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What is visual design?

Last updated

11 March 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

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Visual design concentrates on improving the beauty of a digital platform by thoughtfully incorporating colors, fonts, images, and other elements. 

Designers use visual design to create interfaces that optimize a user's experience without detracting from the content. These designs help users engage and build trust in a brand. 

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Basic elements of visual design

Designers usually create visual designs by combining the following elements: 

  • Lines make divisions, create textures, and define shapes by connecting two points. 

  • Color differentiates items, adds emphasis, creates depth, and presents data. 

  • Shapes are self-contained areas usually formed by lines, but you can also form them with different textures, colors, or values to define the area. 

  • Space, especially negative space, is an often-underused aspect of design. Leaving parts blank can help create an overall image.

  • Texture is how we imagine a surface feels to the touch. Repeating elements create a texture, forming a pattern. These textures can gain or put off attention. 

  • Typography refers to the fonts in a project, or more specifically, their size, color, spacing, and alignment. 

  • Scale (size) of an object, shape, or element can add emphasis and interest.

  • Dominance and emphasis focus on an object, color, or style dominating another to increase contrast and create a focal point.

  • Balance and harmony are essential to beautiful design. While balance focuses on symmetry and asymmetry, harmony is when all the pieces work together.

Essential visual design principles

Design principles work together to create something aesthetically pleasing while optimizing user experience. To create a successful visual design, you must understand basic design principles:

  • Gestalt principle: This refers to how people perceive objects and the overall design.

  • Variety: The right amount of design surprise or variability keeps it from becoming boring.

  • Hierarchy: Using placement, font, sizes, and colors indicates the difference in significance.

  • Balance: Distributing elements evenly creates a perception of equal distribution but not necessarily symmetry. 

  • Scale: This principle emphasizes elements and shows their importance or depth by demonstrating how each item relates to each other based on size.

  • Contrast: This focuses on making elements stand out by accentuating differences in direction, size, or color. 

  • Pattern: This often shows up in fabric design but can also be a tool to establish layouts or standards, such as menus of UI design.

  • Similarity: This principle refers to creating continuity in the design without making a direct duplication. 

  • White space: Also referred to as negative space, white space is the design area that does not include elements. 

  • Movement: This refers to the visually implied flow the design conveys. It can range from fairly static to very dramatic.

Visual design vs. graphic design

Although visual and graphic design may seem very similar, the techniques have major differences. 

Their goals

Graphic design aims to communicate a specific message to users while supporting the brand's content by creating individual graphics or images. 

On the other hand, visual designs create a unified vision for a brand across digital communication platforms, ensuring that visitors engage with the platform.

Visual designs go beyond traditional graphic designs and incorporate elements of user interface (UI) designs and user experience (UX) designs.

The mediums of communication

Another main difference between the two is the various mediums of communication each is involved in. 

For instance, graphic design is a critical aspect  of web development and design, but we can also find it in many print projects, such as:

  • Magazine layouts 

  • Brochures

  • Signs

  • Book covers

  • Billboards

  • Advertisements

Visual design mainly focuses on digital platforms and not necessarily on traditional print media.

Usability vs. visual design: What’s more important?

When it comes to a product's UI, usability and visual design are critical aspects. However, unique differences between the two make each one a vital part of the user interface.


Usability measures how well a user can use a product or design to achieve their goal effectively. Typically, usability is about the usefulness, contentment, and how intuitively a user can navigate and use software, applications, devices, and websites.

Visual design

Visual design is creating and establishing a user interface through imagination and creativity. It tends to emphasize aesthetics and innovatively apply design elements. 

Unfortunately, because visual design intends to look beautiful, it sometimes comes at the expense of usability.

What is more important?

Usability and visual design both have significant tasks that are quite different from each other. 

If an interface is visually stunning, but the user cannot complete their task, the entire UI is moot. 

If it’s clear where to click next, but the user doesn’t trust the sloppy design, they may leave. 

Usability is the layout champion, while visual design enforces branding purposes and rules.

How visual designers can create a positive user experience

Top-quality visual designs can connect with people and improve their overall user experience. However, for visual designs to achieve this objective, they need to do the following: 

Strive for consistent design

When designs are inconsistent and confusing, even the most gorgeous designs can be useless. These designs can waste the user's time, no matter how appealing the design is. 

As a result, visual designers should strive to build a design library to ensure clarity and consistency. This also acts as a guide to applying styles to layouts accordingly. 

Clear visual hierarchy on every page and screen

Visual hierarchy refers to how a designer displays items on a page or a screen. A clear visual hierarchy helps users focus on necessary actions and improve engagement. 

This can be critical on websites since people often leave if they can’t find what they’re looking for.

Test visual concepts

Just because you believe something looks good doesn't mean a user will love the design. 

People react strongly to visuals and colors, and these features may play a prominent role in influencing how much users like a product. However, the best way to determine whether your visual concepts work is to test them with people and get feedback. 

Try to test as often as possible to become more confident in your design choices. As test results come in, watch out for the tendency to defend your design rather than staying neutral and objective.

While staying up with visual design trends can attract users, designers must evaluate trends before investing time and effort in these styles. 

Usually, the best approach is for designers to look to standards, best practices, and their team’s usability test results to adjust according to what works best.

What are the differences between a graphic and a visual designer?

Although people frequently mix up the two, there are differences between graphic and visual designers.

For one, graphic designers focus on visual communication, while visual designers focus on the overall user experience. Some other differences between the two include the following:

Visual designer responsibilities

Visual designers are usually responsible for developing visual concepts to enhance user experience while maintaining company branding. They are also in charge of creating mockups of design projects and presenting them to other team members. 

More specifically, visual designers will usually be responsible for:

  • Applying the principles of user interface design to digital media

  • Collaborating with marketing professionals and others to launch digital projects

  • Improving user experience by applying the right combination of design elements

  • Adjusting design based on user feedback

  • Helping others understand how to implement new designs

Graphic designer responsibilities

Graphic designers or graphic artists use their tools to relay information and certain types of messages to members of a target audience. 

Their duties frequently include:

  • Editing images using Adobe Photoshop

  • Creating layouts for newsletters, brochures, magazines, and similar communications

  • Creating social media graphics

  • Establishing and adhering to brand guidelines

  • Coordinating projects with other agencies

  • Determining whether to use digital media or print media to communicate messages

Good visual design is key to creating an enjoyable user experience while maintaining usability. It’s a great way to create a solid brand image and ensure branding is fluent across the board.

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