportion of the heading sizes helps to organize thoughts and ideas for the reader. Though this article would still work if it only had a single heading, by breaking it up into parts that are represented by different heading styles, the reading experience is much easier. The reader can easily digest what they are reading.
As a person views a piece of artwork or interacts with a digital design piece, their focal point will naturally move around the landscape of that piece. This helps the observer better understand what they are looking at or even how to interact with it in some cases.
Mapping out the visual hierarchy from element to element is a powerful and useful tool for designers. This gives them the ability to tell a visual story without having to use any words. It can also help them improve the experience of an app, making it simpler to navigate for the user interacting with it.
UX designers will utilize user testing methods like eye tracking to measure where a person is looking during a given screen. This can inform the designer whether or not the variety of components on a page are aiding or hampering the experience for the user.
Naturally, as more and more elements are added to a composition, the likeliness of one or more being repeated increases. As these elements are repeated, a designer needs a way to organize them to bring a sense of semblance to the design. This effect is achieved by implementing a pattern that is visually consistent throughout the artwork.
In more complex designs, multiple patterns will arise, and the designer will then have to consider how to best organize them to achieve unity with variety.
Why the unity principle of design is important
Unity is arguably the most important principle of design. It guides the designer on how to best leverage all the other principles to present a composition that is both harmonious and whole. Only when a designer has ensured that all other principles are working together is unity truly achieved.
Without unity, a seemingly complete design can feel unintentionally segmented, confusing, or in worst cases, unusable. A lack of unity can cause elements to compete with one another for emphasis, resulting in an experience that is contrary to the one the designer had originally intended. This can lead to the user feeling uncertain and confused.
The question then is: how does a designer achieve unity?
How to achieve unity
As previously mentioned, unity is achieved once the design has reached a state of harmony between its internal parts. This is done by first going through each of the other design principles to assess how they are being used within the overall design to ensure each element is having its intended and desired effect.
Often, a lack of unity can be a result of a designer not realizing that the actions taken to meet one principle has had the opposite effect on another. For example, when creating a contrast between two objects, a designer may play with the lighting, color, or scale to convey their relationship. However, if the designer is not careful, those changes could cause those objects to no longer fit within the overall design among the other components.
Therefore, the best way for a designer to ensure unity in their work is to continuously take a step back during the design process and assess whether or not its core makeup is unified. If you are a designer that is part of a team, have your colleagues evaluate your design from a unity perspective during your next design critique. However, if you are a solo designer without a design team to lean on, simply ask someone you know to take a look and observe how they interact with it.
Unity in UX design
When designing for web or mobile, UX designers use layout grids to help guide the cohesiveness of their design.
To ensure a unified experience across web and mobile applications, UX designers conduct a method called a heuristic evaluation. This method consists of leveraging Jakob Nielsen’s 10 general heuristic principles to identify possible usability issues within the design of a user interface. Conducting a heuristic evaluation in addition to following the seven principles of design allows designers to unify the visual and experience design of a product.
Another design metric utilized by UX designers to assess unity within design is usability testing. Usability testing is conducted to accurately measure whether or not the intended user views and interacts with the user interface in the way the designer expected. A mismatch between expected and actual interactions can inform the designer which design principle is leading to the issue.
Unity principle of design best practices
As designers’ skillsets mature throughout their career, they will inevitably create their own best practices that work for them to ensure their design meets the unity principle of design. Until then, here are some helpful best practices to start with:
- Whenever adding a new element, object, or component to a design, first decide what its relationship is with the others that already exist in your design.
- Take a step back from your design and assess: how do the design’s internal parts interact with one another?
- Create a checklist that includes all seven design principles and evaluate how each principle is being used in your design, and whether or not they are working together harmoniously.
- Have someone look at your design and then break it down for you. You will quickly discover whether the expected intent of your design is what people actually experience when looking at or interacting with it.
It’s time to create a unified experience
Design is a complex form of art, and with each new element a designer adds, the complexity only increases. So the next time you begin adding new elements to your design, ask yourself, “How will this impact the unity of my design? Will it work to further the unity or against it and confuse the user?”