Visual Design

Your constantly-updated definition of Visual Design and collection of videos and articles
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What is Visual Design?

Visual design aims to improve a design’s/product’s aesthetic appeal and usability with suitable images, typography, space, layout and color. Visual design is about more than aesthetics. Designers place elements carefully to create interfaces that optimize user experience and drive conversion.

In this video, designer and co-founder of HYPE4.com, Michal Malewicz, shares why visual skills are important and the difference between visual design for user interfaces and art.

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“Problems with visual design can turn users off so quickly that they never discover all the smart choices you made with navigation or interaction design.”

— Jesse James Garrett, UX Designer & Co-founder of Adaptive Path

Visual Design is Aesthetic, Strategic Design

Users’ first impressions typically form in 50 milliseconds. This fact reflects the visceral level of emotional design—in other words, the user’s first impression of or gut reaction to a design. If they don’t like what you show them in those critical moments, they will leave. So, visual design is a vital part of your work as a designer. Many people mistake it to mean that designers include attractive elements just to maximize an item’s appeal. Actually, you use visual design to create and organize elements to A) lead the user’s eye to an item’s functionality, and B) make the aesthetics consistent. For instance, designers compose and arrange website content around each page’s purpose and are careful to ensure that content gives off the right visual cues. The smallest and subtlest details will affect what users think and how they feel. So, you must always show them the right things in the right way. Your enemy here is user uncertainty. If your users have to stop and think about your design, they won’t trust it—or you. Therefore, a visual design should draw their attention to the important aspects and strike the balance between a fresh, powerful design and something they expect to see. How you apply visual design will depend on your product, its organization/industry and its users (including their culture). A major factor in visual design is that you work to accommodate user limitations such as cognitive load. For example, you use chunking to help users understand and remember information more easily.

Visual Design, Analyzed

These are some of the most common—and fundamental—elements and principles of visual design:

Elements

Seven elements of visual design: Lines, Shapes, Negative Space/Whitespace, Volume, Value, Color and Texture.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  1. Lines (straight/curved/geometric/organic) – use these to create divisions, textures and shapes.

  2. Shapes – use lines, different colors, etc. to create enclosed/self-contained areas.

  3. Negative space/whitespace – use the blank area around a “positive” shape to create a figure/ground effect or calm the design overall.

  4. Volume – use this to show the rich fullness of all three dimensions of elements on two-dimensional screens.

  5. Value – use this to set the relationship between lightness and darkness, typically through a light source to create shadows and highlights.

  6. Color – use this to set the theme/tone and attract attention.

  7. Texture – use this to define an object’s surface.

Principles

Seven principles of visual design: Unity, Gestalt, Hierarchy, Balance, Contrast, Scale and Dominance

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  1. Unity – use this to establish harmony between page elements, so they appear to belong together and users aren’t distracted by chaotic (e.g., misaligned) layouts.

  2. Gestalt– use these principles of how people perceive objects to guide how users interpret your design.

  3. Hierarchy – use placement, font, etc. to show importance.

  4. Balance – use this to distribute elements evenly.

  5. Contrast – use differences in color, etc. to accentuate elements.

  6. Scale – use this to emphasize elements to establish importance or depth.

  7. Dominance – use an object’s size, color, etc. to make it stand out.

Three examples of the effects of following (or not following) best practice visual design principles.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Careful Visual Design + Good Usability = Successful Design

As a visual designer, you should strive to create content that is consistent and predictably organized, but at the same time impressively distinct. You do this to give users the context they need. A visual designer wants to meet users’ expectations so they win and keep their trust, and impress them with a unique brand presence. Brand style guides typically define standards about color use, typography, etc. However, some principles of visual design are universal. For instance, users will appreciate effective chunking and whitespace regardless of what you want to show them. Likewise, visual design should be a factor in how you apply copywriting. So, those carefully chosen plain words should appear in well-placed sections which users can easily digest. As part of the design process you shouldn’t forget accessibility when you judge how best to approach visual design regarding color, contrast, etc.

Unity, balance, contrast and hierarchy are among the design principles the designer applied to the Interaction Design Foundation’s landing page.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Learn More about Visual Design

Several Interaction Design Foundation courses closely examine visual design, including:

Watch Michal Malewicz’s Master Class Beyond Interfaces: The UI Design Skills You Need to Know to learn more about how to design great user interfaces.

Why Visual Design Is More Than Meets the Eye by David Rhyne is a revealing look at visual design’s significance for UX, featuring examples.

Marli Mesibov’s compelling piece, How Visual Design Makes for Great UX, addresses how visual design relates to user conversion.

Find the 960 Grid System resource here.

Questions related to Visual Design

What does a visual designer do?

A visual designer harnesses essential visual skills to create compelling and aesthetically pleasing designs that captivate audiences. As Michal Malewicz highlights in his video, effective visual design is crucial in an age where human attention spans are shorter than a goldfish.

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Visual designers  tap into the aesthetic usability effect, where viewers perceive well-designed visuals as more usable. Ultimately, the success of any visual content depends on its design quality, influencing the attention and perception it garners from its audience.

What is visual communication design?

Visual communication design is conveying messages and ideas through visual elements. It involves leveraging typography, images, colors, and space to create clear, engaging, and memorable messages. This form of design is crucial in various mediums, from print materials like brochures and posters to digital platforms such as websites and mobile apps. Effective visual communication design captures attention, simplifies complex information, influences emotion, and promotes understanding. It's integral in ensuring that the intended message resonates with the audience, whether for branding, marketing, or education.

In visual design, the path concept is pivotal as it invites action and storytelling. Drawing from narratives like Hansel and Gretel or The Wizard of Oz, paths symbolize journeys, danger, and discovery. In her insightful discussion, Ellen Lupton emphasizes the magnetic allure of paths, as seen in films such as Mad Max: Fury Road.

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Like a forest trail, the essence of a path in a design pulls viewers into the narrative, even without active characters. It's the designer's craft to create this invitation. A compelling visual path in design guides the viewer, instigating curiosity and anticipation. As every story progresses from A to B, effective visual design captivates by guiding viewers along a path where "something happened."

What is Adobe visual design?

Adobe visual design refers to using Adobe's suite of tools, such as Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and XD, to craft visual elements in digital and print media. These tools enable designers to create, edit, and optimize graphics, illustrations, and interfaces, ensuring compelling and high-quality visual content. Leveraging Adobe's software, visual designers can achieve precision, consistency, and innovation in their design projects.

How to become a visual designer?

To become a visual designer, follow these essential steps:

  1. Educate Yourself: Begin with core design principles. Enroll in courses like Visual Design: The Ultimate Guide.

  2. Follow a Learning Path: The Visual Designer Learning Path offers a structured approach to mastering essential skills.

  3. Practice Regularly: Work on actual projects or personal design challenges to refine your skills.

  4. Build a Portfolio: Display your best works, highlighting your style and proficiency.

  5. Stay Updated: Design trends change. Read articles, such as this complete guide, to stay informed.

  6. Network: Engage with professionals, attend design events, and participate in online communities.

  7. Gain Experience: Start with internships or beginner positions for hands-on experience.

  8. Seek Feedback: Continuously improve by getting feedback from peers and mentors.

With commitment and enthusiasm, you'll successfully navigate the visual design world!

Visual design vs. web design?

Visual design focuses on the overall aesthetics of a digital interface, encompassing elements like typography, color, and layout to create an engaging user experience. It's about crafting the visual elements that communicate and resonate with users. In contrast, web design refers specifically to designing user experiences for websites. While it includes visual aesthetics, web design goes beyond looks.

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 A web designer ensures that the site is user-friendly, accessible, intuitive, and responsive across devices. They aim not only for aesthetic appeal but also to build trust with the audience and offer an experience that aligns with user needs. In essence, while visual design forms a part of the web design process, web design encompasses a broader scope, ensuring the entire website is visually compelling and functionally effective.

What is visual design vs. graphic design?

Visual design and graphic design, while interconnected, serve distinct purposes. Visual design focuses on an interface's aesthetics and user experience, encompassing elements like typography, color, and layout to create an engaging and intuitive digital experience. It often intersects with user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design. 

On the other hand, graphic design is a broader field that deals with creating visual content for various mediums, from print to digital. It emphasizes communication, conveying messages through visuals. While visual designers often specialize in digital interfaces, graphic designers may work on projects ranging from logos to brochures. In essence, visual design is a subset of the expansive world of graphic design, honed for digital interfaces. Dive deeper into the distinctions here.

What are the main principles of visual design?

The main principles of visual design provide a foundation for creating aesthetically pleasing and effective designs. These principles are:

  1. Balance: Achieving visual equilibrium through the distribution of elements.

  2. Contrast: Distinguishing elements by emphasizing their differences.

  3. Alignment: Lining up elements to create order and connection.

  4. Proximity: Grouping related items together to establish relationships.

  5. Repetition: Using consistent elements to create a unified design.

  6. Space: Leveraging positive (filled) and negative (empty) areas to enhance readability and aesthetics.

Each principle is pivotal in guiding designers to craft visually appealing and functional designs. Dive deeper into these principles and their applications in the detailed article on the building blocks of visual design.

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Is visual design the same as UX design?

No, visual and UX (User Experience) designs are not the same but closely related. Visual design focuses on the aesthetics of a product, including elements like colors, typography, and images. It's concerned with how a product looks. In contrast, UX design encompasses the entire user journey, concentrating on how a product feels and users interact. UX designers look at usability, functionality, and user satisfaction, ensuring a seamless and intuitive experience. While visual design enhances the product's appearance, UX design ensures its overall effectiveness and efficiency for the user. Explore more about their interplay in our comprehensive article.

Where to learn more about visual design?

Eager to deepen your visual design skills? Dive into the following resources:

  1. Visual Designer Learning Path: Embark on the Visual Designer Learning Path offered by the Interaction Design Foundation, providing a curated sequence of essential courses.

  2. Comprehensive Course: Enroll in Visual Design: The Ultimate Guide to understand the foundational concepts and practices of visual design.

  1. Masterclasses to Refine Your Craft:

Combining these courses and masterclasses will provide both foundational knowledge and specialized expertise, positioning you for success in visual design.

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Literature on Visual Design

Here’s the entire UX literature on Visual Design by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Visual Design

Take a deep dive into Visual Design with our course Visual Design: The Ultimate Guide .

In this course, you will gain a holistic understanding of visual design and increase your knowledge of visual principles, color theory, typography, grid systems and history. You’ll also learn why visual design is so important, how history influences the present, and practical applications to improve your own work. These insights will help you to achieve the best possible user experience.

In the first lesson, you’ll learn the difference between visual design elements and visual design principles. You’ll also learn how to effectively use visual design elements and principles by deconstructing several well-known designs. 

In the second lesson, you’ll learn about the science and importance of color. You’ll gain a better understanding of color modes, color schemes and color systems. You’ll also learn how to confidently use color by understanding its cultural symbolism and context of use. 

In the third lesson, you’ll learn best practices for designing with type and how to effectively use type for communication. We’ll provide you with a basic understanding of the anatomy of type, type classifications, type styles and typographic terms. You’ll also learn practical tips for selecting a typeface, when to mix typefaces and how to talk type with fellow designers. 

In the final lesson, you’ll learn about grid systems and their importance in providing structure within design. You’ll also learn about the types of grid systems and how to effectively use grids to improve your work.

You’ll be taught by some of the world’s leading experts. The experts we’ve handpicked for you are the Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design Emeritus at RIT R. Roger Remington, author of “American Modernism: Graphic Design, 1920 to 1960”; Co-founder of The Book Doctors Arielle Eckstut and leading color consultant Joann Eckstut, co-authors of “What Is Color?” and “The Secret Language of Color”; Award-winning designer and educator Mia Cinelli, TEDx speaker of “The Power of Typography”; Betty Cooke and William O. Steinmetz Design Chair at MICA Ellen Lupton, author of “Thinking with Type”; Chair of the Graphic + Interactive communication department at the Ringling School of Art and Design Kimberly Elam, author of "Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type.”

Throughout the course, we’ll supply you with lots of templates and step-by-step guides so you can go right out and use what you learn in your everyday practice.

In the “Build Your Portfolio Project: Redesign,” you’ll find a series of fun exercises that build upon one another and cover the visual design topics discussed. If you want to complete these optional exercises, you will get hands-on experience with the methods you learn and in the process you’ll create a case study for your portfolio which you can show your future employer or freelance customers.

You can also learn with your fellow course-takers and use the discussion forums to get feedback and inspire other people who are learning alongside you. You and your fellow course-takers have a huge knowledge and experience base between you, so we think you should take advantage of it whenever possible.

You earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you’ve completed the course. You can highlight it on your resume, your LinkedIn profile or your website.

All open-source articles on Visual Design

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