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A Tiny Tina Tutorial©

Semantic Design: A Science-Based Approach
for Creating Content that Works!

Design Basics Simplified: The Three Design Elements

Learning design can be confusing and overwhelming. With the InfoDev approach, it's easy! Using a science-based approach, we help you discover what you already know and use it consciously and methodically, rather than based on guesswork and instinct. We present design basics in a way that is both easy to master and prepares you to make even the most difficult design decisions. Get a peek below!

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Semantic Design

Design that Means Something

Is your content actually being used? Is it truly helping people?

Create content that facilitates clarity, credibility, and engagement!

The term “semantic design” simply refers to design that means something. While the term is most often used in the field of software development, the concept is used in all fields – industrial design, architecture, manufacturing, education, and, of course, information design.

In information development, semantic design helps readers and users understand content more quickly, more accurately, and with less effort. It makes information easier to find, read, understand, use, and remember. Semantic design is a critical component of instructional, technical, and high-value business content. It's focus is practical (rather than theoretical), and provides specific guidance for making design decision based on science – the science of how human beings naturally perceive and process visual information.


With the Traditional Approach, Even the “Basics” Are Confusing!


Design Basics, According To...

Design Elements:

  1. Line
  2. Color
  3. Shape
  4. Space
  5. Texture
  6. Typography
  7. Scale
  8. Dominance and Emphasis
  9. Balance
  10. Harmony

Design Elements:

  1. Line
  2. Shape
  3. Color
  4. Texture
  5. Space

Design Principles:

  1. Rhythm
  2. Proportion
  3. Emphasis
  4. Balance
  5. Unity

Design Elements:

  1. Line
  2. Shape
  3. Form
  4. Color
  5. Texture
  6. Space
  7. Value

Design Principles:

  1. Pattern
  2. Contrast
  3. Emphasis
  4. Balance
  5. Proportion/Scale
  6. Harmony
  7. Rhythm/Movement

Design Elements:

  1. Dot
  2. Line
  3. Area

Design Principles:

  1. Contrast
  2. Orientation and Position
  3. Scale
  4. Quantity
  5. Graphic Shapes and Linear Elements
  6. Depth, Dimension and Perspective
  7. Color
  8. Typography
  9. Space
  10. Repetition

Design Principles:

  1. Line
  2. Scale
  3. Color
  4. Repetition
  5. Negative Space
  6. Symmetry
  7. Transparency
  8. Texture
  9. Balance
  10. Hierarchy
  11. Contrast
  12. Framing
  13. Grid
  14. Randomness
  15. Direction
  16. Rules
  17. Movement
  18. Depth
  19. Typography
  20. Composition




Shouldn't the “Basics” Be Basic?

With the Science-Based Approach, Design Basics Are Easy!


The Real Design Basics...

Design Elements:

  1. Shape
  2. Color
  3. Position

Design Principle:

  1. Gradient



How Is This Possible?

It turns out that researchers have identified hundreds of "pre-attentive properties," which are specific types of visual stimuli that we perceive and process almost instantly and without the need for conscious attention or cognitive effort:

  • Added Marks
  • Angle Sharpness
  • Blur
  • Collinearity
  • Concavity
  • Convexity
  • Curvature
  • Detail
  • Elongation
  • Enclosure
  • Filled
  • Hue
  • Joined Lines
  • Length
  • Numerosity
  • Orientation
  • Shadow
  • Shape
  • Sharpness
  • Size
  • Spatial Grouping
  • Spatial Orientation
  • Surround Box
  • Value
  • And Many More...

And all of these pre-attentive properties fit into just three basic categories:

  1. Shape
  2. Color
  3. Position

These three basic elements are the building blocks of the traditional design elements. When used in combination and with various attributes, the three basic elements convey properties such as texture, contrast, and value. And these three elements are also the basic building blocks of content, including overall layout, individual page (or screen) elements, and even text!


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Semantic Design: A Science-Based Approach
for Creating Content that Works!

Design Basics Simplified: The Three Design Elements

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Science-Based Design – Design Basics Simplified: The Three Design Elements

During the Sensation phase of perception, light enters the eye through the cornea, the pupil, and the lens.

The lens inverts the light…

…and focuses it on the retina, which is the area at the back of the eye that contains photoreceptor cells…

…called rods and cones.

Rods facilitate vision in low-light conditions and are associated with peripheral vision.

Cones facilitate vision in normal light conditions and are associated with the perception of color. There are three main types of cones cells, each of which responds to either red, green, or blue light.

Cones also facilitate the perception of detail and contrast, which, in turn, allows us to perceive different features like shadows and edges.

Researchers have identified hundreds of specific features and attributes...

...which we perceive and process through various neurophysical pathways.

These features and attributes fall into just three categories: shape, color, and position.

Shape, color, and position are the "preattentive" elements in perception because we perceive and process them instinctively and automatically.

They are also the building blocks of the traditional design elements.

Texture, for example, is a complex effect created with a combination of the three basic elements.

And these three basic elements are also the building blocks of content, including overall layout and design, individual content elements...

...and even text!



Where Do You Go From Here?

When you understand that the three elements of design are shape, color, and position, you can begin to learn how to work with these elements to direct your user's attention, minimize cognitive stress, and convey information that is easy to find, read, understand, use, and remember. The next step is to learn about the various attributes of each of the elements and the one guiding design principle you can use to make sure the elements are combined effectively.



  1. Goldstein, E. Bruce. 2010. Sensation and Perception, 8th Edition. Eighth. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
  2. Jennings, Sam. n.d. “Layman’s Layout: Spreads, Fonts and Design Inspiration.” Accessed June 13, 2016. https://laymanslayout.wordpress.com/.
  3. Johnson, Jeff. 2014. Designing with the Mind in Mind: Simple Guide to Understanding User Interface Design Guidelines. 2nd ed. Waltham, MA: Elsevier.
  4. Sillence, Elizabeth, Pam Briggs, Lesley Fishwick, and Peter Harris. “Trust and Mistrust of Online Health Sites.” In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 663–70. ACM, 2004. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/221516871_Trust_and_mistrust_of_online_health_sites.
  5. Stout, JaneAnn. 2000. “Design: Exploring the Elements & Principles.” Iowa State University, University Extension, 4-H. https://texas4-h.tamu.edu/wp-content/uploads/Resources_Fashion_Storyboard_exploring-the-elements-and-Principles-of-Design.pdf.
  6. Stribley, Mary. n.d. “Design Elements & Principles.” Canva: Learn. Accessed January 13, 2020. https://www.canva.com/learn/design-elements-principles/.
  7. Symonds, Matt. 2014. “The Elements of Design (the Tools to Make Art) / The Principles of Design (How to Use the Tools to Make Art).” Willamette High School Multimedia, Bethel School District, Eugene OR. http://blogs.bethel.k12.or.us/msymonds/files/2014/10/Elements-and-Principles-Overview.jpg.
  8. Taheri, Maryam. 2019. “10 Basic Elements of Design.” Creative Market. September 28, 2019. https://creativemarket.com/blog/10-basic-elements-of-design.
  9. Tractinsky, Noam, Adi S. Katz, and Dror Ikar. “What Is Beautiful Is Usable.” Interacting with Computers 13 (2000): 127–45. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/What-is-beautiful-is-usable-Tractinsky-Katz/be4555171f460b8a095a6158075864ac11f13403.
  10. University of Alaska Fairbanks. n.d. “Fundamentals of Design: Basic Elements: A Companion Site to CIOS 233 Course at UAF.” Desktop Publishing (blog). Accessed January 13, 2020. https://cios233.community.uaf.edu/design-theory-lectures/fundamentals-of-design-basic-elements/.
  11. Ware, Colin. 2011. Visual Thinking for Design. Amsterdam: Elsevier Morgan Kaufmann.
  12. Ware, Colin. 2012. Information Visualization: Perception for Design. 3 edition. Waltham, MA: Morgan Kaufmann. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/224285723_Information_Visualization_Perception_for_Design_Second_Edition.
  13. Wolfe, Jeremy M., and Todd S. Horowitz. 2004. “What Attributes Guide the Deployment of Visual Attention and How Do They Do It?” Nature Reviews. Neuroscience 5 (6): 495–501. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn1411.
  14. Zajonc, R. B. “Feeling and Thinking: Preferences Need No Inferences.” American Psychologist 35, no. 2 (1980): 151–75. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.35.2.151.

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Citation: Kister, Tina M. 2020. Design Basics Simplified: The Three Design Elements. In A Tiny Tina Tutorial on Science-Based Design. Nanatoo Communications, LLC. Accessed . https://www.nanatoo.com/information-development-wp.


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