The design principles are like designer vocab. If you know them, you can talk about them (and learn from them).
This particular list is the Explorers' version. It's been distilled from multiple textbooks, classes, and websites. Don't rely on it. It's incomplete and meant to be just a start especially for understanding "Explorer Speech".
Think of it like a beginner's checklist. Each principle builds on the next. Each principle is made stronger by the others. It's a glossary and a field manual that helps us point at the moving parts of a design in the wild.
Don't think of them like rules...
Think of the principles like vocab and guidelines. A great design either breaks them on purpose or never breaks them at all. The list, therefore, is a tool. It's not meant to rattle around in your head or be used devoutly—find what you like and throw away the rest.
The design principles are adhered to or broken for good reasons. Your personal tastes will tell you which principles you like to see followed and which you like to see broken, devalued, or barely used at all.
Let's get into it.
Contrast is what makes elements stand out from each other and start to tell a story. It can be created by giving elements different sizes, weights, shapes, colors, and more. Contrast can signal to players how a rule, page, or character is important.
When to add "more" contrast. Use contrast to pull a visual element away from its neighbors. Start by picking just one attribute (color, size, shape, etc.). It sounds easy but remember there's a balancing act. You still want your visual elements to match the overall zine, book, or rpg. The more contrast you add in the collection of elements, the fuzzier the overall concept and themes become.
When to add "less" contrast. We cover this in the next article, Gestalt Laws, but I'll give you a sneak peak. The less the elements contrast overall, the more the reader associates them as being related. This can be a powerful method for guiding the reader on how to use them. A great example of this are attributes and skills on a character sheet. Less contrast on two attributes called "mind" and "muscle" can be helpful if they behave the same mechanically. In the article Design Lore, we name this psychological phenomenon, but for now, just trust your instincts.
Balance is the mysterious sensation created through symmetry or asymmetry. In a literal sense, it's when two groups of elements mirror each other across a centerline with weight and style, but it seldom is that exactly. More often than not, you'll invoke asymmetry. Asymmetry is when the balance is struck through contrast and whitespace.
When to balance something. Balance is usually your default goal. For psychological reasons, balanced objects often feel reliable, sturdy, or dependable to our human brains. On a spread, it can make the pages appear full or "complete." On a book cover, it pulls the eye towards the silhouette and title.
When to imbalance something. Imbalance should be done carefully with a ten-foot pole. Imbalance can evoke excitement, tension, and caution. Done correctly, it knocks your reader on their backs. It's especially effective on a granular level. For example, an imbalanced piece of art can excite the reader. You can even use layout like a counter-weight to get the best of both worlds. An imbalanced piece of art on a balanced page. We cover that a little more in the layout section of Explorers. The best place to start learning the grid is by reading the basics of the grid system.
Emphasis is when certain parts of a design stand out from the rest. On the flip side, it’s also when certain elements start to fade into the background. Emphasis is the combination of contrast and balance and can be heightened with additional design principles.
What's the difference? It might sound like emphasis is the same as contrast and balance, but it's not. It's the combined effort of those two principles on a singular subject or group. A good example of emphasis are the spreads in a book that almost don't belong with the rest. It's a common technique.
Proportion is how the size of elements relate to each other. Larger elements are often seen as more important, while smaller elements are treated as the exact opposite. When proportion is combined with emphasis, balance, and contrast, it creates a sense of hierarchy.
When to make something bigger. Bigger elements make smaller elements appear either less important, more dependent, or more focused. A great example of this are headers. Big type for a headline tells the reader that any smaller type is a chunk or piece of the greater whole. If we see a big headline and then two small but identical subheaders underneath, we expect those two subheaders to be related to each other and parts of the header's overall message.
Can you go too big? Yes and no. There's a phenomenon with especially large objects. If we can't see all of it, we perceive it less of a detailed object and more as a simplified concept or background. Make it too big, and the reader's eye might glide right over it.
Whitespace is the area of your canvas that goes unfilled. It does not have to be white or even empty, whitespace is the absence of things that grab our attention. It is the single most powerful (and challenging) principle of design.
How to use whitespace. Whitespace is dangerous. Too much and you're rpg's text and images will be stranded on the page (and you'll have spent all that money on extra pages for nothing). Too little, and all the other principles of your design will suffer. At minimum, every layout should have some degree of whitespace in the margins, the alleys, or both. You can learn all about those parts of layout in our article about the grid system basics. Treat whitespace like a spice. It magnifies the effects of everything else in this list.
Negative space isn't the same. A lot of artists will use "whitespace" and "negative space" interchangeably. We don't do that at Explorers. Negative space is a special kind of whitespace that forms an image by its omission. We call that phenomenon The Law of Closure, which you'll learn about in the next article about the Gestalt laws. Since whitespace isn't always negative space, using the terms interchangeably can be confusing and misleading.
Movement or "momentum" is how a design or element guides the eye across a composition. It can be done with elements like lines, through positioning (like arranging from top to bottom), through emphasis, hierarchy, and more.
How to add movement. The easiest way is to use symbols and shapes that we associate with movement already, like arrows and patterns. The second method is to use a reader's subconscious behavior to your advantage. For example, our eyes try to spot unlike objects on a page. If you add emphasis to that page, their eye will be drawn to it. Similarly, if you fill a space with something identical (or nothing at all like whitespace), they'll naturally drift over it.
Consider reader biases. The reader looks at your rpg with built-in assumptions. If your audience is a Western reader, for example, they'll scan your page from left to right then top to bottom. You'll have to decide whether to work in tandem with their biases or work extra hard to correct them.
Hierarchy is how elements are ranked sequentially by importance or dependence. It’s a subjective sensation created by combining other design principles like contrast, balance, emphasis, and proportion. Big things and different things, for example, are often perceived as more important and noteworthy.
When to enforce a hierarchy. When you want your reader to ingest your rules, narrative, or setting in a specific order, you need to use hierarchy. You can do this with typography, layout, and the occasional visual element.
For example, in the game Brindlewood Bay, the designer starts every chapter with a full-page piece of art on one page and a title and introduction on the opposing page. The important rule is consistency. If you are using a particular contrasting feature, emphasizing trait, or a sense of movement, it should be the same for that level of importance within the hierarchy. Brindlewood Bay, for example, only uses full-page art at the start of chapters. If it didn't, it wouldn't be enforcing the flow of information.
Repetition is when similarly designed elements repeat in succession. It can be achieved by reusing color, weight, shape, and even wording within sentences. It reinforces an idea or creates a sense of unity across your work and is the main building block to rhythm and pattern.
When to create repetition. Repetition evokes a sense of uniformity, predictability, and dependability. That makes it a great trait when you're grouping things together mechanically or aesthetically. In traditional games, skills should feel a little repetitive because they use the same rules procedures.
Repetition can also put fundamentally unlike things in direct comparison with each other. For example, if you design two different cities on a hex crawl with certain repetitive elements (same color, type treatment, iconography) you are telling the reader they are still related despite being being inherently different. This dissonance can be a powerful trigger on your reader's imagination.
When not to create repetition. Repetition is boring when it goes on for too long. Regular interruptions, changes, and re-starts stop the repetition from overstaying its welcome. We call these interruptions, changes, and loops rhythm and pattern.
The spacing, movement, and whitespace between elements creates a sense of rhythm. Consistent rhythms are often calming or easy to follow while inconsistent rhythms are often exciting. Think of a game whose book feels "orderly" like Old School Essentials, how does your eye move from spread to spread? Now look at a book like CY-BORG. How does your eye move differently there?
How to create calming rhythms. Look at your rpg's pages, spreads, and overall manuscript. How similar are the individual "beats" within the work. The less the beats change and the fewer beats there are, the more calming, comforting, and trust-building the book feels. A beat in this case is a chapter or section.
Old School Essentials, for example, has very little contrast or change from one beat to another. It has even less change from one page to the next. Instead, there are similarities and repetition with every page flip. The titles look the same. The columns are always exactly two. The tables rarely look different. There is still excitement in the content, but the overall ethos of OSE is to feel stable. It is essential. It's an official document that wants to be valued as one.
How to create exciting rhythms. Change things up. Challenge the reader's expectations. Look at an rpg like, CY-BORG. Every page is a little different and every chapter and section waxes and wanes in its depth and density. Sometimes you flip the page and it's mostly art. Other times, it's a chart of dials and widgets to play with. Adding energy to your rpg's rhythm is a delicate dance. Too little, and you'll end up with parts of an rpg that don't match the overall mood. Too much, and your reader might struggle to understand what the mood even is.
Patterns are when repetition, rhythm, and other elements come together to create expectations in the audience. Using the same layout at the start of your book's chapters is an example of a pattern. It helps the audience learn the game and use your book. It also draws their attention when you break the pattern.
How to create a pattern. Patterns are all about loops. At some point, your art, typography, and graphic elements have to repeat and they need to repeat in the same order. That last bit can change from project to project. Some games, like MÖRK BORG have almost no pattern at all except in macro. Meanwhile, a much quieter game like Whitehack 3rd Edition has it in spades.
The Explorers' design principles are merely abstract words to describe what we do while designing. It's much easier to understand them in practice. That's why, the best way to learn the principles of design is to design. The second best way is to look at other people's designs.
Learn how to avoid common design mistakes by checking out the next article in our "How to Become a Designer" series, the Gestalt Laws. And if you think you're ready to jump into the deep end and get really heady, check out the article that comes after that one, Design Lore.
Last but not least, stay tuned for design delves and exhibits. Now that you know the language, you'll notice I use these terms liberally but purposefully when analyzing other peoples' work.
Until then, never stop exploring.