What Are the Elements and Principles of Design?

There are two aspects to aesthetic design. First there are the elements of design (line, shape, form, space, texture, color, and—I believe when it comes to jewelry–light). These are the building blocks of design, like construction materials, cooking ingredients, or vocabulary. Then there are the principles of design (unity, variety, repetition, balance, contrast, and scale) which are guidelines to putting the elements together, like a blueprint, recipe, or rules of grammar.

I should also point out right now, that this is the way I’ve grouped the elements and principles of design. I think breaking them out this way is most useful to jewelry makers, and this is the way they are often, but not always, understood. As you explore design, you’ll find that not everyone sees them the same way. While most authors and teachers seem to agree on the elements of design—line, texture, shape, form, space, and color—it’s common to see them define and group the principles of design in various ways. There are lumpers and splitters.

For example, splitters may treat movement, rhythm, pattern, and repetition separately. Lumpers may consider them all a function of repetition. I encourage you to seek out books about design from other disciplines, such as graphic design, architecture, painting and sculpture, and draw on them to build your own design vocabulary.

This emphasis on learning the correct language can make it sound like design is something very simple—just mix and match the elements and principles. But it’s far from that. The six elements can be expressed in an infinite number of ways—after all, how many shapes and textures are there? And that infinity of elements can be combined in an infinite number of ways according to the principles of design. The result is a limitless number of design possibilities, some effective, some not.

And in actual practice, it is impossible to completely separate functional design from aesthetic design in jewelry. Materials limit your technique choices, color choices. Gemstone cutting style may determine the setting method; prongs, bezels, channels, beads become part of the aesthetic design. Making jewelry will always be an endless conversation between materials, methods, and design.

As Alan Revere says, design is not a linear process, where you go from point A to point X and stop because you’re finished. Design may wander into strange and unexpected byways. Any jewelry maker you admire can tell you of the times they started a concept that went wrong, what decisions they had made in order to save it or make it stronger.

In the end, there is no trick or formula to making a successful design. Despite an understanding of design language, not every piece of jewelry you make will be successful. But it can give you a tool to begin analyzing why a piece isn’t working. In so doing, it may give you a way to fix the design or realize it is unfixable—at least for now.

I hope that you’ll find they’ll be at least as useful to you as your favorite hammer or your flex shaft.

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