Design Process & Principles: the what & why…

Diane Ader February 2020

What is the design process and why is it important to follow a process?

I am a musician by trade, a composer and arranger, but I have also designed stage sets for everything from recitals and basic concerts to full musicals with rotating and movable sets. I have designed home spaces for entertainment and office space. I have designed floral pieces for venues as well as for the people attending the events. I learned about design process and design principles from design courses, in my undergrad years in college and put them into practice throughout my life. A design process breaks down problems or projects into workable chunks. Design principles help to present the solution or information that needs to be shared. Design principles bring balance and consistency, through alignment, proximity, repetition and contrast. Each needs a focal point to catch the eye and draw it in then drawing the eye or ear around and through the work. Without the design process or principles to follow, parts become lost or undefined and the entire piece feels as though something is missing. The verbiage may be different, but the process and principles are the same.

So, what is the design process? A design process is a way of organizing, thinking and evaluating, to solve problems. In the article, for this course, 5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process, (Dam & Teo, nd); they list these steps; Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test. The article discusses this process both linearly and more like a spiderweb the crosses back on itself. Some will start out linear but then jump back to define or redefine when something is working differently than planned. Feedback and reflection are important parts of the design process. It is in the asking, whether to ourselves or others, what is working, and, what didn’t work, or is there a different perspective to look at this from, that helps redefine or re-ideate our solution. Understanding or empathizing with the end user of a solution helps to define and sometimes think from a different perspective throughout the design thinking process. Reflection or evaluation is an important guide back into the cycle of stages, whether redefine the problem or reworking a prototype.

In laying out a design for a book cover or flier finding balance through alignment, contrast, repetition and proximity, enables the creator to share a message and give information. If any of these four principles are missing or used poorly, the information may be misunderstood.

When designing for mediated communications for learning there are two aspects. First, there is the instructional design and second is the visual presentation. For instructional design, some models like Blooms Taxonomy, Merrill’s Principles of Instruction or the ADDIE Model are referenced and used. They all use different verbiage, but you are doing the same things. The ADDIE Model in the instructional design process, Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation (Quigley, 2019). Designing for learning, one needs to understand what is needed in the learn. That is done by understanding who the learner is, what knowledge they are coming in with and what they need to take away from the learning. This design process is like the design process discussed earlier.

The information presented is important however, the visual presentation of this learning is equally important to the learner. Following the design principles lets one create a learning forum that is easily understood and allows the learner to acquire the knowledge presented. The four basic design principles are Proximity, Alignment, Repetition and contrast. Looking at each of these can help understand their importance.

Proximity or grouping like items together. In her book, The non-Designers Design Book, (Williams, 1994). Williams shows how simply taking away a couple of typed returns, allowed information that needed to be read as a single thought, to be visually together. Taking out the extra spaces, lets the reader read the complete thought. Instead of twelve separate items to read, there became only seven ideas. The extra spaces can mislead the reader and the meaning becomes broken. Likewise, placing a picture or graph next to the text that is discussing that specific information allows the learner to take in all information that is similar. This is called spatial contiguity and is from Mayer’s principles of multimedia design as discussed in Mayer’s 12 Principles of Multimedia Learning are a Powerful Design Resource (Walsh, 2017).

Alignment also helps with the flow of information presented. Top to bottom, left to right; Is it centered or flushed to the right or left. Alignment guides the reader through the page. Whether placing a title, a heading or body text the alignment helps the reader make sense of the given information.

Repetition can be used in various ways; in mediated learning it can mean that each page utilizes the same organization of the layout. The headings are in the same places and are the same font sizes and styles. This type of repetition makes the information presented easily acquired without having to weed through different layouts. Williams calls this, … “a stronger form of being consistent.” (Williams, 1994).

Contrast allows the designer to draw attention to a thought, idea or important piece of information, by making it distinctly different from other items on the page. This can be accomplished by changing the font style, size or color, as well as by adding graphics or other attention-grabbing visual effects.

These design principles are used in our course layout. The Home page uses menus down the left side with main topics and course information presented in the middle section and along the right vertical side is a handy To Do list and other quick links. Likewise, in the online school where I teach, student have a dashboard with tiles for each of their courses. Every lesson has the same consistent layout with new terms defined at the beginning of the lesson in a vocabulary section. Then the terms are bold face when they appear in the text. Graphics are placed next to their descriptions or related information and each lesson ends with review questions of important ideas taught in the lesson. Font styles are simple with black type on white for contrast ease of reading. This type of repetition or consistency is important for information acquisition.


Dam, R. F. & Teo, Y. S. (nd). 5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process. Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved from

Dam, R. F. & Teo, Y. S. (nd). What is Design Thinking and Why Is It So Popular? Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved from

Quigley, E. (2019,October). ADDIE: 5 steps to Effective Training. LearnUpon. Retrieved from

Walsh, K. (2017, June). Mayer’s 12 Principles of Multimedia Learning are a Powerful Design Resource. EmergingEdTech. Retrieved from

Williams, R. (1994). The Non-Designer’s Design Book. Berkeley, CA: Peachpit Press.

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